Walking the Suffolk Coast 8(iii)

Continued from previous

Our new-found ally assures us that there is a way around Easton Broad and onto the firm land that borders it, and so, following him, we head into the reeds for the second time, by now negotiating the duckboard with  confidence. As we walk, he outlines what is happening with Easton Broad.

The freshwater status of the Broad is already being challenged by the inward movement of the sea. The easterly part of the broad is separated from the sea by a shingle bank which is regularly breached during tide surges, leaving that part of the wetland saline, or brackish. A plan of managed realignment is in process, with a  wall to be constructed, 400 meters long and eight feet high, protecting both the B1127 and the westerly, inner part of the broad to maintain it as a freshwater habitat, allowing the sea into the outer part.

The Suffolk coast is  an incredibly fragile environment, open to the prevailing direction of the waves and  strong coastal currents with rising water levels caused by glacial adjustment and climate change eating into the coastline quickly and inevitably.  Historically, when the east coast was expanding and land was being reclaimed, Dutch engineers  and builders were brought over to do the work and today, Dutch expertise is sought to manage  the receding coastline, for Suffolk is advised on its coastal management by the Dutch  Consultancy Royal Haskoning,

The range of government-related organisations  with responsibilities in coastal planning is prodigious; DEFRA, Communities and Local Government (Eric Pickles! We’re all doomed!), The Environment Agency, Natural England, The Marine Management Organisation, The Joint Nature Conservation Committee, English Heritage, The Crown Estate, Anglian Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, County Councils, District Authorities, The Inland Drainage Board, East Anglian Coastal Group, Suffolk Coast and heaths Area of Outstanding Beauty. This is not to mention the partnership organisations with whom the local council works.

The Coastal Management plan is a technically detailed document, with a range of coastal protection options set against projections of ‘unconstrained erosion’ over the next 100 years (dramatic) and Is presumably, signed up to, to a greater or lesser degree by all these organisations, and, in this context, of a document of technical expertise, backed up by organisations which themselves are specialist, it is interesting to note where opposition to the plan comes from.

First, it’s woth notng, that Covehithe, our destination on the walk, and, in the sunshine, a place of unblurred beauty, is likely to follow Dunwich into the sea  within 100 years if erosion takes its unrestrained course and the coastal plan  carefully evaluates the implications of protecting Covehithe, concluding;

Under the worst case erosion scenario, works at this point would not be seen as being sustainable. Under the lowest rate of erosion they would potentially be seen as sustainable over the period of the SMP (Strategic Management plan). However, in the longer term, even under the lower rate of erosion the coast will not have reached a stable equilibrium. The natural alignment of the coast is more in line with currently predicted 100 year erosion, some 400m behind the seaward face of the village. In all probability, even if works were undertaken in 50 years time, subsequent to that – potentially within the period of the present SMP – the defence of the village would be abandoned. In this location there is little scope for reducing rates of erosion and the policy here is, therefore, No Active Intervention.

The BBC report that a local landowner at Covehithe wanted to personally fund sea defences for that stretch of coast. I’m sure that if I owned  a large spread on a beautiful, if desiccating Suffolk cliff, land in which  I had invested my money  and my life, my perspective would be skewed into constructing a reality in which my own interests corresponded with those of the wider community,  and I would act accordingly, SMP or not. I think it is impressive that this was blocked, apparently by the local authorities concerned. Significantly, the landowner was backed by local M.P. Theresa Coffey, who felt ‘an injustice’ had been done, and then proceeded to demonstrate the scantest, Sarah Palin-like, knowledge of local coastal protection issues.

It is tempting, and I’m not going to resist the temptation, to see the politics of Covehithe as a kind of microcosm for the current processes of national politics, in which a sophisticated political and reasonably democratic  system is in place, in this case,  to manage the inevitable erosion of the Suffolk Coast, and an informed and argued plan is produced, only for the local M.P. seek to override it, without apparently having read it (“Just because there are certain kinds of fossils in there, or something like that, I’m not sure that outweighs the farming that happens there.’’) ,and coming out in support of the local wealthy landowner. It would be feudal if it wasn’t true.   Covehithe breaks the national trend somewhat, because in this case, the landowner did not get their way.

When  I was at school, we learned about King Canute, who got a bad press on account of his futile attempt at holding back the waves in order to impress his nobility. More recently, this account tells of King Cnut, first Viking King of England who was, far from attempting the impossible, actually trying to demonstrate the limits of his kingly powers.

Henry of Huntingdon’s 12th Century chronicle states;

About the power of this king a little  should be stated. For no English king ever had such wide-ranging authority. For he was at once the lord of all Denmark, of all England, of all Norway, and also of  Scotland. “All the inhabitants of the world should know that the power of kings is vain and trivial’’.

It is tempting, and I’m not going to resist the temptation, to see the opponents of the Coastal plan as ‘Canutes’, seeking to hold back the waves, against the more widely accepted ‘Cnut’ view that seeking to totally hold back the sea is, with qualification, vain.

We reach the narrowest point between the wetland of Easton Broad and the adjoining field, a deeply overgrown strip of marsh and ditch, perhaps twenty yards wide. Secret Informant leading the way, we  embark into this undergrowth, cautiously, testing the ground with each footfall. Down through the reed, identifying the narrow ditch, jumping into bracken, we reach the uphill and firmer ground until we arrive into the open field and terra firma, looking back on the marsh with a degree of relief at having emerged without too much mishap. Our companion, meanwhile, has plunged on through the water reed to reconnoitre the state of the footpath that we had forsaken.

Suffolk Coast 8 031 (1)

Across a plateau of farmland, mostly maize, and then we reach a large pig farm – quite possibly owned by above-mentioned landowner, with the tower of CovehitheChurch marking our destination  a mile or so away. We elect to extend this mile by trying to reach the coast via the border of the pig farm, but finding Covehithe Broad an insuperable barrier, we are obliged to turn back. However, to my mind, pig farms are always worth a detour.

Suffolk Coast 8 033 (1)

A wooded path brings us back to the lane leading to Covehithe village and we head in to visit the church, and to see the point at which the road disappears over the cliff. Covehithe Church which, when constructed, must have been a superb piece of 14th century bling. (Master F. notes that the chequer board pattern on the front, beneath the large window spaces, is not repeated on the back where it would be out of public view), was too big for the village by the end of the 17th century. The roof was removed and within the footprint of the original building, a smaller, thatched church was built, which is still in use, although displaying a severe case of damp on its inner walls.

Suffolk Coast 8 034 (1)

We walk down the lane to where it disappears into a thicket of brambles, the point at which it drops off the cliff. To the north a field of stubble edges the crumbling bluff and the sea lies blue and guileless in the sunshine.

Suffolk Coast 8 039 (1)

A short story by China Mieville, set in Covehithe, can be found here.