Story has it that submerged beneath Cardigan Bay, off the west coast of Wales, is the once fertile land of Cantre’r Gwaelod, the great plain of one hundred villages. So fertile it was that one acre of its fields was said to be worth four elsewhere. Ruled over by King Gwyddno Garanhir, a great wall ran the length of the kingdom and held back the ocean beyond. A reluctant king, Gwyddno was often to be found mooching about on the hills above Barmouth writing ballads, and the upkeep of the wall was entrusted to a man named Seithenyn. Seithenyn was far more interested in wine and women than he was in patrolling the coastal defences, and over time the wall fell into disrepair. One night a great storm blew in from the ocean, and Seithenyn, who should have been manning the sluice gates, was far too drunk to notice.
That all seems unlikely, standing here, looking out across the water. But there have been sunken buildings found beneath the bay, and a petrified forest of oak and birch. There are shingle reefs that stretch for ten or twenty miles that you can walk out along at the lowest of spring tides. They say that they are the remains of the old sea walls, all that is left behind from when they breached. Similar stories run the length of the Celtic coast, Lyonesse off Cornwall, Ys off Brittany, cities lost to the sea because of man’s hedonism and hubris. And they say that off these coasts you can still hear the bells of the submerged churches, sloshing about in the hours before the storm. Lights shining up through the waters’ depths, the clatter of horses’ hooves.
This edge, where the ocean meets the land, has always been in flux. As the earth grows ever warmer, as glaciers melt and calve, as seas warm and expand, the tide lines are creeping up. When it is deemed no longer possible to maintain existing defences, whether practically or economically, the most prudent course of action is to cut your losses and find a new line of defence, usually higher up, usually further inland. The planners call this managed retreat. It has happened in several places in England – in Sussex, Essex and Somerset – but until now only on farmland and nature reserve. Nowhere in Britain has this yet happened to an entire community.
Fairbourne, perched at the edge of Cardigan Bay, is slated to be one of the first.
Alexander McDougall isn’t the only person credited with inventing self-raising flour, but his is the legacy. Shoemaker and schoolmaster, then a dabbling chemist, it was his discovery of a synthetic way of releasing carbon dioxide into dough that built the family fortune. Riding Manchester’s industrial boom, he recruited his five sons into the business in 1864, and the McDougalls set about marketing a flour impregnated with a chemical yeast to housewives across Britain.
There were little more than three farms on the Ynys Faig Estate, West Wales, when Arthur McDougall bought it with the family fortune in 1895, but he arrived with big ideas. It was something of a fad for wealthy Victorian industrialists to create their own communities. Like Solomon Andrews, the transport entrepreneur who was building a resort just round the corner, McDougall had visions of a new seaside development that would draw in punters from across the Midlands. He drew up plans for 250 homes, neatly arranged along the front and reaching back inland. There was to be a church, a post office, a market place, swimming baths, a hotel. An esplanade, one-and-a-third miles long, would run the length of the beach, and a 300 yard pier would thrust out into the bay, allowing the ocean-going steamers to dock at his new town. There was no station, and because the Cambrian Railways refused to build one, he paid for it himself. He chose to call the stop, in defiance of any local Welsh speakers, Fairbourne.
From the defunct slate quarry above the village, Fairbourne looks improbable. A few handfuls of houses strewn across a floodplain, the Irish Sea hard up against its western side, and to the north the River Mawddach, unfurling, meandering through mudflats from Dolgellau upstream, slipping here into the sea in a blur of marsh and sand banks. At low tide oystercatchers pick amongst the kelp, and herons stand haughty, ankle deep in water, but when the tide rushes in the Mawddach runs half a mile wide. Ships used to come through here, transporting slate and mutton. This valley even saw a gold rush, once: there was Mawddach gold in the Queen’s wedding ring.
As the coast bends round from the south the high ground pulls back from the ocean. It slices a line across the land, the beginnings of the foothills that rise to Cadair Idris, the giant’s seat, a lour against the sky. The Cambrian railway shakes off the cliffs here, curving down towards the salt marsh, coming to a stop at Fairbourne station beside its little clutch of shops: the grocer still stocks McDougall’s flour.
