July 13: Daring the dredgers
The sea is eating away the East-Anglian coast at an alarming rate. Locally, more than hundred meters have been lost to the sea thus far. Local activist Pat Gowen blames the dredging works that have been going on at only some few miles off the coast.
At Happisburgh, a row of houses is standing right at the end of the cliff. They are deserted now, since the inhabitants have been forced to leave their property for their own security. At the end of the backyard, there is a grid fence. Behind it, there is a 30 foot perpendicular drop onto the beach below.
The cliffs are sandy here. Now that the beach has been lowered, the waves reach the bottom of the cliff. This happens worst in February storms, when whole chunks will break away from the cliff and plunge into the waves, which will then wash away the sand into the sea.

Imported blocks of granite from Norway have been put on the shoreline to reduce the rate of erosion. This seems to work a bit. Further on, where no rocks have been put, the erosion has gone dozens of meters further, eating away the edge of a potato field.
Photo's in the tiny museum in a container below the new Coastwatch tower (the first having already lost to erosion) at Winterton show collapsed houses on the beach, shattered to flotsam by the beating waves. On historic aerial photographs, new coastlines have been drawn ever further inland. They tell the same story over and again: the coast here gives way to the sea, at loss of buildings at the edge. Particularly so since the nineteenseventies when offshore aggregate dredging began in earnest.
Pat Gowen (77) from Norwich bought his first bungalow here in 1978. Ten years later he lost it – to the sea. Standing at a dune top at Hemsby, he points at some wooden poles sticking out of the water. They are part of an historic shipwreck which was hidden under the sand right below Gowen's first bungalow. “That is where our bungalow was. There were two more lines of houses in front of it. In total 118 meters of coast have been lost here.” Of the 98 holiday homes in the dunes at Hemsby North Marrams, only six are left – one of which is inhabited by Pat and Norma Gowen, their second home here.

Is this coastal erosion a natural phenomenon, or are other factors involved? Gowen acknowledges that nature gives and takes, but the erosion here has increased 'dramatically' since the early seventies, he argues. And that coincides with the dredging activities some miles off the coast here. Prior to this, beaches have been known to grow and extend ever further into sea.
Dredging here is done to win coarse grained sand and gravel, which is used for building material (70 percent), export (27 percent) and for sand suppletion to the beaches (only 3 percent – data from the Marinet website. Part of the exported sand allegedly goes to the Netherlands to ironically supplement the loss of sand at the Dutch beaches and dunes.
Henk Jan Verhagen, who is a lecturer at the faculty of Civil Engineering of the Delft University of Technology, denies this. Dutch beaches are suppleted with sand, not with shingle, he says. Shingle is imported, but for cement production mainly and not for beach reinforcement.
Gowen argues that dredging close to the coast causes the offshore seabed, deepened by up to five metres, to refill from the shoreline. It further increases the power of waves coming into the shore, thus making erosion worse. Verhagen says that in order for that to happen, dredging must be really close to the coast. In the Netherlands a 10 kilometer safety zone has been imposed, theoretically 5 kilometer would be safe as well.
Fishermen also complain about dredging, saying that sand mining at sea destroys the habitat and spawning grounds for fish, resulting in a decline in fish populations and catches. Overfishing is not considered as a possible cause by them.
Naturally, the dredging industry is in denial of the allegations, quoting 'independent scientific studies' that say the coastal currents are only marginally influenced by dredging and that dredged areas are shown to naturally restore within five years to their original state. Besides, the area affected by dredging is tiny compared to the total surface of the sea bed.
“These scientists are all hand picked, paid for and controlled by the dredging industry”, growls Pat Gowen. As a typical left-wing activist, he sees a conspiracy between government and industry based on monetary gain, in contempt of the environment and the humble properties of the people at the coast.
Gowen has tried to stop the dredging, but with little result so far – dredgers have just moved on a bit. He also works on including Marine Protection Areas (no fishing, no dredging, no drilling) at 30 percent of the North Sea in the so-called Marine Bill, that is to be passed by the UK Parliament later this year. But he has little hope of the MPA's being accepted. Again, vested interests are strongly opposed to the idea.
In the meantime, the coastal protection measures taken thus far are less than impressive. A number of granite banks have been put in front of the endangered shore of Sea Palling to break the waves. But most of the banks have already partially sunk into the sand. Only the most recent three are still visible above the water at high tide.
Compared to the Dutch dunes at North Holland, the dunes here are quite low and not very broad. It would seem they could do with some fortifications measures, as indeed have been taken in the Netherlands at places where the natural dunes were judged to be insufficient.
Verhagen explains the limited measures by pointing out that previously coastal protection measures were a local and not a national responsibility, which limited funds and knowledge as a result. Now that coastal protection is a national responsibility in the UK, local authorities only get the means to get things done if they can show the costs are lower than the benefit. This obviously begs the question of how to validate farmland or the ecological value of endangered areas.
Gowen has proposed methods of chemically solidifying sand beaches and the use of under water groins as extra protection measures. The groins are to stimulate sand deposition by the sea water. But again – his proposals gained little support. Experts doubt the affectivity of the measures, although Gowen says these innovative methods have been tested and found to be effective in the USA.
The British government seems reluctant to invest in major coastal defence here. The question remains why. Marinet, Gowen's action group (Marine Information Network), suggests in a film that coastal protection of this region is simply too expensive. Parts of East-Anglia, the film says, are on a secret list of land to be given back to the sea. This 'managed retreat' is based on the balance between the value of the protected land and the costs needed to protect it, especially in face of the global warming and sea level rise. The outcome of this balance of course depends on your position: either living at the edge of a cliff in East-Anglia or in a London office.