The rising tide of coastal erosion

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Jules Pretty decided that blistered feet would be worth enduring to observe at close quarters the social, as well as environmental, effects of coastal erosion. The professor of environment and society at Essex University walked 400 miles around the coastline of East Anglia and travelled another 100 miles by boat. “I started under the M25 at Thurrock in Essex and finished up at King’s Lyn in Norfolk,” he says over the noise from the espresso machine in an Italian café near the Royal Society, where he is heading for a meeting.

The view of a bustling, traffic-clogged Regent Street beyond the front window could hardly be more different from the expansive sparseness of the enchanting yet crumbling landscape that he encountered over 45 days, sometimes with only birdlife for company. “I heard the curlew and redshank, the outpouring of skylarks, and the crump of waves on the beach,” he writes in the introduction to his latest book, The Luminous Coast.

The title comes from the effect on his vision of prolonged exposure to the suffused sunlight coming off the sea. “When I closed my left eye for a fortnight afterwards,” he recalls, “all the colours in my right eye were bleached out, like an old film.” It seems an appropriate image in the circumstances. Apart from its serious messages about the effects of climate change, the book is also a trip back into personal memory for the 51-year-old, who was brought up in Southwold and Lowestoft.

These days he lives 12 miles inland. A sensible precaution, perhaps, for one who has seen at close quarters how the North Sea is taking substantial bites out of the east coast. “I did a night walk near Cromer with my brother under a full moon that brought the tide in even higher than ever,” he recalls. “We had to keep scrambling up the cliffs to avoid it.” In the cold light of dawn, they observed tractor tracks that came abruptly to an end. What were once agricultural fields are now at the cliff’s edge.

Pretty has little doubt that the map of East Anglia will have been substantially redrawn by the end of the century, by which time his current home may well be much closer to the sea. “Because so much of this coast is one of those special wild places of England – and the effects of climate change are already visible – the walk reaffirmed my view that we should be doing more to protect it,” he says. “As it is, the so-called shoreline management plan seems to have decided that we can’t afford to stop certain places disappearing. Covehithe, north of Southwold, is one, Happisburgh in north Norfolk another. Great chunks are being eaten away. Some houses near the coast are valued at no more than £1. These are the homes of people who have lived there for generations in some cases. They have an emotional attachment.

“The other part of my research was cultural. Modernisation is making us forget the specialness not only of coastline habitats but also the people engaged in practices that are ‘of the place’. Walking not only connects you with the land; it also allows you to come in by the back door, as it were.”

To see people as they really are, in other words, doing the sort of jobs that have become almost extinct. But Pretty couldn’t guarantee just stumbling across the oyster men of Mersea Island in north Essex, the wildfowlers licensed to shoot geese and ducks on Canvey Island or the Norfolk marshes; or, indeed, the reedcutters on the Norfolk Broads. He made an initial mistake of trying to do the walk in one go. In 10 days he covered 160 miles.

Not surprisingly, his feet were killing him by the time he reached Lowestoft. “I had blisters and had to ring my brother to collect me from our old school,” he sighs. “It made me realise that this shouldn’t be a route march. I needed to layer the journey in order to see different places and meet different people at different times of year.” So the other 35 days of his walk were spread out through 2007-08. He would take lengthy taxi rides back to his car, or his wife or friends would collect him. Through careful networking, he managed to meet the wildfowlers and reedcutters. And oyster men? “They let me go out with them,” he beams. “I also went on the Aldeburgh lifeboat. Those guys risk everything with a grace and aplomb that is instructive to all of us. And there’s a deep pride among the local community in what they do.”

One of the hopeful observations to come out of his journey was the strong sense of community that he encountered – “despite the trappings of modern life,” as he puts it. “They still congregate in these little villages and towns. They go to the WI or the local fair or whatever, and they care about where they live.

The question posed by the book is whether the rest of us care enough about them to save these communities from being washed away by ever-rising tides.

The Luminous Coast will be published later this year by Full Circle