Suffolk has some of the youngest and softest rocks in the UK and for this reason it is one of the UK’s most vulnerable coastlines. The ‘oldest’ rocks are London Clay laid down 50 million years ago. Much of the area consists of Crag laid down 1.5 – 4 million years ago – young in geological terms! The top layer of sand and soil is from the ice age. It is this combination of soft rock which has lead to the serious erosion which has threatened the Suffolk Coast.
For centuries the people of Suffolk have made attempts to control the rate at which the county disappears under the sea. Early defences, from the Victorian era onwards, have allowed the construction of seaside resorts like Southwold and Felixstowe and helped to shape the Suffolk Coast as we see it today.
In 1953 serious floods damaged the region. Walls and barriers were put up to protect the coastal towns suffering further damage from similar events. The impact of the flood shocked the region – lives were lost and homes destroyed. Today in the coastal village of Snape washed-away flood defence walls can still be seen reaching out into the estuary from the events of 1953. From then onwards hard defences including groynes, concrete piles and sea and river walls were put in place.
Today the hundreds of miles of 20th century coastal erosion defences are becoming out of date and are in constant need of maintenance. The problem is in part worsened, paradoxically, by the beauty and importance of Suffolk’s miles of AONBs. Most of Suffolk’s river estuaries are surrounded by river walls – the land reclaimed for agriculture in the valleys. These natural defences prevent flooding in important areas but to the detriment of the mudflats and salt marshes around them which are most important for wildlife. The gradual loss of these areas of outstanding beauty is sadly inevitable.
Along the coast there is plenty of evidence of towns already lost to the sea. The village of Dunwich was once one of the UK’s largest towns and within residents’ living memories more of the village has been lost to the sea. The village of Covehithe between Lowestoft and Southwold was also probably a thriving port in the Middle Ages and the Church of St Andrew there would have rivalled Southwold and Blythburgh. Ordinance surveys between 1830 – 2000 show that the coastline at this point has retreated by some 500m, indicating that it has perhaps retreated a couple of miles since the Middle Ages when so many of the towns along the Suffolk Coast were thriving ports. Some estimates suggests that in 50 years time the hamlet of Covehithe will have disappeared completely.
New initiatives in Suffolk such as Suffolk Coast Futures seek to reduce the risks of coastal erosion to the people and developed historic and natural environments on the Suffolk Coast. By assessing the effectiveness and longevity of existing coastal defences and deciding on management plans, Suffolk Coast Futures work to create solutions and defences which operate most effectively in line with the rate of erosion here. Bill Parker, Suffolk Coast ICZM Initiative Office, says that “there is a need to plan now for long-term climate change affecting the East Coast”.
Photo Credit: Martin Pettitt