SPURN Head is one of those places everyone has heard of but few can pinpoint on a map. When you’ve got your bearings it’s easy to find – but that could also be said of Kafia Kingi and Amelia Earhart. Spurn Head is a three-mile spit of land that dangles like a loose tooth from the upper jaw of the Humber estuary. Glance at a map of Britain and you wonder what it’s doing there – a ragged hem from England’s shirt-tail, flapping about in the North Sea. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes it attractive. I’ve wanted to visit Spurn Head for years. Here I am . . .
Last night I slept soundly on a campsite that is steadily disappearing into the sea. I read somewhere that this coastal stretch of England – the East Riding of Yorkshire – is succumbing to the waves at a rate of two metres a year.
I can believe that. Roads that once coursed happily through green meadows now career over cliff edges. Homes disappear beneath the waves, never to receive cold calls from solar panel companies again.
A few miles to the north, in Scarborough, in 1993, the Holbeck Hall Hotel decided somewhat inconveniently to slide down a muddy cliff into the water. The incident had such a profound impact on the nation that Labour leader John Smith referred to the Holbeck Hall in an attack on prime minister John Major:
“The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. It is no wonder that we live in a country where the Grand National does not start and hotels fall into the sea.”
Before last year’s winter storms hit the east coast it was possible to drive all the way to the tip of Spurn Head. But a narrow section of the causeway was breached and has not been repaired. Spurn Head is now an island at high tide and the only way to get there is on foot, by bike, or in a big chunky 4X4 if you happen to work at the lifeboat station.
This suits me fine because it’s a fantastic walk and chock full of interesting features. Included among these is the birdlife. According to the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, birds such as wheatears, whinchats, common redstarts and flycatchers visit Spurn Head. Wikipedia adds:
Many uncommon species have been sighted there, including a cliff swallow from North America, a Lanceolated warbler from Siberia and a black-browed albatross from the Southern Ocean.
My wife, Anne, is quite happy to sit in the van and read while I embark on the three-mile journey alone, walking briskly past the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust base and a couple of old prefabs. I like prefabs. I had a school friend who was raised in one. He liked them too.
Prefabs could provide an answer to Britain’s modern housing shortage. David Cameron should move his family into one as an example of how we should embrace austerity measures and reduce the deficit. He could start a trend. There’s nothing wrong with prefabs. And they don’t wash into the sea because, if you look sharp, you can move them out of the way.
Speaking of the sea and the monstrous power it wields, I soon reach the breach where the road has been washed away. I had imagined the breach to be a smallish gap cordoned off behind traffic cones and that orange tapey stuff. But it’s colossal.
The peninsula has been completely washed away for several hundred metres. Nothing remains except a bank of soft sand and a bit of rubble. Apparently, this section is now tidal. Pedestrians are warned not to venture further when high tides are imminent. Anyone straying into difficulties is urged to blame John Major.
Not only did a road once run along this slender finger of land, so did a railway line. And it was one of the few railways in the world where motive power was provided by sail as well as steam. Did you get that? I’ll repeat it because I had to rub my eyes the first time I came across it. Bogies had masts and sails and motive power was provided by wind.
Sail bogies were not uncommon on coastal branch lines. Wind power was used on a line that ran to South Gare, in the Tees estuary, and on lines that served coastal defences. If you want to see old photographs of sail bogies in action, click here. But make sure you come back.
So I cross the breach and regain the concrete road that runs to the point. There is much evidence of man verses nature – a battle that man is losing spectacularly. The road has been swamped by dunes in places and diverted several times – and not in recent years. Occasionally, the remains of the railway line can be seen emerging from dunes, crossing the road, and disappearing again into the ever-shifting sands. At one dramatic place the rails veer out into nothingness and an area that is now tidal mudflats. The once-solid land that carried the sleepers has long since been redistributed around the hungry North Sea.
After an hour’s steady walking I reach Spurn Head’s two redundant lighthouses and the modern lifeboat and coastal navigation stations. Spurn Head is Britain’s only coastal lifeboat station to be manned full-time. Two lifeboatmen are sitting outside a garage drinking tea.
Do they mind if I take their picture, I ask? Not at all – they are extremely photogenic, they tell me, and comfortable with media attention. The lifeboat station used to feature in the national curriculum, and school parties, television crews and the press were regular visitors, they say. But all that ended when the sea breached the spit.
The breach also terminated an idyllic way of life. These chaps used to live here with their families, but post-breach the wives and children were moved to the mainland. Now the lifeboatmen work here in six-day stints.
They tell me about the history of Spurn Head and how, during the Second World War, munitions ships docked here to have their cargoes transported along the railway. Concrete bunkers and huge gun emplacements still lurk in the undergrowth around the point, they say. They give me directions and off I go, with a cheery wave, in search of history.
