The Threat to Norfolk and its Churches

David Keller of BBC Norfolk tells of the coming catastrophe for Norfolk should no effective action be taken to prevent erosion and its causes.

At least six villages wiped off the map, hundreds of people turned out of their homes and some of the Broads’ best freshwater lakes swamped by seawater. Thousands of acres of agricultural land turned into mudflats, the loss of bird species such as bitterns, cranes and marsh harriers and the extinction of traditional crafts such as reed cutting.

St Nicholas Church, Potter Heigham

Churches along the River Thurne are under threat from coastal erosion
St Nicholas Church, Potter Heigham, Norfolk (Photo: Simon Knott)

Unthinkable? Perhaps, but if radical proposals currently under consideration for the future of the Broads ever see the light of day, by no means impossible. Conservation chiefs are currently drawing up strategies in response to the effects of climate change in this most vulnerable of areas. With sea levels set to rise, government body Natural England has produced a list of four possible courses of action for the Upper Thurne basin, discussed at a conference in Norwich last month.

Inside All Saint's Church, Horsey, Norfolk

Churches at risk include All Saint’s in Horsey
Inside All Saint’s Church, Horsey, Norfolk (Photo: Simon Knott)

The options are set out in a document which was distributed to delegates, but has not been made public. Natural England has refused to supply a copy but the Eastern Daily Press managed to obtain one. The first option listed is to do nothing to adapt to climate change: to fail to maintain coastal defences and inland flood embankments, allowing them to fall into disrepair and be breached by the River Thurne and the sea.

Norfolk’s churches under threat, some of these popularised by John Betjemen. But it seems strange that the blame is placed upon ‘Mother Nature’ and an ‘an ironic act of God and not upon the man-made causes of the growing problem’. Perhaps even more strange that Natural England have yet to oppose an application for licences for continuing or new offshore dredging, and uphold ‘Managed Retreat’.

Norfolk’s churches, particularly those on the embankment of the River Thurne, are feeling the full force of mother nature and could disappear. Five churches with rapidly receding plots of land include All Saint’s Church in Horsey and St Nicholas’ Church in Potter Heigham.

A gargoyle at St Nicolas' Church, Potter Heigham, Norfolk

All Saint’s Church, Horsey — St Margaret’s Church, Sea Palling — St John’s Church, Waxham — St Mary’s Church, Hickling — St Nicholas’ Church, Potter Heigham
A gargoyle at St Nicolas’ Church, Potter Heigham, Norfolk (Photo: Simon Knott)

“Communities are just floating away,” said Kate Smith, local historian. “We’re not talking about an act of Natural England, we’re talking about an ironic act of God,” she added.

Natural England, the government’s advisor on the natural environment, made a proposal in early 2008 to abandon coastal sea defences and allow 25 sq miles (65 sq km) of broadland around the Upper Thurne to be flooded by the sea. It was revoked during the latter end of the year due to huge protests from Norfolk residents.

Kate believes that even though the churches along the Thurne embankment are safe for now and will be protected under government legislation until 2048, the underlying threat from rising sea levels over flat plains will not go away. “The sea defences are now going to be maintained which is great news, but no promises were given as to what would happen after the 50 years was up,” she said.

High risk

As part of her 2009 annual church crawl organised at Norwich’s Dragon Hall, Kate took people on a tour of churches around the River Thurne which are at high risk from the power of the sea. “There were five villages involved in the tour and we also went to the former site of St Mary’s Church at Eccles-on-Sea, which was one of the last churches to completely disappear,” she said. “During my lifetime, the parts of the tower that fell onto the beach in 1895 have finally been subsumed by the North Sea — It’s a fast process. Unfortunately you can’t legislate for the moon, the spring tide and the roaring north-westerly gale that make the dangerous surge conditions.”

There are more than just a handful of Norfolk churches at risk from the sea.

“On our annual tour we have been across many parts of Norfolk and we try and make the church crawl different each time,” said Kate. “The churches on the 2009 crawl were all of dedicated worshipping communities. If the churches are redundant, they are vested in the Churches Conservation Trust [the leading body conserving England’s churches], but none of these churches are in that state and cannot be protected, which is absurd.”

Kate accepts that sometimes there is nothing that Natural England, the Churches Conservation Trust or even King Canute can do to stop the sea. “What I’m really trying to put across to people is that although the outrageous idea to simply surrender the land to the sea has been quashed, if the correct surge conditions are recreated, there is simply nothing we can do to help these parishes,” she said.

The fate of these historical and beautiful churches really is in the lap of God.

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