‘The fear has properly set in’: how it feels to watch my home town disappear into the sea | Coastlines

A decade ago, on my friend’s birthday, we took a huge tent and stayed the night at our local campsite. We laughed as we put the tent up where the grass met the shingle beach, the sunshine glistening on the water, the sound of the waves scraping the stones. I remember a night of ghost stories, teenage gossip and chasing each other with seaweed.

But the land where we pitched our tent is no longer there. It’s somewhere in the North Sea.

My home town, Inverbervie, on the north-east coast of Scotland, is disappearing. The beachfront I played along as a child, where I collected driftwood and chased waves, looks very different now. Standing on the shingle, the coastal path that once led me safely to the shore has been mercilessly carved away by the sea. Buried second world war pillboxes have been exposed and the bridges I paddled under have almost been engulfed by water.

The Inverbervie Community caravan park is at the heart of the community – managed by locals, it is the place where they go for Bonfire Night and summer galas. The manager, Alick Smith, a 73-year-old volunteer, has seen the change first-hand over the past 45 years. He remembers a time, not too long ago, when fishers landed with full nets of salmon and locals paddled freely in the shallow basin where the River Bervie met the sea.

I visited him before and after Storm Gerrit, at the end of December. On my second visit, the paths I had walked a week earlier had disappeared. He told me to make sure I didn’t slip on the sea-soaked remnants of the campsite. My boots got tangled in the seaweed scattered on the road. Smith had measured the land lost at the campsite. Thirteen metres had gone in the space of a year, he said – half the pitch.

Alick Smith at the campsite at Inverbervie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The campsite started shrinking – dramatically – in November 2022. North-east Scotland saw a month’s worth of rain in two days. Whipped by the wind, the flood waters broke the banks of the Bervie. All we could do was watch. We thought it was a one-off, but the storms keep coming.

Babet, Debi, Gerrit, Henk, Isha. These days the storms arrive like angry guests every couple of weeks from October until March. We used to get the occasional reprieve, but not any more. Babet, last October, was when the fear properly set in. No one could remember seeing waves that high. We secured what we could, got out the sandbags and hoped for the best.

When we came up for air, more of the campsite was gone. The beach was strewn with old fishing nets and rubbish dredged up from the deep and the coastal path was broken, land snatched by the waves. No one outside the town seemed to care, or even notice.

The Queens pub in Inverbervie hasn’t changed since I was a child. The walls are still decorated with old pictures of the town. The laminated menu offers fresh haddock and chips. An old schoolfriend, Abbie Sclater, walks in and we fall into talking about the storms. “We’ll see how much more of the beach disappears the more storms we get,” she says. “Because it’s not if, it’s when.”

Rachel Keenan with Inverbervie in the background.

It’s not just the land she is worried about – it’s people’s lives. In October, the body of 61-year-old Peter Pelling was found three days after Babet blew itself out, 13 miles from Inverbervie in Marykirk. The road had disappeared beneath him, sweeping his car away under water. “It’s scary,” says Sclater. “So much can change in such little time to make a place totally different. Or more dangerous.”

Inverbervie, population 2,310, is a place few have heard of, even in Scotland. Built on fishing and the textile trade, it’s now a commuter town for Aberdeen’s oil and gas industry. People here don’t fear bad weather. We are taught to respect the unpredictability of the North Sea; strong winds and heavy rain are a normal Wednesday. But suddenly we are asking: what are we going to do?

Each storm now requires an extensive clear-up as the waves and tide reach new heights. For days afterwards, sand, shingle, seaweed and dead fish litter the roads near the beachfront.

We were warned last year to expect a record-breaking storm season. Maybe we would make the news again, we thought. When Babet hit, we got a mention for winds that reached 77mph. Just two months later, during Gerrit, the fiercest gale was measured at 86mph.

The growing intensity of our storms is fuelled by global heating, says Dr Larissa Naylor, a professor of geomorphology and environmental geography at the University of Glasgow. Oceans absorb most of our greenhouse gases. As they get warmer and expand, bad weather is turbo-charged so that, instead of a few blustery days, we get a named storm. A name means a threat, an attack on the land and – often – more inroads by the sea.

It’s not just Inverbervie, of course. From Fiji to the Florida Keys, the Netherlands to the Bahamas, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather pose an existential threat.

In the coastal town of Montrose, just a 25-minute drive from Inverbervie, the sea has advanced 70 metres in the past 30 years. Tommy Stewart, an independent councillor, is bleak about the town’s future. “I would give Montrose another three years maximum and I think it’ll be under. The defences will breach if they don’t do anything.”

