The North Norfolk coast is one of the most vulnerable in the country to erosion. The prevailing north-easterly winds meet a coastline that juts out into the North Sea, exposing the soft cliffs to driving storms. Set in the middle of the most vulnerable area, Happisburgh suffered significant erosion for centuries, until the erection of wooden sea defences in 1958-9
It was here that my aunt, Diana Wrightson, bought her home and business in Cliff House, Beach Road. It was an address that put her on the frontline of the battle to protect coastal villages from the impacts of erosion.
Di was not born in Happisburgh, but had loved the village throughout her life. In the 1930s, her family built a bungalow on Beach Road, where her beloved nanny lived and where her family spent their holidays. It was one of the first to fall to the sea. In the 1970s, Di bought a house in the middle of the village, the Pyghtle, as a holiday home, and later moved to Happisburgh permanently when she retired.
As a child, I spent many of my holidays in Happisburgh. Auntie Di gave us a world that Enid Blyton would have been proud of. We would pick fruit on local farms, making jam to sell outside the front gate. We’d spend days exploring the area — a gang of children on expeditions to reach local landmarks. A highlight of the year was always the village fete. We’d spend days practising for the races and skittles competitions. Forty years on, I still remember the excitement of my brother being one point away from winning a pig by bowling through hoops!
But mostly, there was Happisburgh’s beautiful beach. We would spend days picnicking here — often sheltering from the wind behind the trusty wooden defences. I remember bringing home buckets of shrimps from the pools left after storms, which Di would cook for our lunch! At night we’d go to bed with the reassuring flash of Happisburgh’s iconic red and white striped lighthouse shining though our curtains from across the fields.
As soon as she had the opportunity to retire, Di moved permanently to Happisburgh and bought Cliff House guest house and tea room. Cliff House was always busy and exciting. From the start, Di threw herself into village life, establishing a music group to put on performances in the village. She loved sharing her passion for music with anyone, but particularly with children, many of whom she also employed at Cliff House. For Di, Cliff House was not so much about business, but about meeting a constant stream of interesting people.
Happisburgh felt like a timeless place, where everybody knew and looked out for each other. But, in the 80s, time started to catch up with it.
Saving Happisburgh lighthouse
The first blow came with Trinity House’s decision in 1987 to decommission Happisburgh’s iconic lighthouse. Not only was the lighthouse a famous local landmark, it was important for the safety of local fishermen, warning them of the treacherous sandbanks.
In early 1988, local marine geo-physicist Kay Swann started a campaign to keep the light operational. Di was an early recruit to the campaign, and Cliff House became the venue for many of their meetings. When Trinity House could not be persuaded to reverse their decision, the group decided that, if Trinity House would not keep the lighthouse operational, the village would! The Friends of Happisburgh Lighthouse campaigned to operate the lighthouse. The drawback was that this would require a bill in parliament. Di was in her element, helping with fundraising and, with the Friends, meeting with politicians to explain why the bill was so important. The campaign even received support from the Queen Mother, and Princess Anne remains a patron. After the bill was passed, the Happisburgh Lighthouse Trust took over the lighthouse, which they run as Great Britain’s only independently owned lighthouse to this day.
A new threat
With one threat averted, the village was soon to face another, as the wooden sea defences started to deteriorate. Though publicly committed to “holding the line”, the district council had no funding to do this, and so the revetments fell into disrepair, finally being removed for safety reasons. If you visit Happisburgh today, you’ll see a long stretch of beach where the revetments remain, where the cliff is still parallel with the defences.
At the southern end of the village, however, where the revetments have been removed, there is a bay. Left exposed, the cliffs were rapidly consumed by the winter storms — sometimes by as much as 10m in one night. Those families with homes near the cliff often had to hastily evacuate during the storms, and were helpless as the sea worked its way down the road, taking one home at a time. With a fifty foot back garden, a road, and another bungalow with a garden separating Cliff House from the edge, Di’s home had seemed secure when she bought it, but, within ten years of the first bungalow falling, it too was gone.
The community did not take this lying down. In 1999, a public meeting was called in the Church Rooms to discuss the problem. The meeting had to be moved to the church when they ran out of space, as hundreds of people turned up. Following the meeting, local residents formed the Coastal Concern Action Group (“CCAG”), led by Di’s friend and neighbour Malcolm Kerby. Again, Di was quick to join, and Cliff House became a headquarters for CCAG meetings.
Di had known and loved Happisburgh all her life, and wasn’t willing to let it suffer without a fight. She was in her element helping to organise the many initiatives CCAG ran to keep attention on the problem of the continual loss of homes over the unprotected cliff. Her love of theatre and of language made her a natural among CCAG’s several accomplished spokespeople. She was at ease in front of the camera or on the radio — speaking from the heart about her friends’ experiences of seeing everything they had worked for fall into the sea.
Campaigning on the frontline of the climate crisis
Though Happisburgh was (and remains) an extreme example of coastal erosion, the issues CCAG were seeking to address were complex and had far reaching consequences. Though there was less general awareness of the risks of global warming and coastal flooding at that point, it was clear to local and central government that what they did in Happisburgh, they would likely be called on to do in many other areas. As with many complex problems, those in authority were slow to come to clear solutions, which was time families whose houses were on the cliff edge did not have. What CCAG did brilliantly was to keep the emphasis on the impact on individuals and on the local community.
As well as campaigning, CCAG engaged with local and central government to seek practical solutions. Di’s belief in the importance of the cause made her a formidable adversary for any officials seeking to push the issue into the long grass. She had no hesitation in making clear why that just wasn’t good enough, and her expectation that they think again was often successful in spurring progress.
Ultimately, CCAG were unable to extract the funding and commitment required to halt the march of the sea. They did, however, achieve a number of notable victories, not least providing rock revetments that significantly slowed erosion.
In 2009, ten years after the initial village meeting, the Government established a Coastal Change Pathfinder Programme. North Norfolk District Council obtained funding for projects to address the impact of the erosion on the local community. This included purchasing houses on Cliff Road, giving residents a chance to restart their lives. Though Di benefitted from this, it meant moving from her beloved Happisburgh, so was a bitter-sweet victory. However, the funding to help affected families and to enhance the beach helped reinvigorate the local community, and was a lifeline for those whose homes were lost.
A sense of community
Di loved Happisburgh. She loved its beautiful beach, its glorious summer days and its wild winter storms. Most of all, she loved its people and its sense of community — the village fetes, the amateur dramatics and the knowledge that, whatever the problem you faced, there was someone who would help you. When the village faced a threat to many of its homes, it was that sense of community that brought the village together to fight — and to win.
In 2018, Happisburgh was a finalist in Channel 4’s village of the year competition, which celebrates vibrant local communities. I like to think that Di would have been looking down with a knowing smile that it was always a wonderful place, and perhaps a sense of pride in having helped to defend the village that she loved so dearly.