British landscapes at risk from coastal erosion

TV presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff explores the shoreline icons that are in danger of being changed or lost forever.

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We have always had a close relationship with the sea here in the UK, and coastal erosion is one of the less harmonious battlegrounds. But in spite of man’s interference, the sea continues to make its own decisions. The UK Climate Change Impacts Programme has projected that, by 2080, sea levels will have risen by 86cm (2ft 8in). The National Trust reckons it could be 1m (3ft 2in) by 2100. In addition to this, storms will be more frequent and more violent, and they will also be less predictable. Because of this change, there are a number of coastal sites around the UK that we may not be able to show to our grandchildren. In fact, if you don’t visit soon, you may not be able to see them yourself…

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St Andrews Links, Fife

St Andrews Links is known as the Home of Golf. The sport has been played there since 1400, although hacking through the heather then would have been a very different experience to that of today! St Andrews is now the largest golfing complex in Europe, boasting seven public courses, including the stunning new Castle Course.

But its beautiful coastal location is also the reason for concern. Professor Jan Bebbington of the University of St Andrews recently predicted that the last British Open at the historic site would have to be played long before 2050, as the Old Course sinks beneath the waves.

The problem is that, although the greens are perfection, keepers are not able to hold back the sea and the sand. The 103-year-old Jubilee Course is most vulnerable, and strong westerly winds are causing dunes to encroach on the green.
A length of coastal path has been lost and a few metres of course have disappeared in just 10 years.

Being a Site of Special Scientific Interest, many organisations are consulted for management solutions. Permanent hard defences – gabions covered in sand – were installed 30 years ago. Gordon Moir, links superintendent, said: “Recent work focused on beach nourishment along a stretch of the Eden Estuary and on replacing some of the gabions.” This consisted of replenishing the dunes with 12,000 cubic metres of sand.

The iconic nature of St Andrews has spurred a movement to find long-term solutions to the problems. But the low-lying nature of the complex has meant that parts might be under threat if sea levels rise or storm swells come inland.

Belle Tout Lighthouse, East Sussex

Throughout history, the focus on sea defences has been about stopping the waves meeting what you want preserved. But in 1996, The Belle Tout Lighthouse’s owners, Louise and Mark Roberts, acknowledged that they were unable to stop the sea eroding the chalk cliffs supporting their quirky, beloved home. So they decided the only option was to move the lighthouse to safer ground!

Building of the lighthouse started in 1829 to protect sailors around Beachy Head, an area known as the Mariner’s Graveyard. Although in clear weather the lighthouse shone 23 miles out to sea, designers had not accounted for the mists shrouding the cliff-tops and the wrecks continued to happen. A second lighthouse, Beachy Head, was commissioned in 1899 and Belle Tout was sold.

Subsequent owners (including the BBC for the filming of The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil) have been concerned about the crumbling cliffs. However, the Roberts family decided radical action was needed, so the whole lighthouse was lifted up 60cm (2ft) by hydraulic jacks and moved 50m (164ft) inland over two days. The ambitious and ultimately successful project cost £250,000 and was watched around the world.

The action has saved the lighthouse for around 30 years, but time has run out for a number of National Trust properties at nearby Birling Gap. In 2002, when faced with erosion on the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters, the Trust made the difficult decision to demolish one of its coastguard cottages on the cliff edge. The fate of a small hotel and the three remaining cottages is similarly bleak.

St. Michael’s Mount

The beautiful island of St Michael’s Mount was a marsh forest 2,000 years ago, until the area flooded and the granite mount became an island. It has a fascinating history and is assumed to be the trading island of Ictis referred to in the Classics, with its first religious significance being Saxon, as suggested by the discovery of Christian graves.

St Michael’s Mount is a perfect natural fortress and it is no surprise that it has been the subject of fierce battles over the centuries. It was given to the French, seized back again and held under siege during the War of the Roses. It was the first beacon lit to warn of the Spanish Armada and was captured by Cornish rebels in 1549.

For 300 years it has been home to the St Aubyn family, who live there among a small community, although according to legend the pub was closed when a tipsy fisherman spat at the feet of a visiting king. The National Trust now runs St Michael’s Mount, its café, restaurant and two shops.

A cobbled causeway has linked the island to the mainland since the Middle Ages. Built on sand and shale, it is only usable at low tide, but rising sea levels are jeopardising its future. One solution might be to raise the causeway above the waves, but Shona Owen of the National Trust says it is not straightforward.

“Such a decision would be based on whether lifting the causeway was sustainable in the medium to long term, the access gains and financial considerations, and what impact might there be on the wider coast,” she says. Perhaps it will meet the same end as the marsh forest and become a relic that only divers can see.

Porthdinllaen, Gwynedd

Porthdinllaen is a picturesque village situated in the cove of a steep headland on the Llyn Peninsular. It was once a major port, rivalling Holyhead in importance, but it has suffered coastal erosion and is now perched on the sea edge.

The village can only be reached by walking along the cliffs or beaches, or by boat. It contains a cluster of houses with a pub and a lifeboat station that was established in 1864 following the immense bravery of local people in saving the lives of sailors caught in a storm. The sea reaches many of these buildings during high tides, and some of them flood during a swell, so the future is bleak. The National Trust owns the village and says that repairs will be done as required, but nature must take its course in the long term.

Villager Steve Hoyle may have the attitude that more people will need over the next 50 years: “We watch the weather, we know the tides and we have flood boards on our doors. If the sea level rises by a metre and a half, well, we’ll just have to put another metre and a half height on to our boards!”