A couple of minutes further on, before the tracks cross the Mawddach and head on into Barmouth – a much more on-the-map sort of holiday destination – there is the request stop of Morfa Mawddach. A seemingly irrelevant station left over from when the line branched off here and followed the bank of the estuary inland, it is now mostly used by the summer tourists that walk the bridge across from Barmouth for the views and the air, and don’t much fancy walking back. I descend by myself in a thin drizzle, and set off across the fields and flats towards the house where I am staying. Sheep scatter before me. They eat the grass washed through by these tides, salting themselves before slaughter, and theirs is some of the best meat to be found on these islands. Occasionally, emerging from the mud, you can still see the rails of the old line.
The next morning I ride the bike path back to Fairbourne, tracing the top of the embankment that separates marsh from field and holds the Mawddach back on the village’s north side. A clutch of shelducks beat hard into the wind. A red kite spins circles in the sky above me. It is January. It has been raining for the previous ten weeks and the fields are wet through. A horse stands with his head on the back of another, eyes shut to the gale.
The bike path leads as far as the road that follows the beach’s length. Between the road and the sea wall is another set of tracks, narrow gauge, that once ran horse-drawn trams when Fairbourne was being built. These days it runs a miniature steam train, seasonally, the main draw for the summer tourists, taking them from up near the station as far as Penrhyn Point. I leave the bike and climb the seawall, cross between the line of dragon’s teeth left over from the war to hold back any tanks that might have shown up this way, and descend the bank on the other side: twenty feet of piled up shingle. The people I will meet in the coming days speak misty-eyed about the childhood holidays that they spent on Fairbourne beach. Many of them retired here on the strength of such memories. The towns along this coast, Barmouth, Fairbourne, Tywyn, are a day trip from the Midlands: piling into the car on a sunny morning and fish and chips on the way home. It really is a wonderful beach. One of those beaches where you can walk half a mile into the sea and still only be up to your knees. That you can sprint down with your eyes shut. Out of season it is bleak and vast. When the wind blows the sand flows across the wide flat land like the ghost of some other sea. There is a single cormorant out there, skimming the waves like a pebble. Gulls tumble through the air.
Fairbourne was built upon the sea, and it is the sea that is shaping its future. I climb back up the shingle bank and make my way towards the centre of the village. Steel grey light, slate blue. All roads lead to the beach here, so much so that the main one is called Beach Road. It seems unthinkable, passing the dog walkers on their morning strolls, passing the kids on their way to school, bent against the wind, that one day the sea could be allowed to run unhampered down these streets. That we would turn our backs and let the land and the sea work out their own natural balance. That what will happen in the next few decades could generate a myth of its own, a thousand years from now.
In January 2014, Britain received its annual battering of storms. Along the south coast of Wales and up the west, from Porthcawl and Swansea as far as Aberystwyth and beyond, the waves rolled in. Stacks and arches on the Cornish coast, geological structures big enough to have names on maps, Pom Pom Rock and the arch at Porthcothan Bay, fell away into the ocean. Barmouth was underwater, people rescued by lifeboats from the rooftops. All the while Fairbourne remained resolutely dry. At what is known as the Friog end, named for the primroses that grow there, the waves sloshed over the sea wall and ran into fields and gardens. There was some water in a conservatory, and that was the extent of it.
‘The train was still going up and down, people were still going to the shops, chatting in the street, it was just a normal day,’ Bob Turnpenny says to me. ‘Looking at it on TV, you would think Fairbourne had just been destroyed by a tsunami. It just didn’t happen like that. And it’s ironic that the place that didn’t actually flood is at the centre of all this.’
