Emma Tullett was sitting on her sofa, enjoying the end of Take That’s remote charity concert on television last Friday, glass of wine in her hand and teenage daughter Rebecca by her side, when the roller blind on the window behind her came out of its fitting and clattered to the floor.
‘It was 9.10pm — I remember because the concert was finishing,’ says Emma, 42. ‘Confused, I went to tell my partner, John.’
Moments later, he was trying to screw the blind back into place when the couple heard what Emma describes as ‘crackling, like a lump of wood snapping, within the walls’.
Within seconds, cracks appeared around the hallway of their five-bedroom coastal bungalow.
Speaking exclusively to the Mail, Emma Tullett (pictured) tries to articulate the horror of watching her home — ironically called Cliffhanger — disintegrate
‘Every time I looked back they’d got bigger, until they covered the whole length of the ceiling,’ she says.
Frantic, John looked out of their living-room window and realised the metal fence running along the clifftop some 18 ft from their home on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, had gone.
‘That’s when he said we needed to get out of there — now!’ says Emma.
She grabbed her four children — the other three were playing computer games in the two-bedroom annexe set back from the main building — and the family’s Jack Russell, Lola, noticing, as they left, a ‘chunk’ of cliff had disappeared in front of the missing fence.
‘I was in an absolutely blind panic. I ran through the double doors at the back of the house into the annexe to grab the children.
‘It felt as if it all happened so quickly. The children were confused and excited. I’m quite a positive person.
Although it had sounded like the house was starting to fall apart at the seams, at that point I didn’t think that could really happen.
Over four days, in scenes akin to a slow-motion disaster movie, Emma’s entire £195,000 dream home fell off the 120 ft cliff it was perched on after the ground collapsed
‘I kept thinking, you can’t just lose a whole house off a cliff. I didn’t know what was going to happen or how much was going to go.’
Of course, she does now, as does everyone else who watched events unfurl open-mouthed this week.
Over four days, in scenes akin to a slow-motion disaster movie, Emma’s entire £195,000 dream home fell off the 120 ft cliff it was perched on after the ground collapsed.
By Sunday, Emma’s car had tumbled from the driveway — the property and grounds had been cordoned off since the original slippage on Friday — while the white, rendered pillars at the front of her home were left dangling as the foundations were ripped away.
By Monday, her kitchen and bedroom were swaying perilously, and by Tuesday, the entire house had collapsed, taking with it the family’s worldly possessions, leaving only the swimming pool — undamaged — in the back garden.
Speaking exclusively to the Mail, Emma tries to articulate the horror of watching her home — ironically called Cliffhanger — disintegrate.
‘It is heartbreaking. I’ve never cried this much. It’s not something you expect to happen. It’s like a scene from a war zone — something that’s happened in another country, to someone else,’ says Emma.
‘If your house catches fire, they put it out and it’s done. With this, it was bit by bit — like torture.’
She is talking from the temporary home in nearby Sittingbourne provided by the council for her and John, 29, a tree surgeon, their two children, Alexa, seven, and Harry, six, and Emma’s daughter, Rebecca, 17, and son, Owen, 15, from her previous marriage.
Emma and John knew the house sat on an eroding soft-clay cliff when they bought it for cash in August 2018 — the location too perilous for homebuyers to get a mortgage — without conducting a survey or taking out buildings insurance.
Council workers have bought the family toothbrushes, the Red Cross has provided food parcels and friends have provided clothes, crockery and wine.
Emma, an assistant manager for the Co-op, is sleeping just two hours a night and is so stressed she can barely eat.
‘I must have lost weight — but it’s hard to tell because I’m wearing other people’s clothes,’ she says.
It is impossible not to feel sorry for her, despite the fact she and John knew the house sat on an eroding soft-clay cliff when they bought it for cash in August 2018 — the location too perilous for homebuyers to get a mortgage — without conducting a survey or taking out buildings insurance.
‘People who don’t know the area say, “You bought a house on the edge of a cliff and get surprised when it fell off,” ’ she says. ‘But we weren’t on the edge.’
Although theirs was the closest home to the edge on Surf Crescent — a tiny, friendly community in the village of Eastchurch — Emma says there were ‘two to three cars’ width’ between Cliffhanger and, well, the cliff.
Around 18 ft, then — not close enough to concern Emma when warning signs that something strange was afoot last Friday.
Although theirs was the closest home to the edge on Surf Crescent — a tiny, friendly community in the village of Eastchurch — Emma says there were ‘two to three cars’ width’ between Cliffhanger (pictured above) and, well, the cliff
After she had left for work at 5.30am, John noticed the ground underneath their home dropping and a gap emerging round the side of the building between the brickwork and foundations.
It had grown from millimetres to around 5 cm by the time Emma returned from her shift at 3pm.
At first, she brushed off John’s concern. ‘I told him not to be silly — that it was just a bit of movement caused by the dry summer clay underneath,’ she says.
