The sandstone cliffs were increasingly unstable with large areas cordoned off.  Notices warned walkers to stay back from the edge and to keep dogs on leads.  Beneath the cliffs there used to be a sandy stretch of beach, once popular with sunbathers and fossil hunters, but gradually the beach had disappeared under unsightly heaps of carboniferous limestone. The dark grey boulders had been trucked in from quarries in the Mendip Hills and painstakingly placed on the beach by Dave and his yellow Caterpillar wheel loader. 

Dave, or Sarge as he was known locally, after a career in the Sappers serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan, was employed by the Environment Agency to carry out sea defence work at Winkton-on-Sea.

He’d been lucky to land the job, a classic example of being in the right place at the right time.  His mother lived in a hamlet just along the coast from Winkton and, whilst staying with her after the unexpected death of his father, he had read in the local rag about the Agency’s plans to strengthen the sea defences.  He immediately applied to join the team and, after two interviews and some rigorous vetting, Dave had been highly chuffed when he was offered the job.

Winkton-on-Sea, dating back to Saxon times, had for many years suffered problems with coastal erosion and during the last 20 years the pace of land loss had increased alarmingly.  Large chunks of the grassy promenade had collapsed, a car park had been relocated and some buildings, including a gift shop, a pub and a small hotel, had surrendered to the elements, sliding gracelessly down a steep gradient of slippery clay.

The decision to import limestone boulders to create a barrier on the beach and construct four rock armour groynes had proved highly controversial, dividing the local population. Fiercely opposed to the plan were the owners of a row of boarding houses and a cafe selling snacks and ice creams to holiday makers during the summer months.  They feared that the loss of the sandy beach as an amenity would drastically reduce the number of visitors.  Opposed too were the hapless owners of a colourful row of beach huts that the Agency proposed to purchase compulsorily and bulldoze.

However, whilst the proposed loss of the beach was widely regretted, the majority of residents, most of them retired, with properties that were likely to become uninsurable and worthless, were enthusiastic supporters of the intervention.  So was a local entrepreneur who owned a golf club and a park of holiday chalets.  The golf course had already had to be reconfigured after the sudden loss holes 8 and 9 and as a precaution some chalets had been taken apart and reassembled further from the cliff edge.

Dave too had a vested interest in slowing the coastal erosion since his mother’s bungalow, nearly a mile inland 30 years ago when his parents had first acquired it, was now only 80 yards from the unstable cliffs.

‘Fancy,’ remarked his mum sipping a cup of tea, ‘you coming to the rescue like this.  Dad would have been proud of you.’

‘Yes,’ said Dave, pulling on his boots, ‘limestone should definitely do the trick.’ 

Dave’s task was to construct the rock groynes, jutting out to sea at right angles to the beach, and to connect them by placing piles of boulders on the sandy beach to prevent the waves undermining the unstable cliffs.  Much of this work could only be done at low tide and when the sea was relatively calm.  A track was created so that fleets of lorries delivering the boulders could dump them close to the shoreline and a brick building was constructed, with stout metal doors, to house Dave’s yellow Caterpillar wheel loader and its huge hydraulic bucket.

Dave was a steady, conscientious worker, methodically plying back and forth in the loader for as long as the tides allowed.  For much of the time he worked alone, perched high in the cab, scooping up boulders and bouncing on squishy tyres down the slope of the beach before releasing the boulders into what would become their watery grave.

Occasionally Dave would stop to exchange a few words with the lorry drivers but otherwise he enjoyed the solitude, waving to the occasional passerby and watching the seagulls wheeling inquisitively above his cab.  Sometimes he’d have the radio on, but most times he just listened to the comforting throb of his diesel engine and, on sunny days, with the cab doors flung open, to the endless swish-swashing of the sea.

Over the months Dave developed a close affinity with the sea.  He thought of it as his personal Goliath.  He imagined the waves, exploring the rocks he carefully placed in their path, were alive and purposeful.  On rough days when the sea impeded his progress, he’d shake his fist and shout into the wind, ‘Give us a break, Gol!’  On calm days, with waves lapping lethargically around the wheels of the loader, Dave would thank the sea for its cooperation and, at the end of his shift, give it a grateful thumbs up. 

‘Thanks, mate. See you tomorrow.’

Inevitably the project suffered some setbacks.  Sometimes the sea whipped itself up into a frenzy, like a drunken, abusive partner, and reluctantly Dave would have to leave the loader in its garage and wait for the sea to sober up. Whilst his Agency bosses fretted about delays and rising costs, Dave secretly admired the sea for putting up such a spirited show of resistance.  

Once, an exceptional storm swept away one of the half-built groynes.  On another occasion the Caterpillar broke down and was stranded far out at low tide.  In a race against the incoming waves, Dave eventually got the engine restarted but not before the swirling water was waist high. 