Here’s some. When the Angles and Saxons (the original English) flooded into Britain from Europe as illegal immigrants to steal our homes and jobs, they settled in the lands north of the Humber and named it Norþ-Hymbra – which is where the names Northumbria and Northumberland originate. That’s pretty obvious but I just thought I’d mention it.
Names can be misleading, because despite being one of the most expansive estuaries in Britain there is no actual River Humber. The Humber is the estuary of the Trent and the Ouse.
The largest settlement on the Humber estuary is the city of Hull, only it isn’t called Hull really, it’s called Kingston upon Hull – Hull being an inconsequential river that flows into the Humber and upon which Kingston sits.
Spurn Head is also known as Spurn Point. It was formed by a process called longshore drift and is in a continuous state of motion westwards. One day in the distant future it will overrun Grimsby and then Scunthorpe. I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing or not.
Beyond the Humber navigation control tower, pictured above, I find a path into the dense undergrowth that covers the point of the point. In the undergrowth lies a wealth of wartime ruins. Gun emplacements have been swamped by shifting dunes and overrun by brambles and shrubs. This really is a forgotten world – Britain’s answer to Machu Picchu only without the mountains, the architecture, the climate and the breathtaking scenery.
I spend a thoughtful half-hour scrambling about in the undergrowth and ruins, trying to imagine the huge guns in place and hearing the drone of German bombers in a night sky. In some gun emplacements, internal walls are still decorated in institution green and cream paint. Sit for a while and you can hear the echo of boots and the strike of a match. And what’s that familiar whiff of smoke on the breeze – Woodbine, Senior Service, Capstan, Players’ Navy Cut?
What was life like out here on the very end of this three-mile headland when the bombs were falling, I wonder? Not as bad as life on the two concrete forts that sit out in the estuary, I expect.
Haile Sand Fort and Bull Sand Fort were built during the First World War and modernised during the Second World War. They were targeted regularly by hostile aircraft. Bull Sand, which is the nearer of the two to Spurn Head, was sold to a charitable trust in 1997 to be converted into a “drug rehabilitation facility”. Charity trustee Philip Ball told the BBC in 2006: “It may look like Alcatraz but to them it’s an island of hope.”
I wander back, scratched and thirsty, to the lifeboat station, pictured above. The lifeboatmen are finishing their lunch in the sunshine. I suggest that Spurn Head would be a perfect place for a pub. They disagree, claiming they work their six-day stints to give their livers a rest. And besides, a pub out here would mean women – and women cause trouble. We all laugh heartily at this because it’s a man joke. Out here in this vast nothingness men can laugh at man jokes with impunity.
I leave the lifeboatmen to finish their tea. A couple of nice chaps, those two. And what a life – pottering about on this peaceful corner of Britain for days at a time, watching ships sliding down the Humber and listening to the calls of birds. The downside, of course, is that in the depths of winter when you and I are safe and warm in our beds, they are out there on the churning sea in the inky blackness of night, risking their lives for the wellbeing of others.
I walk back to the mainland. Thunderclouds follow me, rolling out of Lincolnshire in great grey masses – northerly five or six; visibility poor; rain imminent. The first heavy spots splatter on tarmac as I reach the van. Anne is still reading her book. Wind gusts, trees bend, rain lashes on the roof and windows. I’m glad I’m not a lifeboatman.
So that’s Spurn Head in a cockle shell – a three-mile anomaly on the edge of England, steeped in history and tradition. It’s a great place to walk, and I would return tomorrow at the drop of a sailor’s hat. If you ever get the chance, drive out there and walk to the point. Before it migrates to Scunthorpe.
AND FINALLY . . . ONE OF THE FAMILY
VAN? Did I say van? We’ve just bought this 1991 left-hand drive Volkswagen T4 camper from a chap in Witney, Oxfordshire. No, not David Cameron. And he’s not moving into a prefab. Or at least he might be, but he hasn’t let me know if he is.
The van is a long-term project, but in the space of a fortnight I’ve become a VW anorak. It has features that modern vehicles lack – such as accessible spark plugs, a proper carburettor, choke, and lots of other things to waste time fixing. It also has its fair share of rust and some garish go-faster stripes – but these have been removed since the picture was taken. The stripes, that is, not the rust.
The van requires a name but I haven’t come up with anything suitable. I thought you people might be able to help. I’m taking a risk here, because while most visitors to this blog are level-headed types, there are a couple of old renegades (of the pipe-smoking, two-fingers to convention variety) who will suggest something outrageous and expect it not to be deleted. But what the hell.