Living on the edge: The owners whose homes are going over a cliff

Mrs Beeby and I are standing amid a sea of pansies, sweet peas, sunflowers and half a dozen gnomes in her immaculate back garden. Above, gulls are squawking. Below, waves are crashing on to the sandy beach and the wind is whistling in our ears.

"Just look - it's a beautiful view, don't you think?" she says, leaning over the fence and pointing at the North Sea, grey and glinting behind a few yards of meadow.

"I remember when we first moved here - we'd hang over the fence and say: 'Wouldn't it be nice if all those bungalows weren't in the way so we had a clear view of the sea ... '

"Well, be careful what you wish for. There's one fence pole left, then a little bit of meadow, then us. Everything else has fallen in. The first thing I do each morning is look at the view - but more to see what's gone than what's still there."

Gillian Beeby, 66, and husband Trevor, 72, live on Beach Road in Happisburgh, a picture-perfect flintstone village on the Norfolk coast, with a population of about 850, a pub, a post office, a bustling village school, Britain's only privately owned lighthouse and 18 listed buildings, including a Grade I-listed 12th century church.

It sounds idyllic. And it would be - if it wasn't all sliding into the sea.

A whole street of bungalows - 26 properties in all - a Tarmac road and a good chunk of meadow have gone in the past 15 years. Along with the entire market value of the few properties still standing on what's left of Beach Road.

As Jane Archer, 49, and partner Chris Cutting, 45, discovered when they tried to use Arcadia, the three-bedroom bungalow they bought for £20,000 in 1987 ("we were delighted we got it for such a great price"), as collateral for a £50,000 loan to buy new premises for their car repair business.

The couple assumed their house was worth about £80,000, but the loan was refused after NatWest valued it at just £1, blaming "chronic coastal erosion".

"It's been a nightmare," says Jane. "We did it all by the book - we've worked hard, paid our mortgage off a few years ago and we've ended up with nothing."

Happisburgh - pronounced Haysbrough - is at the forefront of East Anglia's increasingly desperate fight against coastal erosion.

The land is slowly sinking, the seas are gradually rising. Thanks to global warming, the growing cost of coastal defences (about £3million-£5million for just over half a mile), and a government reluctant to pay for them, the soft sand and clay cliffs are no match for the North Sea.

The rate of erosion has sped up alarmingly, and is cutting into the cliffs six times faster than experts had predicted. When Jane and Chris bought Arcadia, it was about 500 yards from the sea. Today, the waves are just 65 yards away. The church, once a mile from the sea, is about 200 yards away - a 2001 report estimated it'd be under water by 2020.

A few doors down from Arcadia is Cliff House - the name increasingly apt - and the next property expected to go over.

A few years ago, it was a thriving guesthouse and tea rooms, run for the past three decades by Di Wrightson, a retired secondary school deputy head teacher, and her friend Jill Morris. The business and house should have been worth about £250,000.

Today, it's tatty-looking. Where once there was a potting shed, a garage, a road and a dozen more homes, it's now just fresh air.

The pair are moving, bit by bit, into a rented flat nearby. "It's somehow less traumatic. You know it's going to happen but you just need to edge towards it. We closed the tea rooms in 2006, and we only take the occasional regular guest.

My plan was to enjoy a nice retirement - I thought I'd have a flourishing business to sell. We used to take such pride in it, but when you know it's going to be destroyed, you just give up."

It wasn't supposed to be like this. In 1958, wooden revetments - like big wooden groynes, but running parallel to the shoreline - were built in an effort to damp the force of the waves and it successfully reduced erosion to just about an inch a year.

The catalyst for their construction had been the terrible floods of 1953, which killed 300 people.

By the early Nineties, the revetments were worn and broken and a large chunk had been knocked out by a storm. Instead of fixing them, or replacing them, the district council removed big chunks of them - and then did nothing.

There was talk of a concrete wall. And offshore reefs. And piles of rocks. Something had to be done, because the official government policy was "hold the line" - i.e. protect the cliffs.

But money wasn't forthcoming. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has apparently done a "cost-benefit" analysis, and while communities such as Bacton and Sea Palling, a couple of miles either side, were protected, apparently Happisburgh didn't justify the cost.

So the Government wrote it off. And one by one, people's homes started falling into the sea. By the late-Nineties and early 2000s, the cliffs were crumbling in 10-yard chunks.

"When we went on holiday five years ago, the road and the bungalows were still between us and the sea," says Jane Archer. "When we came back and looked out of the window - they'd gone. We'd been away two weeks and six bungalows and the whole road had gone."

When, finally, North Norfolk District Council proposed a new, cheaper, £700,000 coastal defence system - a sea wall and jetty made from Norwegian rocks - two people objected (one on environmental grounds, one who didn't think it would work).