Woolacombe, Devon

Woolacombe beach in north Devon has been listed in the top five beaches in the world and is famous for its exhilarating surf. However, the National Trust, which owns the land, is predicting that between 10m (32ft) and 15m (49ft) of beach will be lost within the next century.

The Trust is trying to manage the change in a positive way. Instead of trying to hold back nature, it is seeking to make the best of the changes. The dunes are being managed to stabilise the vegetation that grows on them, which in turn will trap the sand and help to prevent erosion. Public access to certain areas is also being restricted and people are being urged to stick to the paths. Dunes are so inviting for children to play in, but in doing so the habitat’s delicate balance is altered.

Despite the concerns, the National Trust is optimistic and property manager Steve Mulberry says that the Trust is monitoring the situation. However, he says that Trust has “no concerns that the beach and cliffs at Woolacombe won’t be here to enjoy for many years to come.”

Farne Islands, Northumberland

Damage from climate change is not restricted to land and properties; it is also changing the way we can access things. The Farne Islands, clustered off the Northumberland coast, are one of Britain’s most important nature reserves, famed for their 100,000 nesting seabirds, such as puffins and terns, and a place where Atlantic grey seals are born and raised.

However, there is mounting concern that the increasing number and severity of storms in the area may prevent people from crossing the seas between the mainland and the islands. The quay at the island is also at risk. Helmsman Billy Shiel was given an MBE in 1997 for his services to tourism, as he and his family have been ferrying people to the Farne Islands since 1918. But Mr Shiel says that the weather is starting to have an effect on his business. “In the last two years it has become noticeably more unsettled. We cannot guarantee trips will go ahead, even in the summer months. We are now having January and February weather in November and December.”

This may not spell the end for the nature that calls the islands home, but it could prevent people from seeing and studying it.

Easton Bavent cliffs, Suffolk

The standards that are intended to conserve our heritage are sometimes seen as the very things hindering attempts to save it. Peter Boggis, a retired engineer, recently won a High Court battle to prevent his property from being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) by Natural England. This would have prevented him from taking further protective measures to save his and his neighbours’ homes from erosion.

Since 1640, Easton Bavent cliffs have retreated more than 2 miles, so Mr Boggis has built sea defences on the beaches beneath the cliffs, and these have apparently been effective at slowing the erosion.

Natural England wanted to extend the boundary of the SSSI to encompass Boggis’s property, because the area holds Pleistocene fossils dating back 1.8 million years and it wanted to allow the cliffs to erode naturally.

But Mr Justice Blair disagreed. “Without some form of defence the claimants’ homes will soon be swept away by the sea, and their very human predicament must be taken account of too,” he said.

Skara Brae, Orkney

Part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site, Skara Brae was a small settlement built by Neolithic people to protect them from coastal weather. It is thought that the settlement was abandoned around 2500BC, and over time it slowly became a mystery mound buried by sand.

But a vicious storm in 1850 stripped the grass from the top of the mound and revealed the outline of some small stone buildings. William Watt, the laird of Skaill, was so intrigued that he ordered an excavation that unearthed eight houses linked by covered passages.

The site is a fantastic insight into Neolithic life, as the interiors were well preserved. The houses each consist of a large square room with beds either side of a fireplace and a shelved dresser on the wall. But the settlement is in danger because the sea wall is beginning to crumble and water may break through and surge around the monument within 20 years, making it an island and then slowly submerging it.

But Skara Brae is so important that its guardians are desperate to prevent it from disappearing again. They are even considering moving it, stone by stone. Sand originally preserved the monument, but it is unlikely that the sea will be so kind.

Sidmouth, Devon

The holiday town of Sidmouth has distinctive red cliffs towering above the beaches, but the sand in those cliffs is causing much concern to local people. Ten years ago, sea defences were erected at a cost of £6m. Unfortunately, the cliffs are still eroding and at a faster rate than anticipated – with estimates of 6m (20ft) disappearing in places just this past year.

Local councillor Stuart Hughes is particularly concerned, as it is his constituency under threat. He says that the sea defences don’t protect Sidmouth from the occasional but fierce southeasterly storms that are responsible for the main bouts of erosion. More extreme weather conditions are also taking their toll. Pennington Point used to deflect the storms’ power, but this has eroded, leaving the coastline vulnerable and cliffs crumbling on to the beach.

Emergency works are planned, but the status of the coast as a World Heritage Site has meant that changes are a sensitive issue. Councillor Hughes is sceptical. “People’s lives should come before natural cliff erosion,” he says.

Giant’s Causeway, Co Antrim

The Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s most famous tourist and wildlife area. This World Heritage Site is a fascinating natural spectacle of around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns lining the coastline.

The causeway has gruesome history – the rocks tore the ship Girona of the Spanish Armada apart one stormy night in 1588, and 1,200 men were lost, with only five survivors making it ashore.

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It is anticipated that wetter winters, drier summers, and long-lasting and more frequent storms will take their toll on the causeway. Although the expected rise in sea level by 2050 is only 25cm (10in), this is perceived as enough to change the ecology of the area. For example, for the brent geese arriving each winter to graze on the eelgrass growing on nearby Strangford’s mud flats, this rise might mean the end to their feast. Increased erosion of the rocks and bigger swells will make the visitor experience more hazardous, with landslips likely. Footpaths may have to be rerouted and some areas may close. The National Trust manages the site and is concerned that access will be restricted from 2020, with seas swamping parts of the causeway and making it a problem for the 700,000 visitors that arrive each year. It seems wrong that something so large can be altered by a mere 25cm (10in), but such is the impact of rising sea levels.