Within an hour, however, she noticed a crack had appeared in the brick paving at the front of the house, lifting it up.
They rang the Environment Agency. ‘They gave me a number to call, some sort of cliff erosion helpline, on Monday morning. I still didn’t think there was any reason to panic. I’ve never been more wrong in my life.’
A few hours later, they were fleeing. ‘It happened so quickly, the kids didn’t have any shoes on their feet. They were confused,’ says Emma.
‘John called 999 while Rebecca knocked on neighbours’ doors and told them to get out.’
As the fire brigade, police and coastguards rushed to the scene, Emma’s family and her four closest neighbours were evacuated several hundred metres up the road.
Emma, wearing a towelling dressing gown over cropped jeans and T-shirt, tried to keep their children’s spirits up.
At 3am, Swale Borough Council sent a taxi to take them to a community centre in Sittingbourne, and provided sleeping bags and camp beds for the night.
‘I barely slept, cuddling the children close — in shock,’ says Emma.
The following morning, a council worker brought fresh underwear and toothbrushes.
That afternoon, they were taken to a four-bedroom house to accommodate them temporarily.
The front of Emma’s dream home can be seen hanging above a void where the ground had slipped away
Their increasingly dilapidated home had been cordoned off and notices put on social media instructing locals to stay away.
On Sunday, at around 8am, a neighbour called Emma to say the road in front of the cliff had fallen, along with Emma’s car. ‘It was horrible. I cried, my partner cried.’
A garage loaned them a car and on Monday morning Emma and John drove to the site for the first time. ‘I wasn’t sure I was ready but it was something I needed to do,’ she says.
Her kitchen, hallway and bedroom were now hanging above a void where the ground had slipped away.
‘Everything that mattered to me was in that bedroom — my baby-scan photos, the children’s first curls in my jewellery box, their first teeth,’ she says, voice breaking.
‘I could replace furniture and TVs, but losing mementos was heartbreaking. I cried all the way back.’
Given time off work, she tried to keep her children busy, although, as she puts it, ‘It’s hard to home-school when you don’t have anything to home-school them with.’
At 10am on Tuesday, a neighbour called to tell her the whole house had gone. She says: ‘I had to sit down. I felt numb, then cried in despair. Although it was horrible, it was almost a relief after days of waiting.’
Breaking the news to her youngest children that the house had ‘gone’, she showed them pictures emerging online.
‘They reacted surprisingly well. They have been resilient.’
She has been scrutinising pictures of the rubble for signs of the life she has lost. ‘I recognised my daughter’s bedroom wall, with a unicorn and hearts I stuck on it two months ago when I decorated,’ she says.
Emma has no idea if she is entitled to any kind of compensation: ‘I haven’t had time to think about it.’
She had been sent the details of Cliffhanger by an estate agent in summer 2018.
Living in a semi-detached home in Surrey, she was desperate for more room for her growing family.
She says: ‘The house was so pretty. There was an annexe at the back for the teenagers and a swimming pool the width of the house. It seemed ideal.’
The coastal erosion problem was mentioned on the estate agent blurb — but so too was the fact that the council had recently spent £30,000 installing cliff matting in an attempt to strengthen it.
Showing Emma and John around, the previous homeowner said she thought the house had 40 years left — still not ideal, perhaps, had the house been intended as an investment.
But Emma wasn’t ‘at all’ concerned about an imminent landslide, assuming the coast would erode gradually. ‘
John and I were sure we had plenty of years left. You don’t think there’s a chance of it sliding away to the extent it did.’
In any case, she says, the cliff hardly looked hazardous. ‘If it was a sheer drop, I wouldn’t have bought it. I’m petrified of heights,’ she says. ‘It looked more like a hill, a slope.’
Emma put in an offer the same day, aware that the £195,000 asking price could have been ‘twice that’ had it not been for the coastal erosion issue.
She didn’t have a survey done. ‘I didn’t see why there would be an issue.
‘It was stupid but, to be honest I don’t think a survey a couple of years ago would have picked up that we were going to have a massive landslide anyway.’
Paying in cash was part of her plan: ‘I had equity in the Surrey house I sold and wanted to buy something outright so I didn’t have to worry about a mortgage.’
As for not taking out building insurance? ‘It was way too expensive, and wouldn’t have insured me for what had happened anyway.’
As the months passed, she took local residents’ concerns about coastal erosion on board, recently agreeing to join their Eastchurch Gap Erosion Action Group, set up in 2015 to campaign for support to stop the coast inching ever closer.
Even after the grant allowed residents to install the matting in 2016, part of a nearby cliff collapsed in January 2018.
‘I was aware there were minor slips,’ she says. ‘But nothing like this scale.’
Surely Emma must have regrets? ‘In a way, obviously,’ she says. ‘But I don’t regret the two years I’ve had there.’
As for her plans for the future, if she and John can recover financially, they would like to buy a plot of land and build their own home — with one crucial caveat.
‘We’d make sure we weren’t above sea level. It would be firmly on the floor.’