Life on the edge: This couple’s home is dangerously close to falling in the sea!
- Credit: Archant
Juliet Blaxland and husband Giles have lived near Southwold for 12 years... and watched the land between their home and the North Sea get shorter and shorter. Our reporter visited them.
I can be incredibly stupid. I’ve headed north of Southwold, turned right, and literally kept right on till the end of the road. I pass Juliet and Giles’s cottage and park on the grass. The North Sea sparkles beyond the cliff-edge. It’s only when I walk back towards their home that I remember 25-plus metres of coastline have been lost here in a dozen years.
There’s a sign on a barrier where the road runs out. The skull-and-crossbones symbol makes the words superfluous, but you can’t ignore their scream: “Danger. Keep out. Cliff eroding”.
Good point. I nip back to the car (slowly… very slowly…), tighten the handbrake a couple of clicks and cross my fingers.
You feel a kind of thumping
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Easton Bavents is no stranger to danger. This used to be England’s easternmost parish. The sea claimed its church in 1666. Recent times have seen more land and property follow.
In 2011, for instance, a holiday-home that had been in a family for four generations was demolished before the ground it stood on disappeared.
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Today, the building where Juliet Blaxland and her husband live is the last in their lane. The edge of the cliff is 20-odd strides from the nearest wall. Less than four years ago: 50 paces.
The clock is ticking. “I would have thought we would have to go in about three years or so. Possibly sooner,” she says.
Rather surprisingly, the couple are sanguine in the face of impending upheaval. In fact, Juliet is more concerned that “cultural erosion” might prove more of a long-term threat to the countryside. More about that later.
Perhaps such stoicism is not so surprising.
Giles, a retired lieutenant colonel, served with the army in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo. Juliet had a rural upbringing in and around an old rectory in The Saints – a scattering of villages north-west of Halesworth (in the main). There was far-off boarding school, too.
Life later took her to London. But after returning to Suffolk – where skills such as chopping wood with an axe and handling unpredictable animals are pretty handy – she realised “that what I had always thought of as my tomboy habits actually turned out to be useful training for our life on the cliff”.
When she’s not foraging for firewood, beachcombing or building a chicken run, Juliet’s an architect, author, photographer, cartoonist and illustrator. She has a dozen children’s books under her belt and has now written The Easternmost House.
Subtitled A Year of Life on the Edge of England, it’s a distillation of experience – from that ever-present risk of coastal erosion to the joys of nature, the friendliness of most people, the shifting seasons, local food, and the “magical landscape of light and sky and water”.
It’s “a portrait of a place that soon will no longer exist. It is a memorial to this house and the lost village it represents, and to our ephemeral life here, so that something of it will remain once it has all gone”.
There are still people about who remember the track continuing further – to a T-junction. In 1953, on the day of the Queen’s coronation, folk danced in the gardens of cottages facing the sea. Those cottages, and others, have gone.
The landscape has changed, visibly, since Juliet and Giles came. “Where once there was a dune, now there is flat beach and a clear view of the pier in the distance. Where once there was the end of the reedbed where it met the beach, now there is a sandy bay from the night when the sea came in over the land,” she writes.
“Where once we walked a hundred paces to the edge of the cliff, past two cottages and on to the land on the edge known as The Retreat, with its cabin and a white beach hut, now we are the ones on the edge.”
When the couple arrived 12 years ago, some concrete pyramids were at the base of the cliff. Now, many metres away on the beach, “measuring our ebbing time with invisibly brutal accuracy”.
The force of nature is tangible. “There are times when there’s a real storm, in the middle of winter, when it seems to be churning at the top of the cliff and the house seems to sort of move. You feel a kind of thumping.”
In the book she cites another example of the natural world reminding us humans are not all-powerful: Horizontal lightning at 2am, once, with thunder “so loud it was almost frightening, just because it was so unusual in its tone and mood.
“It fought with all the normal past experiences of thunder we had had and heightened our animal instincts to be extra alert and wary in some unspecified way…”
This “startling exhibition… made it abundantly clear that the enormity and power of nature is completely out of our control”.
‘We knew it was limited...’
It was in the dark – on a November Wednesday – that Juliet first came to see the building she and Giles now call home. They rent it from Easton Farm – which must soften the eventual blow of its loss to them, though it will come at a cost to the farm, which has lost 250 acres of arable land and a couple of cottages since the Second World War.
Once part of the Benacre estate, the farm had been sold to pay death duties in the 1920s. Erosion was a known threat even then, she says.
Their building was built as a row of three cottages for folk working on the estate. Their ghosts remain: Juliet writing that “the old threshold timbers are worn into soft curves by the boots of farm labourers past…”
The couple arrived with eyes open. “We knew it was limited, but, like all people think, it’s ‘in the future’,” she says.
Juliet believes erosion is an ongoing natural process but that tidal surges and rising sea levels can be influenced by the activities of man.