The media storm hit Fairbourne far harder than any of the actual storms did. The BBC’s Week In Week Out came to Fairbourne as part of its coverage of the Welsh floods – in the programme that aired in February 2014, Fairbourne appeared as storm hit as the rest, shots of water in Fairbourne’s fields spliced with shots of the waves flowing along Aberystwyth seafront. Fairbourne residents, sitting down to watch their village on the telly, were informed by the presenter that ‘after 2025, there’ll be no new or improved defences, and by 2055, everyone will have moved out. Deadlines may slip, but the initial assessment is it’s a matter of when, not if, the critical threshold is reached.’ It was the first time they had been told that they would have to abandon their village, and it came as something of a shock.
Gwynedd Council had adopted the second Shoreline Management Plan (SMP2), which detailed the phasing out of the upkeep of sea defences, in January 2013 (it was agreed by Welsh government in October 2014). The benchmark figure for determining whether it is worth holding back the sea is that one sixth of the value of the property to be defended should be used on the defences; if costs are higher than that, then let nature take its course. What this means in practice is that the exclusive coastal villages and the cities will be defended, while places with low house prices and little economy will be abandoned to the waves. But no one had thought to tell Fairbourne. Gwynedd Council had put out an invitation to a consultation meeting before the SMP2 was adopted, but hardly anyone I spoke to in the village had seen it.
‘Every March, through that letter box, drops a lovely invitation from the council to part with some money, that they’ve cunningly disguised as a council tax form,’ Bob says to me. ‘Without fail, every year. Yet they’re going to wipe out an entire village and it’s not even worthy of a photocopy through your door.’
The programme had suggested that the council would walk away from Fairbourne in 2025, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. Only one part of Fairbourne, Rowen Spit, an uninhabited promontory where the steam train connects with Barmouth Ferry, is going to be decommissioned then. The council has committed to defend the rest of the village for the next forty years, based on current predictions of sea level rise. It’s still terminal, and many people still feel it as such, but it gives a few decades more wiggle room.
But the damage had been done. House prices crashed overnight. One couple due to exchange contracts on their house the next day woke up to find that their buyer had pulled out. Journalists poured into town, looking for the floods. Newsnight came for a follow-up piece. More housing chains collapsed. An estate agent wrote in the local paper that Fairbourne was now blighted.
Bob and his wife Julie had been on the verge of putting their house on the market. Bob first came to this coast as a kid, pitching up on campsites, and when Bob and Julie had kids of their own they had started bringing them.
‘And our kids loved it,’ he says. ‘If you have a house up the front there for a week you can just walk out your front door and onto the beach. It’s every kid’s dream. And the steam trains, you know. It did its natural cycle. And then we moved here, and the kids bog off, and that’s where we’re at now.’
Their sons are at university: an oil painting by one of them, the view through the back window to the mountains of Snowdonia beyond, hangs on the wall. Julie had taken early retirement for ill health, and Bob worked from home, so they had moved down from Yorkshire with Julie’s mother, who was living in the annex. Their intention had been to stay for a few years, and then to move home when they wanted to be back around family. They were just starting to think about returning. The defences from the estuary – the bike path I had ridden in on – were being redeveloped, and they decided to wait until it was completed, because it seemed like a good selling point.
‘Besides, we couldn’t sell the house with this camp of hairy ass builders just over there, spoiling the view,’ says Bob.
But by the time the builders had moved out and their house went on the market, Fairbourne’s death sentence had been broadcast to the world, with the resulting articles littered across the internet. By Christmas, they had their estate agent calling them up telling them that if they didn’t drop their prices they were going to strike them off their books. Their house was listed for £260,000, and the estate agents suggested dropping £70,000 to see what offers came in. It wasn’t enough to move back to Yorkshire, and they took it off the market.
‘Things are worse than that now,’ Bob says. ‘People would jump at an offer like that now. You’ve got to virtually give them away.’
All over town I am told similar stories, of those who had their house on the market for months or years before finally giving up. Sylvia Stephenson’s house, a beachfront property, was valued at £269,000 before the programme came out. Hers is the conservatory that had some water damage. Now it’s valued at £170,000, but everywhere I am told that nothing priced over £100,000 is selling, while those below are going for sixty or seventy per cent of their asking price. A five bedroom, three-storey house, with views across the estuary, is listed for £99,000.
