This story has the longest backstory and goes deepest into my past. I have always lived in Sussex and visits to the coast are very much part of my life. For many years those visits were about fresh air, a break, outings with the children and sea swimming. I still love all those things, but the last two years have seen a transformation in my understanding of these familiar places.
Marcel Proust famously said “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes’. This has very much been my experience of exploring the coast with which I am so familiar.
The project is about the climate emergency which is almost always portrayed as happening “somewhere else”, the South Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, the Arctic. I have the means to visit these places but instead started to research how the crisis is affecting my own area, the South East of England.
I found that the coastline in Kent and Sussex is very vulnerable, has changed a lot over time and requires a lot of maintenance to hold the current coastline to protect property and land. Much of the coastline is protected by shingle banks and concrete hard defences. One of the wildest places on the Sussex Coast is Cuckmere Haven, a place I have visited since I was a child. I made several visits to the area to take pictures and conduct research. As the area is considered uninhabited, maintenance of the shingle beach has ceased and nature allowed to take its course. The shingle will become depleted as the longshore drift moves it east. The beach will become lower and the land behind more prone to flooding. Environment Agency projections suggest that the area could become permanently flooded as early as 2040.
Although the valley is not inhabited, the Coastguard Cottages on the cliff edge above the valley are both inhabited and very vulnerable. Without urgent improvements to the sea defences, the sort of storm damage shown above will happen more and more and eventually the cottages will fall into the sea. These homes are privately owned and the owners have to fund the defences themselves. An appeal is currently underway.
My research was undertaken as a desktop study, referring to the Cuckmere Haven SOS website set up by the cottage owners, Environment Agency plans, local plans, academic studies and media stories. Visits to the site functioned as both field trips to help me consolidate my research and photo shoots.
Cuckmere had produced an interesting story and I wondered if the scope could be increased. My research uncovered the story of Cliffhanger, a house on the Isle of Sheppey that had recently fallen off the clifftop. Using internet searches, I was able to locate the position of the house. I planned to photograph from both the beach level and from as close to the house as as I could get. Checking tide tables was an important safety step to avoid the possibility of getting cut off (or drowned) when working on the beach. On the 5th August, low tide was late morning and so I arranged a visit.
As the house had fallen from a clifftop, there was no entry to the beach at that point. I parked at Leysdown On Sea and walked several kilometres east along the beach to find the wreckage. I was surprised that the house was not on the beach, rather the ground beneath it seemed to have given way and it had tumbled away from its normal position but was still high above the beach. Pictures were taken and I returned to the car, then drove to the clifftop location of Cliffhanger. Wandering around a residential area taking pictures, I was inevitably asked what I was doing. The subsequent conversation resulted in my meeting Malcolm Newell, who chaired the residents group. He gave me access to the site of Cliffhanger and provided a lot of useful information about the disaster.
Based on Malcolm’s information and what I had learned at Cuckmere, I wrote a story about how home owners in more remote locations were effectively on their own in the face of climate change. There was no help from the authorities. Cliffhanger was uninsured as the insurers considered it too great a risk. Spending on climate change mitigation seemed to be quite selective. I had seen evidence of substantial spending in Shoreham On Sea where large numbers of homes were at risk. At Cuckmere and in this part of the Isle of Sheppey, there was none.
South Downs Shoreline Management Plan https://www.southdowns.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/TLL-19-Beachy-Head-to-Selsey-Shoreline-Management-Plan-2006.pdf
Cuckmere SOS https://www.cuckmerehavensos.org/
Daily Mail story https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3566626/Cuckmere-Haven-s-plea-save-homes-abandoned-waves-stretch-coast-immortalised-artists-teeters-brink-destruction.html
Lapwing Festival https://lapwingfestival.com/#home
Edge of England article https://edgeofengland.com/2018/08/24/episode-four-cuckmere-haven/
Cuckmere abandoned https://www.theguardian.com/film/2008/feb/24/news.flooding
Sussex Life https://www.sussexlife.co.uk/out-about/sussex-life-august-2016-poetry-solution-1-4632206
The Bald Explorer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l08lj3TXEcs
Daily Mail story https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6711011/Why-not-view-longer-Cottages-Seven-Sisters-cliffs-vanish.html
Vintage photos Cuckmere 1965 https://www.gravelroots.net/history/beachy/75.html
Cuckmere 1910 https://www.gravelroots.net/history/beachy/77.html
Cuckmere 1914 https://www.gravelroots.net/history/beachy/80.html
Vintage photographs https://www.thekeep.info/photos-of-eastbournes-past-now-available-to-the-keep/
Flickr search on coastguard cottage at cuckmere have https://www.flickr.com/search/?text=coastguard%20cottages%20cuckmere%20haven
The ‘forgotten’ community left to fall off a cliff https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-53367000
Kent online https://www.kentonline.co.uk/sheerness/news/firing-range-tremors-cant-help-unstable-cliffs-228220/
Kent climate change report https://www.kent.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/12848/climate-change-report.pdf
The Eastchurch Gap Cliff Erosion Community Group https://eastchurchgap.blogspot.com/