Locals put everyday life on hold in Hemsby fightback

Volunteers have helped construct flood defences in Hemsby.Homes on the Marrams, Hemsby that have sli

Volunteers have helped construct flood defences in Hemsby.Homes on the Marrams, Hemsby that have slipped over the cliff. - Credit: Nick Butcher

The words of the Bishop of Norwich almost resonated around the Lacon Arms in Hemsby: There is certainly no compassion fatigue in our coastal towns.

Volunteers have helped construct flood defences in Hemsby.

Volunteers have helped construct flood defences in Hemsby. - Credit: Nick Butcher

The inspiring community spirit highlighted by the Rt Rev Graham Jones in Saturday's EDP was embodied in the huddle of ordinary men and women at the bar.

There is a bond between them that was not there in the same way before that dreadful Thursday night when the storm surge destroyed the old lifeboat shed and claimed seven bungalows on The Marrams.

It comes from sharing the sorrow, comforting the losers and toiling long days on the beach, clearing the debris and building concrete blocks and stone-filled cage defences in readiness for nature's next onslaught on the fragile dunes.

Among those cheerfully putting their everyday jobs - in fact their whole lives - on hold are ceiling fitter Ben Phelan, local builder Sean Roe and brothers Alan and Lee Jones, who would normally be doing garden work instead of building DIY defences.

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Mr Phelan, 24, of Fakes Road, Hemsby, has played a pivotal role in the community effort to protect the dunes which began in the autumn after a previous, less destructive high tide.

'I have been down here every day for the past two to three weeks, doing everything from arranging materials to be delivered and sending emails to filling the metal cages and clearing the beach,' he said.

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Since Thursday night they have been joined by a host of wellwishers including Sue Gibbs, 55, who has travelled daily on the bus from her home in Leman Road, Gorleston, to 'do anything I can to help'.

She said simply: 'I used to fish with Hemsby lifeboatmen here on the beach; they now have to fish on Yarmouth beach and I want to help do something to get the beach back here.'

As well as joining the beach gang building defences she had on the first day helped Steven and Jacquie Connelly, who lost their home with a brutal suddenness captured on film, pack their belongings.

Lacon Arms landlady Lorna Bevan-Thompson, who has been opening every day - instead of her normal winter pattern of Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays - to 'fuel' the volunteers with teas and bacon rolls, said: 'There has been a huge community reaction. As well as Sue we have had lots of others coming in to help, including regulars from Acle and Ormesby.'

She said regular Hemsby visitors had been travelling as far as 150 miles to take in the devastation.

'Many others ring up very upset. We tell them it is just The Marrams, but we need a long-term protection project to protect our community,' she said.

As Mrs Bevan-Thompson - who has been up 6am to midnight - praised the generosity of locals in offering money and clothes to those affected, another envelope arrived containing £180 collected by just one local family.

Tony Knights moved to the Norfolk coast from Sussex with his partner Sharon Menday and her daughter Alicia, 10, as recently as July.

They loved the seclusion of the two-bedroom bungalow nestling behind the dunes and bought it for £60,000, investing a further £10,000 modernising it.

He said it was a 'heavenly place' in the summer sunshine but confessed it presented an altogether different aspect on Thursday evening when he stood on top of the dunes with a neighbour and watched the waves pounding them below in the darkness.

Their home is on the seaward side of The Marrams and one of a number now less than 15m from the edge of the dunes; many are holiday chalets but a handful are also permanently occupied.

Mr Knights, a handyman and gardener, said: 'I estimate we lost between 10 and 15m of dune in front of our house on Thursday night.'

He is philosophical about the attempts to stem the advance of the sea, landowner the Geoffrey Watling Trust having put concrete blocks in front of his property just in the past days.

'You can put a lot of defences up but nature will surely have its way eventually,' he said.

'However, I believe what we are doing in Hemsby is the right thing, trying to save as much as possible. People's homes and livelhoods are at risk.'

Gesturing at the homes on the other side of The Marrams, he added: 'Where will it end.'

Mr Knights, who is relieved to have had confirmation that his insurance is valid, said council staff had inspected their home and concluded they were safe for the time being; they had also been given 'positive' reassurance about what the local authority could do for them if the worst happened in terms of rehousing.

Borough council leader Trevor Wainwright, who visited Hemsby on Saturday, said the clear-up operation had been delayed by the discovery of asbestos.

He said: 'The home on the beach and those teetering on the edge are full of asbestos and we have had to call in a specialist firm to take them down in a controlled environment.'

He said the firm would also be inspecting all other premises at risk; the discovery of asbestos had escalated the cost of the operation to a likely £40,000 to £50,000.

Mr Wainwright said a housing officer had visited the couple and single man made homeless and an offer had already been made in one case.

He said: 'My message is that Hemsby is still open for business. It is very important to the borough's tourism.

'What happened was a one in 200 year event and the council is doing all it can to assist.'

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