In the time it took to hear the appeal, six more properties had fallen into the sea and suddenly there weren't enough left to qualify for the scheme.

Malcolm Kirby, a retired company director who now runs the Coastal Concern Action Group, says: "Basically, the Government changed its policy overnight from hold the line to doing nothing, which they call managed retreat."

Down on the beach the "retreat" doesn't look very "managed". It"s carnage. What's left of the wooden revetments are mostly smashed and broken. If you look up, you can see the Tarmac lip of Beach Road, poking over the edge of the cliff, running into the sky.

Round the corner, much of 70 Beach Road is strewn down the cliff - an avalanche of bricks, a smashed microwave, a turquoise loo cistern and some jaunty orange lino. Above it, brothers Norman and Nigel Cutting are living in caravans on what's left of their plot. The garden fence remains, along with one wall of the house. Everything else, including the kitchen sink, has flopped over the edge. They don't have much choice but to stay.

For those who lose their homes, it is devastating. There is neither insurance money - you can't insure your home against coastal erosion - or compensation. While victims of coastal erosion in Germany, France and Holland get 100 per cent compensation from government insurance or "solidarity" funds, in Britain it's zero.

Even fire and theft cover is difficult to come by.

"As the sea gets nearer and our options run out, insurance companies worry we'll get so desperate we might set fire to our houses," explains Jane Archer.

When the cliff reaches within six yards of your door, the houses must be demolished.

"If you let your house go over the cliff, you're guilty of fly-tipping," she adds. "Originally, they tried to charge people £4,000 to have their own houses demolished. I think the council might be paying now."

When their homes and capital have gone, new mortgages are out of the question, so the alternatives are private rent - unaffordable to most of the residents - council accommodation, at a lower rent, or bed and breakfast if there's no appropriate council accommodation in the area.

The Barber family lived next door to Di and Jill, in Sand Dunes, for 15 years. They moved out in 2006 when council accommodation in nearby Bacton came up.

"They wanted to stay in the area and had no other options," says Jane. "They were still paying off their mortgage when they left - on a property worth nothing."

Others are still making repayments on properties that no longer exist.

The Beebys bought their bungalow in 2001 for £69,000.

But then the cliff in front of them started to fall off in big chunks. In November 2005, Trevor had a stroke, leaving him wheelchair bound. Gillian is convinced it was stress-related.

The residents of Beach Road aren't stupid or careless - just unlucky.

The one saving grace has been the emergency deposit by the district council of 8,000 tons of rock, dumped at the foot of the cliffs in 2003 and 2007. Without that, Beach Road would be in the sea by now.

To see its effect, you need only look just south of Cliff House where there are no defences. Crops planted just months ago are tumbling into the sea. A decade ago, the Beach Road area was a pleasant place to live. Today it looks pretty grim.

But it's a vicious circle. It's hard to justify tarting up the garden when you don't know if it'll be there at Christmas.

There's been a knock-on effect on the rest of the village.

House prices a mile from the shore are down by a third. Ill-health is rising - the local GP surgery has been inundated with people from all around (not just Beach Road) reporting erosion-related stress, sleeplessness and depression.

Happisburgh is not alone. Other villages, such as Walcott, Mundesley and Overstrand are also teetering on the edge. South of Happisburgh, Eccles-on-Sea is no longer on the map, because it's in the sea. The church tower peeks out of the waves at low tide and the odd bit of skeleton from the Eccles churchyard sometimes washes up on the shore.

According to Malcolm Kirby, the cost of doing nothing at Happisburgh could be catastrophic.

"There's a risk that in the wrong weather conditions, the cliff could be breached altogether, and the whole of the northern Broads inundated."

Today, visitors to Beach Road are not your average tourist.

"Most of the people who come here just want to see the houses that are falling into the sea," says Di. "Every time you step out of the door, someone will accost you and ask: 'How long have you got?'"

So how do they manage day to day?

"You've just got to get on with your life. We've also had 28 wonderfully happy years here. If I let it make me bitter and angry, I'd just be another one on the doctor's list," says Di with a smile. "Though I'll probably be dragged out by people in white coats when it eventually goes."

And that's the extraordinary thing about residents of Beach Road - their ability to smile and joke and carry on with their lives. So what of the future?

"We're just here, waiting, looking towards a retirement when we might not be able to afford the electricity bill, desperately hoping someone will help us," says Jane.

The Government has now announced a fund - worth £30 million over the next three years. But it's still having meetings to decide how to spend it - the only thing clear so far, is it's unlikely to be compensation.

Back in Gillan's garden, she's telling me what a lovely place it is to live. I can sort of see her point. The people - those who are left - are lovely, brave, spirited and full of humour. And the view? Yes, it's stunning. Just an awful lot closer than she'd want.