‘Bloody nearly got me there, mate,’ Dave acknowledged, hauling himself up into the safety of his cab and giving the sea a respectful nod. ‘Better luck next time, Goliath.’    

Every month a group of managers from the Agency would arrive, their white helmets and yellow jackets conspicuous against the dull grey of the limestone boulders.  They’d stand in a group, their binoculars trained on the half-built groynes, and then turn to inspect the crumbling cliffs.  

‘Nice job, Sarge,’ said his boss. ‘You’re definitely winning.  Keep at it!’

‘Will do, sir.’  And off they’d go, leaving Dave to continue his battle against his Goliath. 

Another occasional visitor was an elderly man who sat on a canvass stool watching the wheel loader coming and going.  Dave had spotted him a number of times but had always been too far away to exchange words.  This time the man appeared while Dave was sitting on a rock with his lunch box, eating the cheese and tomato sandwich his mum had prepared for him.

‘Excuse me for intruding, but I’ve been admiring your handiwork. I’m a retired geologist with a special interest in coastal erosion.’  He smiled and proffered his hand, ‘Ian North.’

Dave shook his hand.  ‘Pleased to meet you, sir.  Dave Holmes.  Everyone calls me Sarge.’

‘Sarge for sergeant?’

‘Yep, Sappers, 25 years.’

Dr North nodded, as if to say, thought so. ‘An expensive investment: rock armour groynes.  Do you know why the decision was made to use limestone rather than wood?’

‘No, I came on board after the plans had been signed off.  You’d need to contact the Environment Agency.’

‘I might well do that.  I don’t like to interfere, but I wonder if they’ve estimated the likelihood of longshore drift.’

‘Longshore drift?  Beats me,’ said Dave, brushing crumbs from his lap and taking a bite out of an apple. ‘Best ask them.’

Dr North nodded again. ‘It matters.  Studies have demonstrated how TGS alters the natural flow of sediments and can dramatically increase coastal erosion on neighbouring beaches.’

‘TGS?  Afraid you’ve lost me.’

‘Sorry, terminal groyne syndrome.’  Dr North fixed his gaze accusingly on the left-hand groyne. ‘It’s a classic case of unintended consequences.  You solve the problem in one area only to export it to another.’

‘Must admit, that doesn’t sound good, especially as I live just along the coast from here.’

‘Best check it out,’ said Dr North, folding up his stool.

That evening Dave Googled ‘terminal groyne syndrome’ and read:  

Although groynes have a positive impact in reducing erosion, the areas on either side of the groynes can suffer from an even greater rate of erosion.  The process of longshore drift transports materials away from neighbouring beaches and the groynes prevent replenishment.  This allows the sea to reach the base of cliffs, even during neap tides, thus increasing rates of erosion and slumping.

Dave, not wishing to alarm his mother, chose to say nothing.  At the weekend he did a recce, lacing up his boots and walking the length of the beach immediately below his mother’s bungalow. Nothing had changed.  He had a good look at the sandstone cliffs and could see no telltale cracks or signs of recent movement. 

Back home, he carefully checked the grassy slope between his mother’s garden fence and the cliff edge.  Nothing untoward, it all looked fine.  However, he decided to raise the matter with his boss on his next routine site visit.

‘Who’s been scaremongering?  Minimal risk, old chap, minimal,’ said his boss dismissively.

‘But has the likelihood of longshore drift been taken into account? I need to know, I live about 80 yards back from the cliffs just east of here.’

‘Sarge, I can assure you you’ve nothing to worry about.  Nothing at all.’

‘Well, sir, better safe than sorry.  I’d like permission to extend the protection to the beaches on either side of the groynes.’

‘Sorry, Sarge, but that’s out of the question.  We’ve already exceeded the £4.3million budgeted for this project.  Afraid it’s a definite no no.’

But Dave remained wary, routinely checking the beach and the condition of the cliffs nearest to his mother’s bungalow. 

Then one day, after an autumn storm, there was no beach.  It had gone.  Vanished.  The sea, like a giant vacuum cleaner, had sucked it up.

Dave, balancing precariously on the nearest limestone groyne, rubbed his eyes in utter disbelief.

‘Goliath, you sneaky bastard!’  he shouted at the sea, now placid after the storm, its waves gently nibbling away at the base of the unprotected cliff.  

Dave scrambled back over the rocks.  Once he’d reached the track leading to the village, the track lorries had trundled down over the past two years delivering thousands of boulders, he stopped and turned to face the sea.  Pulling himself up to his full height, he snapped his heels together and saluted.  

Sounding remarkably like a sergeant major barking commands on a parade ground, he shrieked, ‘Let’s call it quits.  You’ll get the bungalow but I’ve saved the village.’

Then he turned and marched home, wondering how to break the news to his mum.     

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