PICTURE GALLERY: Bulldozers flatten the first of the doomed clifftop homes at Beach Road, Happisburgh

A tale of two houses provided the poignant subplot to an emotional story yesterday as the bulldozers moved in to bring an uncompromising end to an extraordinary era.

For two decades, residents at Beach Road in Happisburgh have been in the spotlight as they battled to save their cherished homes from toppling from their clifftop perches and into the sea.

Today, at 2.05pm, the first blow was struck to demolish the first of nine homes that will be flattened in the coming three months.

Saltwood, which took just 30 minutes to be destroyed, was a holiday home owned for 36 years by David and Jill Gilbert, from Nottingham, who returned to the scene to watch the event.

And while they had decided to bow to the inevitable and let the house go, they stood to watch in the garden of neighbour Bryony Nierop-Reading, who has vowed to stay put and await the arbitration of the sea.

Mr and Mrs Gilbert used money from the government's Coastal Pathfinder scheme, administered by North Norfolk District Council and designed to help people deal with the impact of coastal erosion, to buy a static caravan on a site nearby.

Before the bulldozers moved in, Mr Gilbert said: 'I am a bit choked but it will be nice to see it finally go because we have seen it go to ruin in the years since we left it.'

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Within minutes he admitted he was 'very upset', and said it had been difficult to hear the glass shattering and to watch as various household items could be spotted in the wreckage of the collapsed building.

Mrs Nierop-Reading stood with them in her garden close to tears as she watched the contractors.

She said: 'I am absolutely shattered. I have known it was going to happen. But this is the beginning of the end of Beach Road as we know it.'

She said she had rejected the offer of pathfinder money to relocate because she 'loved' living by the sea. She added: 'Every day I thank God for letting me be here. I'm not going to move until I have to. Look at the view that I have.'

Workmen will tomorrow switch their attention to further along the cliffs near the old Beach Road car park, where they will knock down the former lifeboat and coastguard stations, before returning to the row of homes on Beach Road.

People have watched a real-life drama play out at Beach Road, with as many as 20 homes being swallowed by the sea.

Efforts to hold back the tide have proved futile, with the government refusing to stump up the cash needed to shore up the coast.

After years of campaigning, led by Malcolm Kerby from Coastal Concern Action Group, the government finally agreed to hand over money for the pathfinder pilot project, which meant the council could offer up to 40pc of the value of the clifftop homes to enable residents to relocate inland.

Today, Mr Kerby watched what he called the 'end of an era'.

He said: 'The people who lived here have been through so much. But this is a national problem that is illustrated by the issue in Happisburgh.

'I hope that the government will see how this scheme has worked and use it to help other communities around the coast.'

Of 12 homes identified as being under threat, nine were bought by the council in 2011. Householders at the other three chose to stay where they are.

Once the nine homes are demolished, the plan is to create a public landscaped 'buffer' on the clifftop, featuring open areas sown with a wildflower mix.

On the opposite side of the road from the houses a new car park has been created and a toilet block installed – both of which can be 'rolled back' as the cliff line continues to erode.