Life in clifftop homes ‘falling into the sea’ amid the climate crisis


Paul Griew always knew his home, which sits on top of a cliff in Devon, would not last forever.

When he bought it in the late 1990s, he worked out it would take 300 years for the crumbling cliff to reach his property.

But the rate of erosion has since sped up. “It’s 30 years at best at the moment,” the retired 73-year-old tells The Independent from his living room overlooking the sea.

His house in Sidmouth is one of many across the UK whose lifespan will be determined by how quickly the cliff on which it sits crumbles.

The Climate Change Committee – which advises the government – has warned more than 100,000 properties could be at risk of coastal erosion by 2080.

Paul Griew has lost around 20 meters from his garden since buying his Devon house


Since Mr Griew has lived in his house on Cliff Road, around 20 meters of his garden- including a summer house – he has tumbled into the English Channel.

When the first section went, the 73-year-old rushed to check the gardener – who had been there not long before – had left. “I told him and he had to sit down,” he says.

Five minutes later, the summer house followed over the side of the cliff.

Mr Griew says he was just about to go and collect some stuff from it when the bit beyond it collapsed. “And I didn’t, fortunately.”

“I was just about to go into the shed when the bit beyond it collapsed to get out some of the stuff in there. And I didn’t, fortunately.”

Residents in Sidmouth are facing the threat of coastal erosion

(Google Maps)

Even so, the retired consultant says he does not worry too much about getting caught up in erosion “It happens once every six years and you lose five or six metres. So the chances of it going when you’re there is quite low.”

He adds: “I tend to keep at least a meter away from the edge anyway.”

While he would lose 10cm every year of his garden when he first bought it, it is now more like one metre.

Mr Griew says one of the causes is flood defenses set up to protect the town of Sidmouth had prevented the longshore drift of shingle – a natural defense against coastal erosion – from turning up at the base of the cliff.

A section of Paul Griew’s garden fell off the cliff several years ago


The Environment Agency has also warned the risk of coastal erosion is growing as sea levels rise and the frequency of storms increases due to the climate crisis.

But for Maria and Richard Dudley, who live further up the road lined with large seaview houses, the threat is a small price to pay for a house with its scenic position.

“Where else would you get this frontline view for less than a million?” Maria asks from her garden backing out onto the sea.

Richard and Maria Dudley’s seaview in Sidmouth


She explains the garden has lost just a meter of its 60-meter length since they bought the property around seven years ago.

Her husband tells The Independent coastal erosion was “not a problem”. However, he was fed up with the publicity.

Another resident, Jasmine Reeves, says house prices were being driven down by the crumbling landscape – but put this down to a lack of protection rather than media attention.

The 31-year-old says her house – which lost its orchard over the side of the cliff – has been valued at around £750,000. “But the properties around here would go for more than that if it wasn’t for the cliff,” she adds.

The house where Jasmine Reeves lives lost an orchard over the side of the cliff


But this isn’t a problem for Mr Griew, who is not thinking about selling his house – despite the fact it could disappear into the sea within the next few decades.

That isn’t to say its estimated lifespan of 30 years does not bother him. It could always end up being faster than that and it would be nice to pass the house onto his children, he says.

“But also it’s a lovely position,” he says, as the sea gleams through the huge glass doors at the back of his house. “It’s worth keeping houses along here.”

After years of back and forth between different agencies, engineers, consultants and the council, there are plans for protections including several meters of shingle on the beach and groynes, Mr Griew says.

“We’re told summer of 2023 is a likely start date, but I’m not holding my breath at the moment,” he adds.

An East Devon District Council spokesperson said the gradual erosion of the East Beach cliffs was “natural and unpredictable” as the rocks are soft and prone to falls – although periods of heavy rain can increase the rate.

Experts have suggested heavier and more frequent storms due to the climate crisis, more rainfall draining into the top, the collapse of an abandoned railway tunnel, manmade structures on the promenade and the Sidmouth flood defenses have all been suggested as reasons behind the increased cliff erosion . “Any of these could be the cause or it may be simply a combination of all of them,” they said.

The council has faced delays to its beach management plan while trying to secure extra funding and is aiming to start work on the £14m project in 2024, the spokesperson added.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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