Fragile boundaries: Happisburgh

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Where we choose to live on the margins or wherever you have a margin between two types of man-made and natural landscape, there is often a greater awareness of mortality or at least the fragile boundaries between life and death.

The coastal village of Happisburgh in Norfolk and its residents have been under the imminent threat of coastal erosion for over sixty years. Residencies near the coast regularly experience severe erosion and many homes that were once 20 feet from the sea now sit at the edge of a cliff. Sea defenses were built in 1959 to stop the tide from eating away at the coast. Changes in government policy, however, have discontinued management of coastal erosion in North Norfolk as well as many other areas around the country. Many of these residencies, therefore  will inevitably be lost into the sea.

Happisburgh is an example of coastal erosion that is occurring around the UK. Coastal erosion is seen as an example of climate change, which is causing sea levels to rise, and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. After the last ice age, as ice melted away from the northern parts of Britain, land levels began to rise.  At the same time, land began to fall in the south of the country. This is still happening at a rate of a couple of millimetres per year. These combined processes have lead to an increase in coastal erosion in some areas, threatening coastal communities who may be forced to move and live further inland.

Without renewed and improved sea defenses, Happisburgh may one day disappear entirely. As a landscape, Happisburgh resembles Omaha beach littered with the debris of cliff top buildings. Drainage pipes, electrical wires and foundations protrude above dog walkers heads. Relatively ignored, the Village reflects our current condition, becoming a living, yet temporary memorial of an older way of life when we could live and work anyway along the coastline.

Mirroring the effects of this erosion, I captured sounds and images of the location using Kodachrome Super 8 and analogue tape. The films during and after processing were subjected to and mixed with Seawater and sand from the same coastal area. The loss of areas of the image and the aggressive manipulation of the surface of the film reflecting the tragic and unstoppable demise of the landscape.

The title comes from the third and final section of W.G. Sebald’s long poem After Nature  as I was struck by the solemness of the landscape. I had heard tales of people in their 60’s buying houses at low prices along the cliff tops. Their reasoning was that they may as well spend out their last days with the ultimate of sea views.

There are many stories and enigmas to be discovered about the Sea and the coastal communities that run its length. In Sebald’s poem some of the desolation and inevitability of the feeling of Happisburgh seemed drawn out.

‘No, here we can write no postcards, can’t even get out of the car. Tell me, child, is your heart as heavy as mine is, year after year a pebble bank raised by the waves of the sea all the way to the North, every stone a dead soul and this sky so grey?’

Sebald reflected often on the ability of Nature to reflect brutality alongside beauty and that the role of the artist was to document this, but also through association reflect the intertextual nature of a scene or moment in history.

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