Seventy years ago at the end of this month a storm surge in the North Sea caused devastation along the east coasts of Scotland and England (as well as parts of the Netherlands and Belgium). As floodwaters overwhelmed sea defences – notably on Canvey Island in Essex – hundreds of people were killed and many houses swept away.
The Holderness coast of East Yorkshire, which includes the low-lying promontory of Spurn Head, was largely spared. “It didn’t happen at Spurn at all, which is amazing,” Phil Mathison, a local historian, told me. But over the centuries the North Sea has wrought a more stealthy and sustained havoc here. For the Holderness, as it’s known, has the dubious distinction of being the fastest-eroding stretch of coast not just in Britain but in the whole of Europe.
This outpost of England – shrinking, shapeshifting – is eerie and beautiful, with vivid green fields unrolling to frangible cliffs and empty beaches. Not to everyone’s taste maybe, but its otherworldliness casts a spell on some. Chaucer set The Summoner’s Tale in the “mersshy contree called Holdernesse”. JRR Tolkien convalesced here in the First World War, drawing on his impressions for his Middle Earth sagas. And in his poem Here Philip Larkin drifts east to the Holderness to find solace in nothing but “unfenced existence:/ Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”
“Untalkative” is an apt word, for the land ceases abruptly like an unfinished sentence, or a strangled cry. The soft boulder clay of the sea cliffs is being devoured at an average of 6ft a year though in some places that figure can rise to as much as 30ft. On a 30-odd-mile stretch from Skipsea, south of Bridlington, down to the neck of Spurn, roads and tracks running west-east end in concrete road blocks and urgent red signage – “Cliff Collapse. Road Closed”; “Danger”; “Do Not Proceed” – that are constantly having to be shuffled westward.
The holiday parks of static caravans that cluster on the cliffs shuffle back with them, leaving empty plots on the cliff edge and utility pipes jutting into thin air. Some are so close to the edge that they are one bad storm away from taking the drop, yet remain occupied.
Phil Mathison – like Larkin, Hull-based – is haunted by the place. “People who meet me say how passionate I am about it,” he told me on the phone, “and I love to pass that on because it’s my back yard, so to speak. It reminds people more of Holland. It’s got a feel to it that’s not quite like the rest of Yorkshire.” (Or anywhere, come to that.)
Phil and I did not meet in person because my visit to the area coincided with his holiday in Scotland – a shame as he is an authority on, and has written a book about, the most enduring mystery of the Holderness, the lost town of Ravenser Odd, dubbed excitedly by the media “Yorkshire’s ‘lost Atlantis’”.
In Roman times the coastline was some two miles further east and over the millennia any number of Holderness’s towns and villages have been swallowed by the sea – places such as Auburn and Colden Parva, Northorpe, Southorpe and Owthorne. Some live on in local street names but the medieval trading port known as Ravenser Odd, located somewhere near the present-day Spurn Point, has a more auspicious memorial – it rates eight mentions (under the name “Ravenspurg”) in three Shakespeare plays (Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry VI Part III).
Phil Mathison calls it “a lost town that doesn’t want to be found” because hard archaeological evidence of its exact whereabouts has yet to be uncovered despite his best efforts and those of a team from Hull University. The obstacle is the thick layer of sand currently covering the beaches and coastal seabed but that will be gone soon enough in the great churn of perpetual erosion. Nothing is permanent here.
To keep a weather eye on things Phil and a fellow enthusiast, Torkel Larsen, have set up a project and exhibition called the Coastal Change Observatory. It is based in the towers of the pier at the seaside resort of Withernsea. At weekends from spring through to autumn you may be lucky enough to run into Phil and Torkel at the towers as they share their displays and knowledge with curious visitors.
Withernsea Pier, incidentally, is very much part of the story of coastal change as it doesn’t actually exist. The two crenellated entrance towers are all that is left of the Victorian pier, which kept getting whacked by coal barges and fishing boats till it was dismantled for good in 1903. The incongruity of the towers – they look like a flatpack fairy castle, salvaged from a shipwreck and assembled here on the “why not?” principle – is in keeping with the pervasively strange atmosphere of the Holderness.
It was outside the towers that I arranged to meet Torkel, an earnest and warm Norwegian who “met a lass” and settled here a long time ago.
“It’s a bit of its own thing, completely out on a limb,” he said of Withernsea and the surrounding area that he has come to love.
“So why is there a lighthouse in the middle of town?” was my first question. Withernsea’s Victorian lighthouse sprouts incongruously from suburban streets a third of a mile inland (compounding the weirdness, it contains a museum to the 50s film actress Kay Kendall, born a few doors down).
“Two words: coastal erosion,” Torkel replied. “if they’d built the lighthouse on the coast it wouldn’t be here now.”
Withernsea itself is now protected from the sea’s worst ravages by huge revetements and imported boulders. “But when you get to the end of the protection there’s massive erosion,” said Torkel. The smaller villages, they’re just letting them go.” Torkel then told me where to go to see this surrender for myself, up at Tunstall, Mappleton and Skipsea where the sea is snacking on tarmac and those warning signs were flashing red in the afternoon sun.