‘At our time of life it’s a bit of a smack in the teeth,’ says Sylvia. ‘It’s an old fashioned view, but you work all your life, and your children inherit what you’ve worked hard for and saved for. It doesn’t matter what they say, about we don’t need it, Mum. It’s reflective of our lives together, my husband and I. What we’ve done, what we’ve worked for, what we’ve achieved.’
All of a sudden, the loom of the mountains around the town takes on a more sinister air. The sea is no longer a place of childhood innocence, but something sneaking up behind them. ‘It’s rather like finding out you’re living next door to somebody you would prefer not to live next door to,’ one woman says to me.
‘The last two years, it’s the only thing in your head,’ says Julie. ‘That you’ve lost everything you’ve worked your entire life for. And you can’t move anywhere. I can’t go back to Yorkshire. I can’t visit my Dad’s grave. We’re stuck here.’
Not everyone in Fairbourne is a retiree who once came down from the Midlands for a nice day on the beach. Almost all of the media focus has been on the ageing population, and that does present its own unique problems – those looking to move into care are now unable to cash in their assets to pay for it, and are dependent on council run homes – as well as its own brand of apathy: ‘It doesn’t bother me,’ shrugged one man, ‘I’ll be long gone.’
But there is also work and business here. Fairbourne has the sort of thriving village centre reminiscent of the fifties: a butcher, a chippy, a post office, a grocer, a launderette, a delicatessen, a village store, an Indian restaurant. There are two bars, a golf course and a school. The mining and fishing industries might be finished, but Fairbourne has weathered the decline better than many.
Wyn Jones’ family has been in the area for four generations. His grandfather and great-grandfather dug slate up at the quarry. His Mum worked in the Springfield Hotel. Wyn went to London once and didn’t like it – he moved to Fairbourne from Arthog, the next village down the road, in 1987, and bought his house in 1990. ‘A happy little village,’ he calls it. He raised five kids here, and works as a builder and plasterer. His wife moved up from Luton twenty years ago and found it easy to fit in.
‘You can go to a lot of towns and people won’t talk to you. You walk down the street in Fairbourne, everyone says “Hi.” They’re either nosy and wanna know who you are, or they genuinely want to be friendly.’
Until the start of 2014, the majority of Wyn’s work came from within the village itself. With plenty of holiday properties and retired couples moving in with money to spend, there was always work to be done. Business was good, and he was hoping he might make enough to retire himself in the next few years, before the aches got too bad; it is, he tells me, a young man’s game. But not any more.
‘Within two hours of Week In Week Out coming on the telly,’ he says, over a pint in the Penrhyn Bar & Grill, ‘we had two cancellations on extensions, and one roof.’ He lost £70,000 in one evening, and things have not picked up since. From earning an average of thirty to forty thousand a year in the village, his income is now down to seven, and he’s having to travel much further afield to find work.
‘Friday was a sixty-mile round trip, just to plaster a ceiling. They’re on about global warming, but the impact of our travelling now! Running a diesel van that only does about 24 to the gallon.’
He used to employ three young men in the village, and had up to four subcontractors. Now it is just his wife and one apprentice. ‘James,’ he says, pointing him out to me, ‘he used to subcontract to us as a plasterer. And now he works behind the bar here.’
It is no longer possible to get planning permission in Fairbourne for new developments, nor for extensions that will increase the occupancy of properties. On top of that the smaller jobs – the new roofs, the conservatories – they just aren’t being done any more.
‘I can’t see any future for anybody here,’ he says. ‘People are going to abandon their properties. They’re not going to maintain them to the same high standard that they have. Businesses aren’t gonna come in, people aren’t gonna spend. The development of Fairbourne is going to stagnate, and people are just going to go. It’s going to be like a shanty town, isn’t it?’
Fairbourne Facing Change was set up in the wake of the BBC programme. Peter Cole, the group’s chairman, is the sort of man that always wears shorts. He was a maths teacher before moving into the teacher trade unions, and worked his way up to national executive. He was looking forward to a quiet life when he moved to Fairbourne with his wife, who remembered it from childhood holidays of her own. Is this what he expected to be doing with his retirement, after a lifetime of campaigning?
