So then, what’s East of Hull? ‘Rotterdam?’ I hear you ask. Well yes, but before you get there is the strange, flat, watery, eroding and beautiful place where Sarah’s just stayed.
“Sarah Horton here, reporting from a recent trip to ‘the end of the world’, as I described the Spurn peninsula to Ronnie! ‘Spurn,’ you say, ‘where’s that then?’ Well it’s what’s to the east of Hull, and it’s one of the strangest and loveliest places I’ve ever visited. Read on for more.
I’m the sort of person who likes time alone, always have been. My work as a funeral celebrant is demanding and challenging, so I’ll often take time away to recharge. Right now, I’m not working, as I’ve been involved in a road traffic accident with a big truck, leaving me without a car, shaken, vulnerable, and in need of some time to recover. Feeling a bit restless after four weeks of rest, physio and emotional support, I’m ready to step back into the world – very gently – and see what that feels like.
I’m surprised that one of the questions I’m most often asked by people during my visit is ‘Why have you come here?’ Because this isn’t the sort of place you happen to travel through. You’re definitely coming here, you’re not ‘just passing’, as Sue at my B&B said with a smile.
I stayed at Westmere Farm Guest House, run by Sue and Andrew Wells. They couldn’t have been more welcoming and made sure my visit was comfortable. Andrew even gave me several lifts in the car to help me out while I was there – a really interesting situation to find myself in, without a car in a rural area, nearest bus stops three miles away, and no buses on a Sunday. Put things in perspective for me about city travel!
So why did I go to Spurn? Well, I’m very drawn to ‘edges’, to the littoral parts of the country, and especially peninsulas. I love the light, the water, the sense of open-ness and space that you get there. I like the wild-ness and remote-ness too. I’d become aware of Spurn through my ‘Monkey Map’ project when I was cataloguing a collection of monkey puzzle trees from Matthew Pottage, who grew up in Withernsea. One of the great joys of the Monkey Map project is that it has introduced me to whole new areas of the country, and when I looked at this part of the East Riding peninsula on Google I was really intrigued. It’s so thin. Matthew is now the curator of RHS Wisley, but continues to oversee ‘his’ garden at his parents’ home in Withernsea, and it was open for the National Gardens Scheme weekend, and I was curious to see it for myself. (Matthew is a self-confessed ‘conifer addict’ and also has a very fine monkey puzzle tree there too). And I’m always interested to go to parts of this country that I’ve not visited. So a train ticket to Hull was purchased and local buses were researched, and off I went. As I relate this ‘reason’ to my fellow guest house residents over breakfast I can see them smiling furtively at the ‘monkey puzzle’ link to what I am doing. I don’t care, I’m used to people thinking it’s eccentric. They’re right, it is. But I’m not wrong to love doing it
Yes, I have arrived at the end of the world. I notice that some of the buildings are built of stone, much like I’ve seen in Norfolk.
I find out later that due to the brick tax that was introduced in 1784, increased use was made of stone and cobbles, and they were in fact collected from Spurn, which we’ll get to.
I’m now on the ‘other’ side of the peninsula, which is very narrow now. On this side the sea pounds the beach. On a sunny July evening this looks innocent enough.
But in fact, this is the fastest eroding coastline in Europe.
Not surprisingly the pitches near the cliff are not in use.
Due to the erosion, the caravan site have a planning request to move further back, into the village. Seems that’s not been received very well be the locals.
And I also notice something else that’s not been received very well by the locals. In fact, it makes me feel a bit uneasy about being a ‘visitor’ here t all.
I wonder what that’s all about? There is a closed ‘visitor centre’ of sorts, the old Blue Bell Inn, which is due to re-open later this month, in July 2015.
This is now almost on the coast, but that’s only because of the erosion. This used to be over 500 yards from the sea.
There’s also a map which shows just how much coast has been lost in 150 years.
Which is pretty staggering. So, welcome to Kilnsea, where coastal erosion is two metres a year and they don’t want any more visitors.
To end my day in true hobbit adventure style, slightly mystified by what I have seen, I have my evening meal at the local hostelry, the sun sets and all is well. The hobbit has arrived east of Hull.
The next day, I feel like I’m on the set of a Pink Floyd album cover.
This is a device – a large concave concrete structor with a collector head – that was built during the First World War to detect enemy aircraft engine noise, in particular Zeppelin airships. It is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Eerie.
I’ve walked through the wetlands now and am back at the sea coast. Erosion is very visible. Or as Ronnie would remark when we visit the Thurstaston cliffs, ‘Geology in action.’ Indeed.
That afternoon I’m off to Withernsea, up on the east coast, where the lighthouse was built inland, because of the eroding coast, so is in the middle of the town. It’s no longer active but is a museum, and you can climb the steps to the top.
Withernsea is a seaside town, of sorts. A railway was built during the mid-19th century connecting the nearby city of Hull and making possible cheap holidays for Victorian workers and their families, as well as boosting Withernsea’s economy. The railway closed in 1964 though, so Withernsea has suffered from a decline in the number of visiting holidaymakers ever since. In the museum it describes the town as ‘struggling’.
After lunch I visited the garden I came to see just outside Withernsea, a delightful plant diversion.
(More photos of the garden feature on my Monkey Map blog).
