I went to Happisburgh simply because of the name. Intriguingly, it’s pronounced ‘Haze-bruh’ but I shall always pronounce it Happys-berg in my head. I stayed at Manor Caravan Park for two nights which was lovely. I had a view of the Grade I Listed church and the lighthouse, and the sea was just a fifteen-minute walk away.
I’ve read about houses sliding into the sea and remember seeing Happisburgh on the news. But nothing prepared me for actually being there.
The beach is shallow and sandy and the shoreline has boulders in places, and old groynes and timber posts a little out to sea – all to try to protect the village. The cliffs are made of a sandy clay and they look so fragile. Mounds of cliff top sits on the beach where it has broken away, the grassy clumps looking out of place.
Signs warn about getting too close to the cliff edge – they say to stay at least five metres away, but I wonder how old the signs are because the path runs precariously close in places. As I walked along the cliff, I came to a row of houses that looked to be so close to the edge. I thought they might be abandoned but, shockingly, they still appear to be inhabited. It made me shiver and worry. At what point do you decide to abandon your home? There is no government compensation or rehoming scheme – everything is destined to be lost, claimed by the sea.
The coast is eroding at an average of two metres a year. Over the last twenty years, thirty-five houses in Happisburgh have been lost to coastal erosion. The village has a population of just 900.
That evening, the wind picked up and rain set in. I could see the lighthouse blinking softly in the gloom, and Jesamine was swayed by the gusts. I closed the curtains against the night and as I drifted into sleep I thought of those residents near the cliff’s edge. Were they able to sleep, or did they stay awake, keeping watch? Did every creak make their heart lurch and make them want to run? Unaware that their houses had been built on shifting sand, and consequently, their lives, too, were they clinging desperately, hoping for the best?
I’d wanted to have a happy time in Happisburgh, and mostly I did. I had lunch at Hill House Inn where I got chatting to a lovely young family. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write one of his Sherlock Holmes adventures here. The village has also been visited by Turner, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Sir Ernest Shackleton, Sir John Betjeman, and the Queen Mother.
Tim would’ve liked it here, I’m sure of it. And I missed him very much. It’s alright this driving to places and walking and seeing things. It’s alright spending my evenings with the radio on and writing or reading…. filling every little piece of time to stave off the yawning chasm of loneliness threatening to swallow me up. Although it’s alright, it’s exhausting. I miss the time spent sitting back in companionable silence, or chatting about the day. I miss times spent laughing at a shared joke needing no explanation. It seems that I keep busy to stave off the emptiness – I do things to try to fill the ragged crater that is all that remains from when he was taken.
While I was doing my final washing up at the campsite, a man disregarded social distancing and took a place next to me. He glibly informed me that it was ‘all b*ll*cks’ and if he had coronavirus, he wouldn’t be at the campsite. He told me that he works at Newmarket and he’s seen how people panic about Strangles in horses but there’s nothing you can do about it; you have to let it take its course. He said that Covid-19 is the same and there is no point in social distancing. I said I’d lost my husband last year and I couldn’t bear it if I lost one of my children and that one is classed as vulnerable. He scoffed and said: ‘It don’t maaa-er. If yer get it yer get it. Corse there’ll be fatalities. It’s only natural. People are just selfish.’ I don’t think he saw the irony. I shut up and let him rattle on.
I left Happisburgh trembling and tearful. I drove along the coast to Eccles on Sea where I was informed by a local that it’s a private estate and it’s impossible to park there. On I went to California where there were no spaces and all I saw was a sea of holiday chalets.
At Winterton-on-Sea I once again found calm. The lady in the parking kiosk was friendly and the dunes were spectacular. I spent an hour walking along the beach, letting the sun and wind caress my face, and the softly breaking waves soothe my mind. I was so engrossed in the moment that I didn’t see the wave curling over my feet. Never mind. Canvas shoes soon dry out.
I arrived home exhausted and tearful. Yesterday was spent doing chores and today I had booked to go on a workshop. But after a night of insomnia my nerves are on edge and I’m opting to stay in bed for the day. I can’t risk an offhand comment that will send me sliding into the sea, scrabbling in the sand to keep my head above water and stay ‘normal’. I know that the gentleman who’s running the workshop is lovely and kind. But what if there’s someone there like washing-up-man?
I’m just not strong enough right now. But tomorrow, well it’s a new day. And tomorrow I’m grateful for work at a coffee shop. Tomorrow, I shall do my best to have my sunny side up.