‘I do enjoy some of the mental gymnastics,’ he says. ‘But I’ve had enough, really. It’s a hell of a responsibility. And it’s a pressure I could well do without. I’m diabetic, and it does have an impact on my own health. There’s a cost to doing this.’
They have made an impressive amount of noise for a small village group, meeting with everyone from local council right up to UK government. Much of their work has been around property: it is currently not possible to get a mortgage in Fairbourne because banks require sixty years of life on a house to provide one. Those who are paying into mortgages they had taken out before this happened feel that they are chucking their money away. FFC are pushing for a buy and lease back scheme. Peter reckons on there being 400 properties in Fairbourne, with a total worth of £60 million. If they could persuade a housing association, or a community interest company, to buy the lot and then rent them back at £500 a month, they could make their money back in twenty-five years.
‘You could use this as a very interesting social experiment in terms of developing a town where there is a focus of care in the community, and with the money to pay for it. Our objective is to find solutions which we can all live with. It is not to maintain Fairbourne with a King Canute type of approach.’
Another of FFC’s aims is to challenge the figures that the SMP2 is based upon. Despite decades of modelling, the climate is such a complex beast that future scenarios are only predictable within wide margins; there is still little certainty about how the vast ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are going to react to a warming world. Pair that with the impossibility of knowing what sort of emissions trajectory the planet is on – whether we’ll see aggressive cutbacks in the wake of the Paris Agreement, or if we’ll continue with business as normal – and for all the effort and global research, the eventual figures can seem about as helpful as if you’d made them up yourself on the back of an envelope.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of between 28cm and 98cm by the end of the century, but the figures used in the SMP2 are taken from the UK Climate Projections 2009 report, a document intended to help decision-makers plan for the future impacts of climate change, and thus factoring a risk-based analysis into the IPCC numbers. They give a projected lower limit of 21cm, whereas the upper limit, worst-case scenario, is 190cm. Such is how risk is dealt with by planners, but the inhabitants of Fairbourne are left feeling that they have been scuppered by nothing more than maths. Describing the figures as alarmist, FFC is now clubbing together to raise money for a barrister who can pursue a compensation claim against the government.
‘Our properties are being blighted by pretty rough instruments that aren’t based upon the actuality of sea level rise, they’re based upon people’s blunt predictions about timelines,’ says Peter. It’s like having a diagnosis for a terminal disease somewhere between tomorrow and the end of your natural life. It makes it very hard to plan your bucket list.
Fairbourne is positioned in such a way that it is threatened by flooding from all sides. From the estuary and the ocean, from run-off from the mountains, and from the ground beneath its feet. Built on reclaimed marshland – the ‘morfa’ of Morfa Mawddach – sea level rise brings the groundwater ever closer to the surface. Wyn hits the waterline when he digs the footings for an extension. Sea level rise becomes a problem for Fairbourne at around half a metre. That’s when groundwater will start having to be pumped, and that’s when the risk from storms surges becomes significantly higher: higher water levels, coupled with the increased intensity that storms will have in a warmer world, mean that once in a hundred year events become once in seventy, once in fifty. It looks like there will be heavy flooding this century, but that’s about as close as the experts can get. I meet few people who deny that climate change is happening, but most disagree that such dramatic plans should be put in place when the timeline is so fundamentally uncertain.
‘You imagine if you’ve shoved everyone out and Fairbourne’s a dead village, and in forty years the sea hasn’t come over and the toilets are still flushing,’ says Cath Walford, who runs the corner store. Her business continues to do well, and she’s able to offer work to some of the young people in the village. But she knows that isn’t much by way of opportunity, and she wonders what that means for the next generation here.
‘You don’t want them to be a shopkeeper,’ she says. ‘You want them to go to college and university. You want them to come home, after. But now I think, with my hand on my heart, will they have a home to come back to?’