Back in Inverbervie, the Conservative councillor George Carr has been lobbying about coastal erosion in the area since he was elected in 2007. But he insists the climate crisis has nothing to do with it. According to Carr, the fault is with the Scottish government, for not providing enough funding for coastal maintenance in the form of “rock armour” walls – basically, lines of huge boulders to absorb the force of waves. “There was a fisherman who showed me where the rock armour should go, how it should be finished off and how that prevents the effect of the sea to a large extent from eroding the beach,” he says. “But that work was never done.”

Inverbervie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Carr also argues that vital shingle maintenance – which would move pebbles from one end of the beach to the other to soften the impact of the waves – should be done annually, but funding has not been prioritised by the Scottish government. In March, Aberdeenshire council finally undertook some of the shingle maintenance the community council had been fighting for. (The last time any of this work took place was 2018.) But locals say it was too little, too late.

For many years, most people in Inverbervie agreed with Carr that this was a local problem. But with each centimetre of the town that is lost to the sea, more are recognising that while maintenance may help with the immediate danger, it won’t fix the crisis looming on the horizon.

When I go to see the community councillor Margaret Gray, 75, we talk about the weather. Gray, who has lived in Inverbervie her whole life, is no climate activist, but she can see something is going on. “I can’t think of rain going on the way it has done,” she says, looking out of the window. “I’m not a scientist, but who can argue with them? I’d like to argue, say it’s not happening, it’s not true, but winters do seem to be milder and there’s not the same amount of snow and ice.” She has never seen the waves breach the sea defences this badly.

Spend any time researching coastal erosion in Inverbervie and you are likely to find your patience, much like the coast, wearing thin. It doesn’t matter whom you ask: it’s always someone else’s fault. Local people blame Aberdeenshire council; the council blames the Scottish government; the Scottish government blames the UK government.

When I ask Aberdeenshire council what it is doing to prevent further erosion, it says it is “not under any statutory obligation to take immediate action”, but that it remains committed to helping communities if the work is justified. Its investigations found “no need” for rock armour. As for the state of the coastal path, that has “been reported to the relevant service for an appropriate course of action”.

Margaret Gray examines coastal erosion at Inverbervie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

But the council is also very clear about the obstacle to getting anything done: “Any award of contract will be subject to the council having available funding to carry out the works.” In January, it said it needed to make cuts because of an estimated budget gap of £66.8m. It has since announced it is even cutting school crossing patrollers.

In April, in an email to members of the Inverbervie community council, Aberdeenshire council said it was “not technically and financially in a position to positively defend and/or protect the area used by the caravan park for caravans and tents”. It suggested the erosion was down to “natural factors” and says that current predictive mapping, which takes the climate crisis into account, shows “it is probable that this issue will worsen in future years”.

But even if the local authority acted now in Inverbervie – even if further work on coastal defences started tomorrow – it’s too late, according to Naylor. We can’t hold back the rising sea – we just have to adapt to it. The campsite could be given a temporary reprieve, but that is all. “This location is too vulnerable,” she says. “It may be that individuals are more directly affected than others, but it is an issue for the community.”

Aberdeenshire council argues that, in any case, what is happening to the campsite isn’t its responsibility. It is responsible only for existing coastal protection built by the council and there are “no council structures associated with the caravan park”.

Coastal defences and erosion visible at Montrose. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

On a video call from Westminster, Andrew Bowie, the Conservative MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, which includes Inverbervie, and a junior minister in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, agrees that more should be done to protect communities from storms and erosion. “The situation around Inverbervie is a cautionary tale about coastal erosion in Scotland,” he says. He points to funding provided 15 years ago to protect a nearby area from a landslip. When I check that out, I find that the funding was given to the Bervie Braes in Stonehaven, a 15-minute drive along the coast.

He says any funding would come at a UK level, but adds that, in the meantime, “taking action to mitigate climate change and to reduce our carbon emissions and to prevent more extreme weather events will absolutely have a positive impact”.

Just in case the climate emergency doesn’t miraculously sort itself out, Inverbervie’s inhabitants have done what they can to help themselves. They have cleaned out the drains after storms, replanted flowers, removed the debris from the roads and paths. In desperation, they also raised £1,400 so they could buy a lorry-load of rock armour to protect a small section of the coast.

It wasn’t enough. Last month was Scotland’s wettest April since 1947. The rain in Inverbervie was incessant. Towards the end of the month, Smith sent me a photo of the campsite, closed to the public and almost completely submerged by the sea. It has since tentatively reopened – but for how long?

It makes me think of all those moments in my childhood that I took for granted: the camping trips, the beachcombing, the paddling. In my lifetime, we have already lost so much. What will today’s children lose in theirs?

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