'And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will.'

Philip Larkin, "Aubade"


Losing your home is traumatic. Not moving from a home, but losing it, having it destroyed.

If we see people on news reports losing their homes as a result of fire, flood or accident, we feel sympathy for them. We empathise with them and imagine what it would be like if we were in their shoes.

We are also glad that we are not them or share their vulnerability. But every day, the gap between the vulnerable and the invulnerable gets smaller. All of us inch closer and closer to vulnerability.


The story of climate change tends to be told in terms of the exotic.

We know that the people of Kiribati will lose their island nation in the next few decades. Their lives are far removed from ours. We can picture the blue sea and palm trees, but living like this is a dream that most of us will not fulfill.

Similarly, the loss of glaciers, polar bears and virgin forest are the loss of things that many people have never seen or experienced. These things are remote, exotic and unknown.


The South East of England is prosperous and safe. It is home to many wealthy and secure people. It's not an area where people have to battle the elements. At least until now.

Climate change is an amplifier of risk. An area that might have been relatively safe to live in becomes more dangerous with the advent of climate change. Even the South East of England.


I first visited Cuckmere Haven as a little boy during the summer holidays. It is wild and undeveloped. The human traces on the landscape seem to be in constant retreat. It's all about shingle, the sea, cliffs and the wind.

Yet people do live here, in the Coastguard Cottages that cling to the beginning of the white cliffs that extend west to Seaford. The white cliffs are made of chalk, distinctive but softer than pretty much any other rock.


Since they were built in 1822, more than 30 metres of the cottage's cliff-top gardens have fallen into the sea. Some of the cottages are close to the cliff edge, time is running out.

As well as being homes, these cottages are a tourist attraction. Visitors from all over the world come to see and re-photograph the iconic view, looking east with the cottages dropping down the hillside to the Seven Sisters in the background.


The owners of these cottages are fighting back.

They are raising funds and obtaining planning permission to build new sea defences to protect their homes. They have to do this as the authorities have decided to abandon this area to the elements. Public money to combat the effects of climate change is scarce and concentrated on work to protect highly built-up areas. Cuckmere Haven is considered uninhabited and so no longer receives maintenance funding. The rising seas, more powerful storms and loss of maintenance will condemn the area to flood permanently over the next few decades. Part of this process will be the undermining of the cliffs and the gradual fall of the cottages unless the owners are successful in saving them.


Throughout Kent, East and West Sussex and Hampshire, there are areas of coast and low-lying land that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These areas will become battlegrounds; against the force of the storms and the sea, and for the allocation of resources to save communities.


On the Isle of Sheppey, this battle has already commenced.


The Surf Crescent area is an eclectic mix of homes of different styles and sizes, linked by unmade roads. It used to be possible to walk to the end of Surf Crescent, then either descend a steep path to the beach, or turn right into First Avenue and continue away from the cliff edge. These options are no longer available since Cliffhanger, the home at the junction of the two roads, collapsed, taking the road, path and much of the clifftop with it. Now both roads end with builders fences displaying Danger signs.


Local and national newspapers carried the lurid story of the owner evacuating her family as the house began to collapse around them. Mercifully, no one was hurt, but this was no brush with misfortune, it was a plunge into the conflict engulfing coastlines the world over.

Home falls after cliff edge collapse on Isle of Sheppey 

The home was not insured, so there is no money to rebuild or even recover treasured possessions from the hole into which they have fallen. The family are in local authority accommodation on the island. Their car lies 10 metres below road level with the house and its contents on top.


Surf Crescent and First Avenue are private roads, unadopted by the local authority. Local officials visited the scene to assess the situation. They declared that the disaster was caused by the collapse of the soft clay cliffs that lead down to the sea. They pronounced that this was natural processes at work, exaggerated by the more violent storms associated with climate change. This was the new normal, things would get worse and the residents of Surf Crescent were on their own. No public money would be forthcoming to repair or protect.


The locals were, unsurprisingly, not happy about this response. They point out that Cliffhanger has not fallen onto the beach, rather into a hole which has opened up at the top of the cliff. They believe that the hole beneath the house was the result of water leaks creating a cavern, into which the house fell. The implication of this account is that there is culpability with the utility companies.

The locals have an energetic spokesman in the person of Malcolm Newell. He showed me the damage and explained what the locals were doing to try and strengthen their position.


Besides the personal and financial implications of this disaster, there is a strong symbolic element.

Climate change is a global issue, communities all over the world, rich and poor, will be affected. We should respond as a global community, acknowledging that a disaster suffered by one, is suffered by all. The response of local authorities in South East England has been disappointing, choosing to turn their backs on these people rather than helping. Is this what we can expect as the disasters multiply; indifference and rejection?


Malcolm and his neighbours, along with the Coastguard Cottage owners are in the frontline of the battle against the effects of climate change. Soon many more of us will join them. The success of these coastal dwellers in getting recognition and help will set the tone for the handling of coastal disasters.


Pictures of the North Western Glacier and seals on an ice floe (both Kenai, Alaska) by Chris Jerrey, ©2018

Black and white picture of Coastguard Cottages: postcard posted in 1965, from the author's collection.

All other pictures by Chris Jerrey, ©2019, ©2020

Cuckmere Haven SOS website 

Eastchurch Action Group (Isle of Sheppey website