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Visiting the Medieval parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Happisburgh, Norfolk, England: coastal erosion challenges

Updated on August 25, 2015
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
St Mary's Church, Happisburgh
St Mary's Church, Happisburgh | Source
St Mary's Church, Happisburgh
St Mary's Church, Happisburgh | Source
Looking north west from the end of Beach Road, Happisburgh. The tower of the 15th century St.Mary's Church can be seen in the background.
Looking north west from the end of Beach Road, Happisburgh. The tower of the 15th century St.Mary's Church can be seen in the background. | Source

The sea and the march of time

Added to the usual issue of preserving the fabric of Medieval buildings for posterity, the parish church of Happisburgh, Norfolk has another, broader matter with which to contend. Look on any map and you will see that the county of Norfolk juts out into the North Sea, where winter storms and sea currents are especially strong, and in places, where the sea cliffs are made of fragile, sedimentary rock, the inexorable process of erosion is in evidence (1).

The current Parish Church of St. Mary dates from the 15th century. An earlier building, dating from 1086 — erected following the Norman Conquest — stood in its vicinity. Its most prominent feature is ithe tall tower, visible from far out to sea, which has over the centuries served as a landmark to shipping.

Gothic features at this stone building are conspicuous. These include solid flying buttresses and pointed, arched windows. The interior of the building possesses an octagonal font, hundreds of years old.

Happisburgh and its beaches, together with neighbouring Walcott, are popular with vacationers during the summer months, but during winter the character of the locality can seem rather bleak and isolated, because of the buffeting winds and heavy seas.

In the light of the real fears regarding the dangers of coastal erosion, one wonders for how much longer the tower of the Parish Church of St. Mary will continue to be a landmark to shipping?

NB: Please note that Happisburgh is pronounced: 'Hayesboro'! (English villages would not be as quaint if some of them did not have such quirks...) Interestingly, some treacherous sandbanks off the coast near Happisburgh are referred to by the village's name, but on maritime charts a variety of spellings are commonly seen, many of them omitting the curious '-pp-' letters in the middle of the land-based version of the name! Not a laughing matter, however, are the dangers posed by the sandbanks: they have claimed many ships down the years.

August 24, 2015


(1) Talk of losing villages to the sea is not mere scaremongering: along the coast of East Anglia, for example, at Dunwich, Suffolk, a sizeable town has over the centuries almost completely been lost to the eroding waters of the North Sea.

Map location of Norwich, Norfolk
Map location of Norwich, Norfolk | Source

Also worth seeing

In Happisburgh itself, its lighthouse, dating from 1790, is a local landmark, painted in distinctive red and white stripes.

At Walcott (distance: approx. 3 kilometres), All Saints Parish Church, executed in stone, dates from the 14th century. For centuries the village was linked with the parish of Happisburgh, but is now administered separately.

How to get there: United Airlines flies to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Norwich is served by rail from London Liverpool Street Station. Happisburgh is 277.4 kilometers from Heathrow Airport. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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