It was the latest in a series of catastrophic floods. Seawater forced its way through sand dunes and spilled miles across the low-lying lands of north-east Norfolk, spoiling farmland and destroying homes. After this flood of 1622, it was proposed that the sea be allowed in for good, as far as the village of Potter Heigham, five miles from the coast. Local people and landowners were horrified. They vowed to defend their livelihoods. Two thousand men were press-ganged into repairing the dunes and repelling “the extordinaire force and rage of the Sea”.
The strategy worked and the waves were turned away from this corner of Norfolk for nearly 400 years. Last month, however, a new plan, closely resembling the retreat first proposed in the 17th century, was leaked to the public. Calling for “the embayment” of 25 square miles of low-lying land, the government’s environmental body, Natural England, said that nine miles of sea defences between the seaside villages of Eccles and Winterton were unsustainable “beyond the next 20-50 years”, creating the possibility of “realigning the coast”. What this cold academic language actually means is wiping part of Norfolk off the map: 600 homes, six villages, five medieval churches, four fresh-water Broadland lakes, historic windmills, precious nature reserves and valuable agricultural land would be given up to the rising seas. Britain would have its first climate change refugees.
Rising seas are changing Britain’s coast dramatically. Norfolk is the first low-lying area to face a stark and cruel new choice – plough millions into doomed defences, or abandon whole villages to the invading waters. Read the full story by Patrick Barkham on the Guardian website