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Monday, 24 November 2014

The lost villages of East Anglia and Zeeland

Last year at this time, we made our way across East Anglia to the Norfolk Broads, driving over vast empty spaces that stretched out to the horizon and on past homes marooned on the ripples of black ploughed up land like becalmed ships at sea. Crossing the wastelands, the feeling of being at sea was enhanced by the roll of the road – our car now travelling over a waterlogged, shifting landscape. Ahead, nothing interrupted the ocean of scruffy wetlands but for the odd isolated windmill, sails spread out to embrace big skies.
We were on our way to Norfolk and Suffolk for a week of cycling and canoeing, and exploration of seaside towns and villages like Southwold and Aldeburgh; echoing the fenland bleakness, on the cusp of winter.
We visited Aldeburgh on a cold, bright day in November: fishing boats shored up on the pebbled beach; guest houses hunkering down for winter. The beach was only a place for a brisk walk; head down against the icy wind, coats pulled close around the neck. As we waded through the pebbles, we came to a long spit with a Martello tower in the distance. We headed out onto the spit towards it. Other than the lookout, there was just a boatyard and boathouse - where once there’d been a thriving boatyard, a village and a long row of store huts. The last house in Slaughden was called ‘The Hazard’, because of the frequent storms. Once a thriving farm, it eventually lost its 30 acres to the sea - a farmhouse without its land. A non-farming family took it over in 1922, but in a space of a few years they’d been flooded out four times. In 1926, the storm was so severe; the inhabitants woke up to find the shingle had reached the top floor! In the Great Storm of 1953 the rest of the village succumbed to the sea and the broad slice of land was reduced to a narrow spit.
At the end of our week on the Broads, we took the coastal road home. We stopped off at Sea Palling, another seaside resort devastated by the storm of ‘53. The sea had breached and ripped through a section of the protecting sand dunes and carried away the Longshore CafĂ©, a bakery, general store and several homes. Villagers clung to the roofs of their homes as the ocean engulfed them, waiting to be rescued. Seven people died and thousands of acres of land were destroyed.
Further along at Happisburgh, we could see how nature had taken great ‘bites’ out the land. The neighbouring medieval village of Whimpwell had long surrendered to the sea, only surviving in the names of lanes and buildings.
A few weeks after returning home, a severe storm, combined with a spring tide, caused devastation again - a storm as severe as the storm of 1953. But unlike 1953, there was no loss of life this time- and less damage -thanks to advances in meteorology and technology. None the less, three properties fell into the sea, and another four were badly damaged.  The sea continues to claim back.
Roll on a year, and we’re in Zeeland in the Netherlands, spending another week cycling and exploring. Learning about the impact of the Great Storm of 1953 in East Anglia a year earlier, I had not given a thought to the devastation across the sea in the Netherlands. Nearly two thousand people lost their lives here – and tens of thousands lost their homes. The Dutch were determined never to let a catastrophe of this scale happen again.
Patrick, my son, and I saw this as we cycled across a bridge over the Oosterschelde in the mist, seven long miles following the line of the storm surge barrier and dam. And of this, almost three miles of massive sleuse gates that can be closed at a moment’s notice.
We cycled on to Zierikzee, the land flat, flat, flat; the sea always out of sight on the other side of the dyke. Beyond the town, the Watersnood Museum tells the story of the 1953 flood, its cost, and the massive building programme of 13 delta works across the area. One exhibit of a trashed room is accompanied by the words: We lost everything in one fell swoop. From our wedding photos to the bread bin: all gone.
Cycling back over the Zeelandbrug, and along the coast, it struck me that this bleak, but strangely poetic landscape, echoing East Anglia across the sea, holds a fragile beauty.

First published on Wanderlust's web mag on my regular blog, Freewheeling

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