Continental Shift

Storms, floods, and rising tides threaten many historic structures in the United Kingdom. So why is Britain’s National Trust so willing to let those buildings go?

September/October 2006

On the south coast of England, about 50 miles from London, a range of white chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters forms a dramatic barrier against the surging English Channel. The hamlet of Birling Gap is located there, along an undeveloped stretch of coastline, and perched upon a cliff, not 20 feet from its edge, is a line of concrete cottages running perpendicular to the shore. Eight cottages once stood along that row. Three have been demolished over the past 30 years. Now those that remain may suffer a similar fate.

The problem is that the Seven Sisters cliffs are eroding by as much as three feet per year. In 1999, a group of residents in the area, hoping to combat this erosion, petitioned the local planning board to construct a rock wall on the beach below the houses. People still inhabit the cottages, built in 1878 for members of the British coast guard, and the structures themselves have become cultural symbols of the hamlet.

But an agency of the British government argued that a barrier would not only fail to protect the cottages but would also harm the environment. In the end, the organization that owns three of the cottages (it also owns the stretch of coastline upon which all the structures stand) decided not to preserve them. It subsequently purchased the most vulnerable cottage, located just 16 feet from the cliff's edge, and demolished it at a cost of £30,000, or about $55,000.

What might surprise many Americans is the identity of that owner: none other than Britain's National Trust, a private nonprofit organization whose charge it is to protect historic structures, gardens, parks, archaeological sites, and many other places. "It was our view," says Jonathan Light, the Trust's area manager for East Sussex, "that you would have to build longer and longer defenses that would just move the problem rather than prevent it. Also, the construction and visual impact would damage the natural beauty of the area. It was quite controversial and continues to be, as in any situation where you have to make difficult environmental decisions concerning people's homes."

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