SEA DEFENCE DEBATE: Godfrey Sayers: Allow the tide back in

Law Quay, BlakeneyNew Quay Law, finished Godfrey Sayers

Law Quay, BlakeneyNew Quay Law, finished Godfrey Sayers - Credit: Colin Finch

Around Blakeney right now the savaged sea wall and a marshscape denuded of boats, particularly the verticals of boat's masts, has left a bleak and uninspiring scene, but when the sun comes out again this tidal surge should be seen as the great opportunity that it is.

All the evidence suggests that Blakeney Point wants to become and island, but at present this is being thwarted by the sea banks surrounding the reclaimed areas i.e. Salthouse Marsh, the Cley NNT Reserve and Blakeney Freshes, that lie behind it.

To get back to a naturally evolving coast all these areas need to be allowed to revert to tidal saltmarshes. But for this to happen there are some very hard bullets to be bitten and if teeth are not to be broken the benefits of realignment have to be clearly spelt out; that they are complex and long term does nothing to help.

Currently there is a dearth of information about what might happen next, most likely because the Environment Agency (EA) don't know themselves, but the hiatus is beginning to polarise views and once minds are made up it is very difficult to unmake them.

The obvious course would be for the EA to re-form the Client Steering Group that oversaw the last Shoreline Management Plan Review; broaden it with the local NGOs plus another effected interests and move forward together to achieve a solution that has some (if will never be total) consensus.

Blakeney Freshes are very special. If they were to be abandoned, the European Habitats Directive 'might' ( natural realignment may not qualify) require Natural England, in conjunction with the National Trust, which owns much of it, to replace some of it elsewhere, although initially they would be expected to try to do that in the immediate vicinity.

Some of it (the most important part) could undoubtedly be accommodated within the Glaven Valley. But only some, and because it is so special it would be very difficult to find anywhere else that could provide equivalence.

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But Blakeney Freshes would remain as Blakeney Saltwater marshes, which would still be extremely valuable wetland habitat. Added to the replacement habitat, this would create many new hectares of nature reserve.

If predictions of increased storminess and sea-level rise are anywhere near correct, then all the areas of reclaimed marsh along the coast will become both vulnerable and potentially very dangerous.

The villages and towns that sit behind sea banks are threatened in a far more sinister way than those that do not. During storm surges sea banks can breach, sometimes in a catastrophic way, so what in other places might be a steady and predictable rise of the tide becomes a tidal wave. Streets can go from being rain wet to being under metres of water in as many minutes. This is the deadly threat to those living behind sea banks.

Blakeney and villages like it, which are fronted by dune systems and saltmarsh, are much less exposed to these dangers. The dunes reduce windage, and the much higher marsh levels dissipate most of the wave energy.

Allowing Blakeney Freshes and all the other parcels of reclaimed marsh along this coast to go back to the sea would enable it to evolve naturally as a barrier coast, and at the same time extend the same on-going protection that Blakeney enjoys to all communities currently at risk. Using wildlife designations to hang on to wildlife sites for as long as possible presents a major threat to human life.

Blakeney Freshes comprises grazing marsh, reedbeds and some low grassy hills that were sand dunes a thousand years ago. Over the four hundred or so years since this area was embanked, much has changed. The surrounding saltmarsh has continued to accrete, growing imperceptibly with the deposits left by every spring tide that covered it, and is now several feet higher than the fresh marsh which has subsided. It is this, and the possibility that saltmarsh accretion may accelerate with sea-level rise, that makes keeping it untenable. This of course is the empirical view. But there is another – less pragmatic, more romantic perhaps- but no less important from a human perspective. We each have our own relationships with the world around us, and our happiness can have much to do with the extent to which we are in harmony with it. How beautiful we find it, how much we enjoy it through our work or play and, perhaps most important, through our association with it over time. Landscape beauty would certainly be enhanced by realignment, but in the short term people's attachment to the landscape could be one of the great obstacles. Many local people, particularly the older generation, those who have lived here all their lives, may not want it to change. Letting the sea back in will wash away more than just paper designations. It will wash away memories. Parts of people's lives will disappear, and that would be felt as loss. The young, I am sure, will see its potential and be excited by it but the rest may have to be persuaded.

So important do I believe realignment to be that I want to try and do just that.

From my gallery on the Carnser at Blakeney, I regularly saw families pull onto the car park, get out of their cars and with the children running make their way over and up onto the sea bank expecting to find the sea beyond. They are always surprised and disappointed that it isn't. Although technically dry land finishes where the spring tides leave their tangle along the quayside, there is an awful lot of land between Blakeney and the open sea.

What if those children could run up the bank and not be disappointed? What if they were greeted by a breath taking view, a blue stretch of water as far as the eye could see, great salt water lakes dotted with islands and surrounded by mudflats and saltmarshes? Sailing dinghies out in the distance could be making their way through the old channel, where enough water would remain for it to be navigable even when the tide was out. What might be possible? A small marina for dinghies between Cley and Wiveton where youngsters could learn to sail in safety. A new coast path. A road even, between Blakeney and Cley, with a string of possibilities all the way along it. A land and seascape that would add magnificently to the beauty of our coast. The benefits for the people of Cley, Blakeney, Morston and all those who visit them would be enormous, the potential for longer term economic growth far outweigh those of the wildlife we have had up to now.

But of course wildlife too would benefit, waders on the mudflats, geese on the saltings and ground-nesting birds on the islands which would provide great roosting sites. These birds live quite harmoniously with man in the harbour, and they would do so here too. The tidal Prism, that is the increased amount of water flowing in and out of the harbour on every tide would scour out the channels, allowing bigger boats once again to reach Blakeney Quay. Blakeney Harbour would have a lease of life that would extend its economic viability for hundreds of years instead of the few decades it has at present. This benefit is beyond calculation and would transform the prospects of local people. In the present Shoreline Management Plan, Blakeney Freshes is the only reclaimed area along this coast where realignment is a possible future option. But neither the Environment Agency nor Natural England was supportive of it during the Management Plan Review.

Therefore I think it doubtful that this option would carry much weight against the wildlife interest, and the benefits for local people would count for little.

This is wrong. It was the power, money and authority of the day that uncaringly threw up these banks, dismissing the interests and wellbeing of local people whose livelihoods were destroyed through the loss of the ports and fisheries.

We must hope that today the interests of local people will be more fairly balanced in this debate.

Godfrey Sayers was chairman of the North Norfolk Coast Advisory for nine years and spent 20 years as chairman of the National Trust's Advisory for its Blakeney Properties.

He also served on the steering group for the most recent Shoreline Management Plan Review, which looked at how the coast should evolve over the next 100 years.

He is a north Norfolk artist.