Metamorphosis of our coastline

Anthony Carroll The ever-changing nature of Norfolk’s impressive coastline will be the subject of a fascinating talk by Jonathan Hooton, head of geography of Notre Dame High School, Norwich, on Thursday night. ANTHONY CARROLL spoke to Mr Hooton to find out how he will illustrate the dramatic metamorphosis that has taken place along the county’s coast in the last 1,000 years.

Anthony Carroll

For the last 26 years he has taught generations of Norfolk children about the wonders of the region's beaches and coast.

And as Jonathan Hooton took hundreds of field trips to the seaside, he started to wonder about the ever-changing nature of the shore and the power of the North Sea.

From the emergence of Yarmouth from a small spit of sand to the disappearance of whole villages under the waves, it soon became apparent that the Norfolk coastline has been in a constant state of flux for the last 1,000 years.

In a bid to illustrate some of the surprising and dramatic changes that have taken place, Mr Hooton, a local historian, will be using a series of maps in his talk to show how large parts of the county have changed beyond all recognition.

The striking maps, some of which date back to Roman times, will be the highlight of his Norfolk's Changing Coast talk at Norwich's Dragon Hall in King Street on Thursday night.

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And Mr Hooton will also point out that because of the ever constant changes, future generations in Norfolk will have a totally different vista before them when they visit the county's beaches.

A prime example of the impact on sea level changes, sediment deposition and erosion is the Hutch map which shows how that in 1000AD Yarmouth was only a tiny fishing community on a flimsy sand spit. But thanks to increasing sediment deposits, in the space of just 200 years Yarmouth became a thriving port and essential trading hub.

And in an exact opposite to the exponential growth of Yarmouth, Mr Hooton will show how the power of the North Sea has seen many coastal communities, such as Eccles, Waxham Parva and Shipdham, disappear forever under the waves.

People going to the talk may also be surprised to find out about the Great Estuary, which covered most of Broadland during the Roman occupation. A Roman lighthouse may even have been built at Reedham to guide in warships and trading vessels.

But in a prime example of how the North Sea can give with one hand and take with the other, the estuary disappeared forever as sea levels rose once more.

Mr Hooton said: “I think people would be quite staggered to see the changes that have occurred to Norfolk's coast in 1,000 years.

“I would say that if you went back in time 1,000 years, the area would be changed virtually beyond recognition and you would be hard pressed to find your way around.”

The talk will also show the impact of man on the coast and the implications of the way we have made the seashore our own.

Mr Hooton said: “It is only relatively recently that people have moved to large parts of the coast from inland as the tourism industry started to grow.

“For example, Sheringham was only a minor settlement and people used to live at Upper Sheringham instead.”

And, of course, the ramifications of the large population growth on Norfolk's coast has its dangers.

The on-going erosion at Happisburgh will lead to more houses plummeting into the sea and more and more homes are being built on flood plain areas.

In a stark warning, Mr Hooton said that he would give Happisburgh “10 out of 10” as an example of the impact of coastal erosion, which is also causing the disappearance of Winterton's sandy beach.

And as a reminder of how we have irrevocably changed the coast, Mr Hooton will quote the eradication of the River Glaven because of land reclamation projects.

He said: “Such work has a large knock-on effect and has irrevocably altered the scope of the environment.”

For Mr Hooton, one part of the north Norfolk coast is very close to his heart - the Blakeney and Cley shoreline - as he has written a history of the area.

But his beloved Blakeney also faces a major change as sediment build-up is seeing the village's western beach point expanding.

He said: “It just shows how everything is in a state of change and flux and how the whole coast is interconnected. What happens to one part can vastly affect another.”

Part of the talk will predict the changes that are bound to occur on the coast as global warming leads to rising sea levels and erosion.

Places such as Happisbugh may now longer exist and large parts of the coast will be swamped by the sea.

He said: “It is vanishing right now and in 1,000 years' time if people saw a map from today they would not be able to recognise large parts of coast.”

But in an upbeat mood, Mr Hooton, who also teaches environmental science, said that other stretches of beach will expand and new sites will be created for future visitors.

In fact, he believes that one of the big winners in the change in coastline will be nature and its myriad of wildlife.

He said: “On a positive note, large parts of the natural habitat will return again.

“We just have such a fantastic coastline in Norfolk and I continue to be fascinated about it. I hope when people leave my talk they will appreciate the many changes that have occurred and realise that there will be many more to come in the next century.

“The main message, I think, is that you cannot take the current Norfolk coastline for granted and we should

look forward to what the future holds.”

Despite the many changes, past glories at his favourite stomping ground still remain firmly imprinted on Mr Hooton's mind.

When asked if he could return in time to see a feature of the coast which no longer exists, he broke out in a broad smile and said the medieval Glaven Estuary at Blakeney.

The talk and map display will feature five sections - erosion, deposition, rising sea levels, falling sea levels and the human influence.

Stephen Forster, talk organiser, said: “We think of the physical features of our surrounding landscape as fixed and unchanging. Yet the Norfolk coastline has undergone some dramatic changes since Roman times and is likely to alter fairly dramatically in the next 100 years.

“Norfolk's Changing Coast will rebuff the idea that our landscape is fixed and is rarely changing.”

Mr Hooton's talk starts in Dragon Hall, King Street, Norwich, at 7.30pm on Thursday, September 18. Admission is £4.50 or £3 for members of the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust. To order a ticket call 01603 663922. All proceeds will go towards the upkeep of the grade I listed Dragon Hall, which is managed by the Norfolk and Norwich Heritage Trust.