The times they are a-changin’ for the coastline

Grasses blowing on the sand at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria © Joe Cornish

Grasses blowing on the sand at Sandscale Haws, Cumbria

This winter has seen some of the worst storms in living memory with many coastal places being pounded by the weather and fierce seas. Nature writer, Patrick Barkham, reflects on the changing British coastline.

'It’s hard to describe that feeling when you go to a favourite beach and find it reshaped by the sea.

After the winter storms, I visited Wells-next-the-Sea and was completely disorientated by the virtual disappearance of the outermost dune. I’d played here as a boy and proposed marriage here too, and now it was gone.

It’s hard not to experience such change as loss. I wanted my old beach back.

Many of us will be going through similar experiences after the winter storms have changed our coastline, in some cases beyond recognition. To see the much-loved railway to Cornwall swinging like a rope bridge at Dawlish is a shock but it is a man-made structure. It is far more disturbing to find natural features we assume to be immortal, such as the rock arch at Porthcothan Bay, Cornwall, and the great stack on the south side of Portland, in Dorset, destroyed by the raging sea.

For the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to visit as much of the 742 miles of coastline protected by the National Trust as I can to research a book which will help celebrate the fiftieth birthday of the Trust’s brilliant Neptune Coastline Campaign next year. I may have to retrace my steps because so many of the special places I’ve seen have been transformed by the storms!

I arrived at Birling Gap by the Seven Sisters last summer as the finishing touches were being put on the Trust’s chic new café and education centre. This building has been cleverly designed to be gradually shifted away from the crumbling cliffs as they erode but the Trust is already having to remove its sun lounge and ice cream parlour after seven years of erosion in just two months.

Like access to Birling Gap beach, the main path to Rhossili, that great surf beach on the Gower, has been battered by the storms and fifty metres has washed away. When storms hit, in many places coast paths are the first to go, and for an organisation committed to public access like the Trust, this is a particular headache.

However, the changes storms bring have their upsides too – if we allow them to happen.

From what I’ve seen, the Trust’s approach to coastal management is to permit natural processes of erosion and accretion to occur where possible. So at Brownsea Island, for example, newly eroded material from crumbling cliffs is finding its way along the shore and building up on its beaches. Reuben Hawkwood, head ranger for the island, hopes that the south shore beaches will have more sand on them than they’ve had for some time.

Sand dunes and salt marshes are naturally constantly shifting environments and Sandscale Haws on the Cumbrian coast, for instance, has benefitted from storms creating new blowouts and bare patches which will suit rare pioneering plants and insects.

Wild things often cope better with wild weather than we do. Like everyone, I struggle with change but I think the aftermath of the storms of 2013/14 will encourage us to adapt, like nature does, rather than always seek to defy the sea. Our coastline wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t always changing.'

You can follow Patrick Barkham on twitter via @Patrick_Barkham. Patrick’s new book on our Neptune Coastline Campaign will be out in spring 2015 and his latest book ‘Badgerlands’ is out in hardback now.