PICTURE UPDATE: First home at Happisburgh takes 30 minutes to demolish as workers clear erosion-hit clifftop

An extraordinary era was close to ending this afternoon as emotional villagers and onlookers gathered to watch the demolition of some iconic Norfolk homes.

At 2.05pm contractor Green and Son began to knock down the first of nine clifftop home at Happisburgh.

The poignant story that was playing out was best encapsulated by two neighbouring houses - one that is the first to be demolished and another which will be left standing.

The first was a holiday home owned by David and Jill Gilbert from Nottingham for 36 years.

Mr and Mrs Gilbert used money from the Coastal Pathfinder scheme to buy a static caravan on a site nearby.

Today they came back to their former holiday home called Saltwood to watch it being knocked to the ground.

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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Neighbour Bryony Nierop-Reading chose to reject an offer of money from the Pathfinder scheme and opted to stay in the home she bought three years ago knowing its days were numbered.

Today she stood in her garden close to tears as she watched the contractors move in and take away the neighbouring house.

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.'

The house took about 30 minutes to flatten. Workmen will tomorrow switch their attentions 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.

For two decades, people have watched a real-life drama play out at Beach Road, Happisburgh, where the North Sea has hungrily devoured the cliffs and swallowed up home after home to a watery grave.

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

The demolition works which started today are expected to take about 12 weeks.

It follows the completion of a lengthy process which helped owners, who were under threat of losing their homes to the sea, to move by giving them 40pc of the value of the clifftop homes.

Of 12 homes identified as being under threat, nine were bought by North Norfolk District Council in 2011, under the government's pioneering coastal pathfinder scheme, which gave money to help communities cope with erosion blight.

Angie Fitch-Tillett, district council cabinet member for the coast, said today would be 'the start of a new era for Happisburgh'.

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 new toilet block installed – both of which can be 'rolled back' as the cliff line continues to erode.

In addition to the houses, the district council is also arranging for the redundant RNLI and coastguard buildings to be demolished.

The three homes that remain in private ownership at the coastal end of Beach Road will not be affected by the demolition process.

? Keep an eye on our website for regular updates throughout the day, and see tomorrow's EDP for reaction and photographs.

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