Home » Driving the UK road that’s on travel bucket lists — and crumbling into the sea

Driving the UK road that’s on travel bucket lists — and crumbling into the sea

Nick Stuart frowns as he gazes across the wide, breaker-combed bay. “It’s not a very good look for global Britain,” he says, “allowing one of the nearest roads to Europe to fall into the sea.”

We are staring at what may well be Britain’s most spectacular coastal road — and also its most endangered. Military Road swoops and soars for 11 miles over green hills and white clifftops along the Isle of Wight’s southwest coast, with vast views over the bay towards the sharp points of the Needles. Travel bucket lists say everyone should drive it — but they’d better hurry up. Those cliffs are eroding fast: another few metres and the tarmac will tumble into the sea. “Nobody knows how long it’s got,” says Stuart, a local councillor. “Could be a year. Could be two. It’s that close.”

The Isle of Wight is at the front line of a battle with the waves that’s taking place all around the UK. This winter has brought a rash of cliff collapses, from Newquay in Cornwall to Lowestoft in Suffolk and Flamborough in East Yorkshire. Climate change and rising sea levels are only going to make matters worse: a study by Imperial College London found that erosion rates on rock coasts could increase tenfold within the next century.

Data from the British Geological Survey (BGS) suggests that 1,000 miles of main roads, 400 miles of railway lines and hundreds of thousands of homes could be at risk from coastal erosion or flooding by 2100. Across the country we are facing the same dilemma: can we stop the tide … and should we even try?

On the Isle of Wight, the Military Road has suddenly become the key battleground in this debate. A striking drone video shot last month kicked off the kerfuffle: it showed how close a recent landslip at Afton Down had brought the road to the sheer cliff edge. Any more erosion and the road would be gone. A Facebook group called Save the Military Road was launched and gathered 3,000 followers; a petition has 4,000 signatures; and tonight the first of a number of public meetings will be held.

At its thinnest point, the Afton Down stretch is now a mere three or four metres from a 70m drop. Almost everyone agrees that something must be done. But nobody can agree on what. Stuart wants to move the road inland, at an estimated cost of £30 million. The local highways authority recently proposed huge concrete pilings to hold the erosion at bay. Others suggest a bridge or even a tunnel (views aside, the road is a vital artery to the west of the island).

But it’s not just Afton Down. All around the island, coastal erosion is biting big chunks out of the land under roads and houses. “It’s eroding at about a metre a year right here, but in other places it’s three,” says Stuart.

The local authority, Environment Agency and National Trust have a policy of no intervention on cliff erosion, but others want to investigating re-routing the road, reinforcing the cliff or building a bridge

PHILIP SHEATH/SOLENT NEWS

They know the dangers all too well along the coast at Bonchurch, where the Smuggler’s Haven café used to do a bustling trade feeding visitors to Devil’s Chimney, a pretty cleft in the rock. Since a landslip in December, Devil’s Chimney no longer exists, and the café juts out over a gaping void where its garden used to be. A council contractor monitoring the ground movement is philosophical: “The car park is 50 metres down the cliff too. Ah well, they don’t need it now anyway.”

Something like an acre of land fell away overnight. Nobody was hurt, but 20 houses were evacuated and residents still seem shellshocked. “It’s a vast chunk of land to fall down,” says Steve Millis, 69. “But you can’t pick it up again — it’s too big and heavy! I think we’re OK here: it’s still a good way away. But I don’t know what will happen to our insurance premium.”

The geology of the British Isles is notoriously complex, but much of its coast — including the Isle of Wight — consists of soft sedimentary rocks that tend to erode easily. That, combined with our huge tides and winter storms, makes our islands vulnerable, particularly when the weather turns violent. “It’s the ‘perfect storms’ that make the impact,” says Andres Payo Garcia, principal coastal geomorphologist at the BGS. “When the currents, waves, tides and high water level caused by storm surges all combine.”

Back at Military Road, Stuart’s fellow councillor Chris Jarman looks grimly determined. “There isn’t anywhere around the island that’s been untouched by erosion this winter. It’s been dramatic; record-breaking.” As we take a spin along Military Road, he points out a portion of cliff five metres to our left. “Before Christmas that was ten yards away.”

At its narrowest point, the Afton Down stretch is now a mere three or four metres from a 70m drop

At its narrowest point, the Afton Down stretch is now a mere three or four metres from a 70m drop

ALAMY

Jarman is determined to overturn what he calls the council’s “do nothing” policy. Almost the whole south coast of the island is designated “no intervention” — sitting back and letting the sea do its worst. It’s an approach that is endorsed by the National Trust and the Environment Agency. Changing it would allow the arguments for building sea defences to be considered case by case.

He doesn’t see any easy answers, though. “Even if we do something with Afton Down, there are lots of other threatened points along Military Road. Moving it inland has problems too. And all the options cost monumental sums of money.”

As I drive the road one last time, I pass little knots of tourists at vantage points, taking snaps of the cliff edge almost kissing the tarmac at Afton Down. The last two weeks have brought a flurry of visitors, perhaps keen to see the next chunk of chalk tumble down. If they did, many would mourn the road … but not quite all. “Some local people would be happy for it to fall into the sea,” says Stuart. “It would quieten the place down. My wife might like it because she’s a fossil-hunter and there would be fewer people on the beach collecting her fossils. And then it would, literally, be the end of the road.”