There is a dividend to all this destruction: fossils. The next day I went out on the beach north of Withernsea with another Hull man, Mark Kemp, who styles himself the “the Yorkshire Fossil Hunter” and offers guided walks in search of petrified plants and creatures that have fetched up on the Holderness.
Tinted by the boulder clay, the choppy seas were a striking shade of purple-brown, while the blades of offshore wind turbines turned on a blue horizon. As we joined dog walkers and fishermen below those crumbling cliffs Mark explained that big storms are good for finding fossils because they scour them out of the clay and scatter them obligingly on the sand.
Unlike on the “Jurassic Coast” of Dorset these fossils did not originate here but were brought down from Scandinavia and further afield in “glacial till”, sediment deposited by glaciers. “It’s quite a bespoke place, there’s nowhere else that offers such a pick-n-mix of fossils,” he said.
Bearded, affable and and crammed with knowledge, Mark led me across the boulder fields, stopping as he saw a telltale trace – the edge, or “keel”, of an ammonite for example – jutting from a rock. Splitting the rocks with his hammer he then revealed snapshots of deep-time rockpools, teeming with marine life from so long ago it could be from another planet.
The best of my haul that day – found and gifted my Mark – were three perfectly formed dactylioceras ammonites, alive 180 million years ago (give or take), which he “prepped” for me back at his workshop to create lovely polished ornaments. They’re small fry compared to what else is out there on what Mark calls the “weird and wonderful” Holderness.
Indicating a proudly displayed tusk the size of an artillery shell Mark said, “I found that at Spurn Head.” It belonged to a mammoth and dates from the time when England’s east coast was part of Doggerland, a vast African-type prairie stretching to mainland Europe roamed by long-extinct fabulous beasts.
Spurn then was perhaps just the bank of a river on a grassy plain. Now this low straggle of shingle and dune, three-and-and-a-half miles long from neck to Head, forms the curling upper lip of the Humber mouth. The sheer number of migrating birds that refuel or overwinter on its dunes and mudflats make it an avian gathering place of world renown and it is managed as a National Nature Reserve by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
Spurn may have dodged a bullet during the North Sea Flood of 1953 but in 2013 a tidal surge destroyed three-quarters of a mile of the road that led out to the Head. With access to the end of the promontory suddenly confined to walkers and cyclists, visitor numbers dropped off a cliff. It was “a head-scratching moment,” admitted the YWT’s Adam Stoyle.
The solution was a vehicle called a Unimog, acquired by the YWT the following year: an off-road truck with massive tyres and covered seating for up to 16 which takes visitors on three-hour Spurn “safaris” from near the Discovery Centre to the Point and back. This way people get to explore Spurn in manageable numbers while the ground-nesting birds and overwintering flocks are left largely in peace.
So, on a day of late autumn sunshine bouncing off mudflats, I hitched a ride on the Unimog – and it transported me into a unique micro-climate, one of the driest spots in the UK, where thanks to the YWT nature is in the driving seat (a good thing to be able to say in a country that is one of the most “nature-depleted” in the world). Humans have tried to make a go of it here. Lighthouse keepers and lifeboatmen lived permanently on the Point, there was a pub and a school and a wartime military presence – and, long ago, Yorkshire’s legendary lost town.
But gradually we’ve ceded Spurn to the power of the waves and the liminal creatures of sea and land. The promontory is just 50 yards across at its narrowest, but out at the Point it swells into an enchanted miniature forest the size of a few football pitches, covered in a spiky shrub called sea-buckthorn and flashing with exquisite birds – pied flycatchers, goldcrests, firecrests and whitethroats, depending on the time of year. I witnessed a mini-murmuration of starlings – maybe 500 of them – while the vegetation was draped with tiny white silk tents in which brown-tail moths curl up for winter, snug as bugs.
Somewhere near here lie the old stones of Ravenser Odd with its quays and windmill, its gallows and chapel. “There was a golden period probably between 1270 and 1330 when it really was very very important – a lot of trade going on there, a lot of fortunes being made,” Phil Mathison had told me. Then it got washed away – in its place just the plangent calls of migrating birds and the mercurial North Sea.
For more information on the Holderness, Withernsea and coastal erosion visit withernsea1.co.uk.
The Coastal Change Observatory and other displays are open at weekends from Easter to mid-September, 10am-4pm, in the Withernsea Towers.
Mark Kemp offers four-hour guided walks for £160 (up to 25 people).
The three-hour Spurn Safaris cost £22 for adults, £10 for children; check for dates.
The Spurn Discovery Centre (HU12 0UH) is open daily 9am-5pm (cafe closes 4pm); bikes can be hired for £10 to cycle to the Point.
The YWT has a holiday cottage (sleeping up to 4) near the Discovery Centre.
Read more in The Legendary Lost Town of Ravenser by Phil Mathison (Dead Good Publications; £9.99)
For more information on accommodation and activities see visiteastyorkshire.co.uk.