And the day ends again in the local hostelry looking out of the window at the light summer night. Although I am surprised to have the door quickly locked after me as soon as leave the pub, around 9pm. Wouldn’t like to be any trouble!
For my final day in the East Riding, I’ve decided to walk to Spurn Point. The description of ‘longshore drift’ remembered from my old geography text books, and that I’ve come here specially to see.
There used to be a causeway along the peninsula and it was accessible by car. But in December 2013, there was a tidal surge and this caused ‘a breach’. At high tide the waves now wash over a section of the land, and the peninsula becomes an island. So walking there needs to be planned with the tides.
The lighthouse at Spurn just visible in the distance – yes I am walking there.
At the entrance to the nature reserve there is a collection of buildings, including this stone building the Spurn bird observatory where you can stay. It has the distinct feel of an allotment site, secretive. It’s sort of difficult to know what’s going on. I walk on.
The remains of the causeway are visible. Since ‘the breach’ there is a vehicle that takes passengers along the peninsula – a Unimog run by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Their newsletter only lists dates for it to run at the weekends, so I am surprised when it appears, on a Monday.
They ask if I want to get on, but I don’t, I want to walk in this strange and beautiful place.
Remnants of the causeway are visible everywhere in this part of the peninsula. Spurn is formed from sand and shingle from the Holderness coast to the north, washed south by coastal currents, the ‘longshore drift.’ As the currents meet the Humber estuary, Spurn is created.
During the 19th century gravel and cobbles were collected from the end of Spurn – cobbles were used for buildings, like those I’ve seen. Stone was used for roads, building the docks and for cement and also as ballast for ships. Removing this much material – up to 50,000 tons per year – has contributed to the lack of material at the ‘narrows’, the thin section of the peninsula making the eventual likelihood of the breach that has now happened inevitable.
It has had serious breaches before – in 1360, in 1610 to 1620, and in 1849 to 1856. After the last one the government stepped in and funded repairs. And for the next 100 years these sea defences to stabilise Spurn were maintained and developed. They included gaps filled with chalk (lots of white stone is still visible, and part of the peninsula is called ‘Chalk Bank’), groynes on the sea beach, sand dunes sandbagged with concrete and a sea wall erected. Spurn became an artificial peninsula.
Spurn is the only place in this country to have a staffed lifeboat station, and up until 2011, the lifeboat crew and their families lived on Spurn. Because of this the causeway had been maintained so the families could easily leave the peninsula. But since 2001, the groynes and sea defences have been increasingly abandoned, allowing the peninsula to revert to the state of ‘natural regeneration.’ With rising sea levels, a breach was always likely, and in December 2013 a tidal surge did indeed break through the peninsula.
The lifeboat families no longer live on Spurn, just the crews who work shifts. They use a Landrover to get on and off the peninsula. So it has become a much less populated place. The ‘seaside’ element of Spurn is not accessible easily to families any more – it’s an eight mile walk to the point and back from the entrance. Many come here for the wildlife and it is famous for migration.
Past the narrows and up onto the sand dunes.
And just in case you haven’t left enough time before the tide, here’s a ‘high tide shelter’ (curiously containing a copy of The Watchtower).
There is evidence of the road in other parts of the peninsula becoming very fragile.
With diversions in place.
I’m still a long way from my destination, the lighthouse, just visible ahead through that abandoned frame. Another Pink Floyd album cover that never was?
A garden plant, Kniphofia (red hot poker), catches my eye. And I am now experiencing ‘peninsula weather’, it’s turned grey and rain is washing across the narrow spit of land. But I’ve nearly made it.
The lighthouse is a particularly handsome striped black and white building, but is covered up with scaffolding at the moment. It has received a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and is being renovated.
Funding was approved before the causeway was swept away – meaning access to the workshops and exhibis planned will be a severe problem for those that can’t manage an eight mile walk. It’s all going to be down to that Unimog!
Spurn has two lighthouses, the older one is on the beach.
I’m standing now on what was the car park. The lifeboat houses are in the distance.
The car park wall is falling into the sea.
The seaside paths are becoming overgrown.
So it’s a seaside with no visitors today. Except me.
This strange and magical place that I will never forget.
I return to my guest house, feet weary but content, having walked ten and a half miles in all. I spent time here sitting on the beaches just looking at the sea, and reflecting on how ferocious it can be. The way the road has been eaten up and spat out. It reminds me that we are so fragile. That nature is always in control. This is a wild place for sure. People will always want to come here, so I can’t understand why a new visitor centre wouldn’t be wanted. Keep Spurn Wild, or Keep Spurn Secret? That seems to be the local debate.
And the best thing about my trip? The surrounding of sea, sky and water. Magical.
Two books from the library at Westmere Farm were useful for historical information:
Phil Mathison, The Spurn Gravel Trade: A Conflict between Commerce and Coastal Erosion? 2008
Howard M Frost, Sailing the rails: A new history of Sprun and its military railway. 2001 (Original story told by Ken Hartley who collaborated with Howard on revised versions).
Also useful was Wilgilsland, the website of Peter and Jan Crowther has lots of information about the area.
Westmere Farm Guest House, Sue and Andrew Wells, were my delightful – and welcoming – hosts for my trip. Thank you.”
More, much more on her love of nature from Sarah over on her own ‘Monkey Map’ blog.