What happens when the Norfolk Coast Path falls into the sea?

The remaining debris after two separate cliff falls happened along Happisburgh Beach Picture: NEIL

A section of the Norfolk Coast Path vanished after a cliff fall in Happisburgh in November 2020. - Credit: NEIL DIDSBURY

The Norfolk Coast Path stretches 84 miles from Hunstanton in the west to Hopton-on-Sea and is one of the county's best-loved attractions. But gaps in the path have been gradually appearing - due to coastal erosion. Reporter DANIEL HICKEY looks at whether the path can survive.

In November 2020, parts of the Norfolk Coast Path fell into the sea.  

A chunk of land at Happisburgh had slipped due to erosion caused by wet weather, high tides and the area’s soft cliffs, meaning walkers now had to veer inland away from the gaping hole.  

But what happens after the path vanishes?  

The remaining debris after two separate cliff falls happened along Happisburgh Beach Picture: NEIL

A gaping hole in the Norfolk Coast Path at Happisburgh after a cliff fall in November 2020. - Credit: NEIL DIDSBURY

“Roll-back,” explains Russell Wilson, senior trails officer at Norfolk County Council.  

In the past, existing public rights of way would have been lost due to such coastal change, when the ground had either disappeared or slumped.  

Russell Wilson, senior trails officer at Norfolk County Council.

Russell Wilson, senior trails officer at Norfolk County Council. - Credit: Ian Burt

But in 2009, the Marine and Coastal Access Act allowed provision for the paths to move back with erosion, ensuring continuity of access for walkers.  

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“There are two types of roll-back,” says Mr Wilson, simple and complex.” 

An example of simple roll-back of the path is at Trimingham, in north Norfolk, where the cliff fell in December 2019. 

"Because it's a farmer's field, we can move the path back inland,” he says.  

There are also plans to use the provision at Hemsby, where there are plans to install sea defences. 

Complex rollback, which the council has not yet had to implement, would be where the path hits private property which sits on the cliff edge. 

Sign on Norfolk Coast Path

A sign on the Norfolk Coast Path between Trimingham and Overstrand warns walkers of eroding cliffs. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

The Norfolk Coast Path attracts thousands of people to the region every year. It was opened in 1986 and forms part of the 2,700-mile England Coast Path. 

At first, the path went from Hunstanton to Cromer. In 2014, the trail was extended to Sea Palling and two years later it reached Hopton.

The route, which is barrier-free, goes over beaches and crawls along cliffs, passes through tiny villages and merges with country roads. 

A section of the Norfolk Coast Path between Trimingham and Overstrand.

A section of the Norfolk Coast Path between Trimingham and Overstrand. - Credit: Daniel Hickey

“We recognise the coastline is dynamic,” Mr Wilson says. Significant bits have eroded away. We have various hotspots we're aware of but things can happen fairly quickly and we try to react as quickly as we can. 

“The erosion we face in Norfolk isn't unique. I've been contacted by colleagues in the northeast and other places who suffer the same sort of things."

A section of the Norfolk Coast Path between Trimingham and Overstrand.

A section of the Norfolk Coast Path between Trimingham and Overstrand. - Credit: Stuart Anderson

At the moment, a section of the path in Thornham between Staithe Lane and Church Street is closed for resurfacing work and is due to open again in February. 

"Between Sheringham and the RNLI lookout is increasingly heavily used," says Mr Wilson.

"Part of the work is to put in a new surface."

Erosion from the sea is not the only challenge for the path and those who manage it.  

One of the biggest challenges is to manage people who walk the path."

A section of the Norfolk Coast Path between Trimingham and Overstrand.

A section of the Norfolk Coast Path between Trimingham and Overstrand. - Credit: Daniel Hickey

To mitigate human erosion, circular routes are incorporated into the path to take people away from the coast for a few miles and relieve pressure from what Mr Wilson calls the "honey pot sites", or the most popular locations, giving the coast the chance to recover.

A graphic from the Deep History Coast trail, at Trimingham, shows the process of coastal erosion. 

A graphic from the Deep History Coast trail, at Trimingham, shows the process of coastal erosion. - Credit: North Norfolk District Council / Deep History Coast

One of the things we say is we manage the paths but we don't manage the people," Mr Wilson says.

The annual budget for the trail, funded by Natural England and other sources, is around £90,000-100,000. 

But some projects cost more, such as the walk between Holkham and Wells, which cost £250,000. 

The opening of the Norfolk Coast Path from Weybourne to Sea Palling. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The opening of the Norfolk Coast Path from Weybourne to Sea Palling. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

In recent years, more routes along the region's coast have been incorporated into the England Coast Path. There was the 37-mile (60-kilometre) route from Aldeburgh in Suffolk to Hopton in Norfolk and a 33-mile stretch between Hunstanton and Sutton Bridge, which extends around The Wash. 

Before the pandemic, the years 2018 and 2019 saw 750,000 visits to the path.  

The Norfolk Coast Path and the Peddars Way meet at the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea

The Norfolk Coast Path and the Peddars Way meet at the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea - Credit: Denise Bradley/Archant

Our dynamic coast

Coastal erosion of Norfolk's soft cliffs has been going on for thousands of years. 

A map of the county in medieval times would show that Cromer and Happisburgh were once inland settlements, while the coast, further north and east than it is now, was populated with villages like Shipden, Foulness and Whimpwell that since those times have disappeared under the sea.

Several medieval villages on the Norfolk coast have been lost to erosion over the centuries. This map, from a

Several medieval villages on the Norfolk coast have been lost to erosion over the centuries. This map, from an interpretation board at Trimingham that forms part of the Deep History Coast trail, shows where they were. - Credit: Supplied by NNDC

It was only in the late 19th century that substantial sea defences were constructed in the larger seaside towns.

Many of the current defences, in the form of groynes and revetments, were built after the Second World War, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s in response to the great flood of 1953 when more than 300 people on the east coast died.

Nowadays, sea level rise and more frequent storms due to climate change mean there is more pressure on the coast.

Beaches limit erosion by absorbing the energy of the sea, however, across the east coast, beach levels are generally reducing. This exposes cliffs and defences to a greater action from the sea. 

Going deep: Exploring our prehistory

The extraordinary nature of Norfolk's coastline makes it the perfect place to look for traces of the people, wildlife and fauna that once lived here.

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norf

Dr David Waterhouse of Norfolk Museums has amassed an impressive collection of fossils found on Norfolk beaches, here he is pictured with Cllr Virginia Gay of the North Norfolk District Council. Picture: Lauren De Boise - Credit: Archant

In 2019 North Norfolk District Council launched a Deep History Coast campaign to inspire more people to hunt for fossils and explore the coastline from Weybourne and Cart Gap, learning about past through a series of discovery trail points. 

Happisburgh is the oldest archaeological site in northern Europe and West Runton yielded the oldest and largest fossilised mammoth skeleton ever found in the UK.

The West Runton Mammoth find is the most studied of its kind and ongoing discoveries have also revealed the bones of rhinos, hyaenas, wolves and bears.