Fears for future of Norfolk seaside resort as erosion forces closure of beach

On the road into Hemsby, a quintessential British seaside resort on the east coast, flags proclaiming an abundance of new holiday homes for sale flap in the wind.

But the beach that has drawn generations of holidaymakers to the village has been closed by the local lifeboat team, after strong winds and high tides in recent weeks caused significant erosion.

The once gently sloping beach has been replaced with a sheer 3ft drop after the tides ate away at the sand, revealing the gnarled and rusted metal of second world war anti-tank defences that lay hidden under the sand for years, and preventing the lifeboat from being able to launch.

“We felt that for public safety, we needed to barrier off and advise people not to go on to the beach,” said Chris Batten, helmsman and secretary of Hemsby Lifeboat. “People could quite easily fall and we’re looking at broken bones or worse.”

“But unless something happens, we can certainly say with confidence, it will happen again. And it’s going to keep happening and getting worse.”

This year will mark 10 years since five homes fell into the sea in Hemsby after a particularly extreme storm surge damaged the cliffside, but residents are still waiting for the sea defences they believe are the key to securing the area’s future.

“Last year, we spent just under £8,000 on beach restorations that should have been someone else’s responsibility,” said Batten. “Every time this happens, the lifeboat puts its hand in its pocket. It’s not our responsibility, but we’re paying for it.”

Last year, Great Yarmouth borough council submitted a formal application for a rock berm along the coast at Hemsby, which would help diffuse the waves, but they’re still waiting for signoff from the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) to go ahead.

Then there’s also the problem of funding for the £15m project, of which only £2.5m is available from the government in aid, with the cost of materials continuously rising due to inflation and higher energy costs.

Norfolk county councillor and owner of the Beach Cafe, James Bensly. Photograph: Sarah Lucy Brown/The Guardian

“We’re not asking for a wall of cement because that won’t work. But these rocks will help dissipate the energy and the power of the sea,” said James Bensly, who has run the Hemsby Beach Cafe with his wife for 12 years, and also works as a Great Yarmouth borough councillor.

“We’re not making any more land, we’re losing it at a scary rate. In recent years it has been skyrocketing. So there has to be a wider discussion about this, not just for Hemsby but for coastal resorts all over the UK. This challenge that Hemsby is now facing is going to be all around the country.

“Look what happened last [month], and that wasn’t even an extreme weather event.”

His cafe is shut – high energy bills mean it’s not worth opening during the low season – but he has concerns that “if the beach goes, this is what it could be like all the time”.

“Hemsby has a population of just under 4,000, but that swells to well over 20,000 in the summer months. And people come here for the beach, for the sea,” he said. “If they can’t get on to the beach, will they come to Hemsby? Will they holiday here, will they spend their money in the local economy?”

Despite the challenges thrown up by the constant threat of erosion, Hemsby remains very firmly open for business, said Lorna Bevan, the owner of the Lacon Arms and founder of the Save Hemsby Coastline campaign.

“It will kill Hemsby if we don’t have a beach, but we will always fight on. We will fix the damage from the weekend and get the beach back open again, but we need people to know how drastic this is,” she said. “We need them to focus and see this is getting far too close to the knuckle now.”

She also said there was growing frustration at the amount of dredging taking place off the Norfolk coast, which many feel is fuelling the erosion.

Up on the Marrams, a winding road that runs along the cliffside, Lance Martin’s home perches precariously close to the edge.

When he bought the house in 2017, he said he had to stand on the roof to see the ocean over the dunes, but now it is right at the bottom of his back garden, which he has affectionately nicknamed his “infinity pool”.

“When I moved in, I was assured that the coastal erosion around here was about a metre a year. That would have given me 30 to 40 years. So I was set for life,” said Martin. “But then we had the ‘beast from the east’ and that completely changed everything.”

Lance Martin: ‘People are worried, because the storms are coming more frequently now.’ Photograph: Sarah Lucy Brown/The Guardian

His house was one of 13 earmarked for demolition after the 2018 storm surge took away metres of the cliffside, but with the help of the local community, he managed to shift the house on to safer ground.

Despite placing a collection of large rocks, funded by locals, at the base of the cliff below his house to try to abate the encroaching tides, on Saturday he was up every hour through the night to check for any damage.

“People are worried, because the storms are coming more frequently now, which I think has to do not only with climate change, but the way the coastline is changing,” he said. “But in 2013, when they had the big sea surge, the defences should have been done then, within two or three years. And it’s just on the back burner constantly. People are getting angry now.”

An MMO spokesperson said it had been working with Great Yarmouth borough council to streamline the requirements for the application.

“The marine licence application is on hold awaiting further information on the environmental impact assessment decision from Great Yarmouth Borough Council,” the spokesperson said. “Once this information is received the MMO will proceed to make a determination on the application as soon as possible.”