Lee, her seventeen year-old son, is more interested in his car and his girlfriend than what might happen to the village in forty years time when he is starting to think about his pension. ‘And look at Nikki here,’ says Cath.
Nikki, in her late teens, is working behind the counter. ‘I live on the top floor,’ she says. ‘The floods won’t bother me.’
‘Her electrics are downstairs,’ says Cath. ‘They will bother her. She won’t be able to watch TV.’
Next door, Mayur ‘Raj’ Verma, a retired Bollywood actor with 179 films to his name, runs the Indian restaurant. Over spinach pakora, he tells me that business has not suffered because of the fallout from the SMP2; if anything, it has put Fairbourne on the map. Elsewhere, I hear of two tourists who had come down to take a look at the floods, but finding that there weren’t any had decided to stay for a holiday because the village was so lovely.
‘I’m following the way we live our lives in today’s time and age,’ says Raj. ‘There was a time when you would advance-plan, you always thought of twenty years later. Today my boy is five. After twenty years when he’s twenty-five I will get him married. You planned. Today’s mentality is very different. We see what we can see. We don’t want to see what is not visible. They say fine, there will be water, there will be a problem, we will see when the problem comes. Let’s live today. Today everybody has so much on their plate, nobody has the time.’
The last evening that I am in town, there is a public meeting in the village hall. In fact there are two, one after the other. They are both packed, standing room only. Peter had been worried that not enough people would attend. After strong initial engagement there has been a split in the community, and interest has tailed off. FFC have experienced a lot of bad feeling because they are seen to be dredging up problems which would go away if they would just stop talking about them.
‘I even had someone say to me “I’m not coming to these meetings because it means it’s going to happen,”’ Sylvia Stephenson tells me. ‘And I said: “Well, it might happen anyway. Don’t you want to have an influence?” So she came to the meetings, and I noticed all of a sudden she looked unhappy and went out. I followed her out and I said: “Is there something that’s not right for you?” She said: “Yes, I can’t stay here, because it might happen, it’s serious.” There’s no argument with that.’
Greg Guthrie, co-author of the SMP2, is at the meeting, and he talks about the scientific reasoning behind the document. Gareth Evens, from Natural Resources Wales, speaks about the improvements made at the Friog end of town, where the overtopping happened in the 2014 storms. Lisa Marshall, from Gwynedd Council, fields most of the questions, and they are frustrated, angry, reasonable questions for the most part, about how the residents have been treated and what they can expect by way of compensation. For now, there are very few answers, just promises that ‘they are looking into it.’
There is no one from the local Arthog council there, and there is no one from the Welsh Assembly, although they were both invited, and that only makes people angrier. The inherent distrust that most people now have of anyone in politics feels acute: over the week I have heard it insinuated that the council want this land for a marina, or to get rid of the English speakers in the country, and throughout this meeting the atmosphere is that Fairbourne is being hoodwinked. People allude to Capel Celyn, a village in Gwynedd that was flooded in 1965 to create a reservoir that provided Liverpool with water for its industry. It was a decision that Liverpool City Council eventually apologised for in 2005.
Bob catches me at the end of the meeting as I am walking out. ‘If you’re looking for words when you’re writing this,’ he says, ‘try exasperated. Ready to knock seven shades of shit out of someone. What’s happened to common sense?’
I walk back through town, and back along the beachfront. It is quiet out. The wind has calmed and the night is still and the moon is on the water. At this shifting edge, where the planet breathes, it is more apparent than anywhere else, however much we insulate ourselves, that ultimately our lives are still subject to geological processes. Along this coast there are another forty-nine communities, also marked out by the SMP2, that will be dealing with these issues in the coming decades, and many of them don’t even know it yet. Fairbourne is only unique in having been made famous through its fight. Climate change, I realise, is already here. Not the drama of it, not yet, but in the mundane. In worthless mortgages, in divided communities, in failing businesses. In the increasing instability of how we plan our lives, of the faith we can put in our future. It is here, and planning how we deal with it has been left far, far too late.
Photograph © Kristi Herbert