Couldn’t we just build robust defences?
“I once thought that if you had an enormous network of house-sized ‘earth bags’, and some sort of grass knitting it all together, you might be able to do some sort of soft sea defence. But: we’ve been here long enough to see a whole dune disappear in one night… a whole bay formed in one night…”
Once, she thought of buying the semi-detached houses on the end, living in one and letting its twin as a holiday home. The asking price was such that she’d perhaps make her money back, before the inevitable happened. But she happened upon a team of reedcutters whose “persuasive warnings” put her off.
“The reedcutters said Benacre had lost 16m in one tide, at one particular point. Landscaping on a rather Capability Brown scale overnight makes you think that even if you did use house-sized earth bags, nature’s so much greater than us that it would all be swept away.
“In an odd way that’s almost quite lovely, because it means that if it’s that much greater than us, despite all the damage we’re doing now, nature can probably heal itself fairly well.”
Not so much a case of “destruction”, then, but positive change.
Perhaps, Juliet muses, when this part of Easton Bavents disappears and there are fewer dog-walkers, what’s left might prove even more bird-friendly.
“Chuffy probably wasn’t altogether good for the birds feeling safe…” she says of their ex-racing greyhound who died a couple of years ago at 13.
Juliet’s down on the beach every day – early in the summer, “because I like watching the sun rise, and you hear the larks, and you see the sand martins.
“You’re pretty much guaranteed to hear the bitterns booming. But who’s to say I’m not disturbing the avocets or the terns? Maybe they would rather I wasn’t there?”
So the book is about erosion and living with powerful natural forces. “Does it change the way you think? What have I learned from it? Take the long view… and have a great faith in nature as a healer. Things will change, but they’re not necessarily always changing for the worse.
“What was marshland might become wetland. What was a tree standing up might become a tree that’s fallen down (and become valuable habitat for insects). It’s not necessarily worse, just different.”
Juliet adds: “I have great faith in the adaptability and ingenuity of people. We’ve usually ‘invented ourselves out of’ something. We’ve got so much coming – electric cars, drones that will reduce the amount of pesticides because you’ll put it only where you need it, and we’ll probably do some clever thing with the help of the Dutch. But there are huge changes coming, and you can’t just fence off a load of water of that volume.”
‘We have to rub along together’
On the other hand, the erosion of country life is “something I think we can just resist a bit”.
She feels the past five years have seen growing hostility towards traditional activities such as dairy and livestock farming, and a little more militancy by “some” vegans.
Again, she’s optimistic – but those who seek to preserve the character of British rural life need to argue its value a bit more. The critics of rural living have used social media to advantage; time, perhaps, for its supporters to tap such opportunities, too.
There needs to be more talk about what life is like in the countryside, and “mysterious rural practices like gamekeeping and deerstalking could be openly explained”. Traditional country life must evolve and adapt if it is to survive in modern Britain.
No bile, though, please, while trying to win hearts and minds. Mutual understanding and respect are the watch-words.
“You can’t expect someone who has lived in Manchester to automatically understand the life and views of a gamekeeper, for instance.”
Perhaps, she suggests in the book, we need to put natural history on schools’ national curriculum, “including wildlife management and death, killing and culling… The chasm between opposing ways of life must be bridged. We have to rub along together, town and country, dog person and cat person, vegan and omnivore, shepherd and #sheepwrecked (a term coined to describe the damage done to land by sheep), ecotourism and shooting, pro and anti, left and right…”
Juliet’s hopeful. “I think most people are basically nice,” she tells me. “There’s something very deep (in our mindset) about caring for the countryside and rural life in general.”
Think of what could happen, she warns. “If all of Suffolk were suddenly to become vegan, the free-range pigs and marsh cattle would disappear from the landscape, then livestock farmers and stockmen and finally the knowledge. The Suffolk Show would be bereft and lifeless.
“Instead of eating sustainable protein from down the road, we might have to import soya and pulses to replace it, to achieve the bulk, possibly deforesting the Amazon rainforest and burning aviation fuel in the process.
“Farm animals belong in the English landscape. They have formed it. The fields and hedges and stone walls are there because of centuries of animal husbandry.”
A little world of its own
Time for me to check my car hasn’t fallen onto the beach. Before that, we go to the end of the garden and look up the coast. Today’s north-easterly wind is thuggish and relentless, delivering upper-cuts to face and body, but the bright light from the sky and off the water is a prize worth having.
“Every time you turn onto that track going past the farm you feel you’re entering a little world of its own,” says Juliet. “A pheasant comes across the road, and a rabbit goes the other way; and the sea is at the end… And walking up the beach – whatever the weather, whatever the light – it makes you think differently.”
The Easternmost House is published by Sandstone Press at £9.99. Juliet has a launch – “an afternoon pop-in-at-the-end-of-the-working-day kind of thing” – at Southwold Books (High Street) on Thursday, April 18. It’s from 4pm to 6pm.