Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Spurn - a view from the edge of the world.

Spurn – a view from the edge of the world.

In so many areas of life, it’s at the edges that things are the most interesting, the most dangerous and, sometimes, the most magical. At the edge of the forest, for example, the increased levels of light that filter through encourage a greater abundance of flora and fauna – both prey and predator. The same thing occurs at field margins, where the rigidly controlled monoculture of a crop breaks free into an anarchic proliferation of wildness, and the cunning fox and mystical hare have their demesnes in the hedgerows. At the edge of society itself exist the poets, artists, seers and rebels (Nietzsche, in Human, All too Human, said that creative vision was the rainbow colours at the edges of human knowledge and imagination); and in that strange place where waking edges into sleep, the conscious and subconscious meet to create a curious medley of impressions on the verge of dreamland. Where the edges of two countries meet is often where alliances are forged – or where catastrophic conflicts begin as patriotism turns into violent jingoism. Even a well-baked cottage pie has the most delicious, crispy morsels at its edge, but only just before they become charred and burned.

Edgelands have never been for the faint-hearted or anyone who prefers a quiet, unexceptional and predictable life. They can be unsettling, lawless, even perilous places where comfortable rules and expected consequences do not apply. This is why many of the truly wild places in Britain are on the coast – the edge of our country where land and sea rage constant battles which, every time, the sea wins. But, even so, the sea can be magnanimous in victory, for it leaves behind, at the highest point of its incursion, a tantalising band of flotsam and jetsam that melds the minutiae and the excesses of the human race with the curious treasures of nature, all of which ‘doth suffer a sea change into something rich and strange’.

The coast of the East Riding of Yorkshire, from Bridlington down to its culmination at Spurn Point, is a raw and often bleak stretch of edgeland, constantly being eroded and changed by the sea. Under the waves there are the remains of numerous villages and towns that are now merely names on old maps: Auburn (coincidentally, also the name of Goldsmith's Deserted Village), Hornsea Burton, Old Kilnsea, Waxhole and many others that are set out in detail in Thomas Sheppard's 1912 book, The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast. It is a piece of local folklore in Hornsea that on the timbers of the steeple of St. Nicholas' church, which was sent crashing down during a storm in 1714, there was the inscription:
"Hornsea steeple, when I first built thee
Thou was 10 miles off Burlington,
10 miles off Beverley, and 10 miles off sea."

There is obviously poetic licence in this as Burlington – the old name for Bridlington -  and Beverley are further than 10 miles away, and the church was certainly not as far from the sea as that, now standing less than a quarter of a mile from the coast.

The cliffs are renowned for being treacherous. It was along this fragile, friable, boulder clay that, in South Riding, Winifred Holtby’s flawed hero, Robert Carne, meets his untimely end as the cliff collapses, burying his horse and throwing him into the sea to drown.

What is washed away from the fragile cliffs may, I’m told, be deposited as far away as The Netherlands, whilst most comes to rest, along with smooth shingle and pebbles of many hues and geological ages from who knows what coast, at Spurn and into the Humber Estuary, around Sunk Island.

Spurn really is like the edge – or even the end – of the world. There is no place like it in the whole of Britain, but although it has had its place in history, few people outside Yorkshire now seem to even know of its existence. It’s a narrow and ever-shifting hook of land, bordered on one side by the unforgiving North Sea and on the other by the estuary and wildlife-rich mudflats of the seemingly placid, but often treacherous, River Humber. Had temperatures been a degree or two cooler at the end of the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, it would still be attached to Europe by what has become to be known as Doggerland.

One person who found Spurn to his taste was Philip Larkin. In a 1964 interview, he described it as being, “…on the edge of things”, adding, “I rather like being on the edge.” In his poem, ‘Here’, he immortalised it in these words, analogous with the end of life itself:

“Ends the land suddenly beyond the beach
Of shapes and shingle. Here is unfenced existence:
Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.”
Spurn Point is the title of one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Six Studies in English Folk Song. It would be nice to imagine that he was inspired by a visit to Spurn during an easterly gale but, in fact, it was based on a song which he collected in Norfolk, The Wreck of the Industry, about a shipwreck which occurred on February 21st 1819 (although the tune is probably better known as that of Lord Franklin).

This disaster was reported in The Hull Packet:

“About seven o’clock on Sunday during a very heavy gale at E.N.E. the Industry, Richard Evans, of Yarmouth, from Leith with potatoes, was driven ashore on the Outer Brinks near Spurn Point, and before midnight fell on her broadside, and the master and crew were all unfortunately drowned.”

What the report doesn’t say is that Spurn had a lifeboat, which was launched and reached the stricken vessel in good time, and could have rescued the entire crew had not the Master sent them away, insisting that the vessel would refloat on the next high tide. As the newspaper report and the song record, it didn’t. The dangers of this coastline are such that, for over two hundred years, the Humber lifeboat has been the only one in the country with a full-time crew. Until 2012 they and their families lived at Spurn Point but now, because of the isolation and problems of being cut off by the sea, it is manned by two crews who work six day shifts.
Spurn was once far better known than it is today. On the seaward side, the town of Ravenspurg (another name for the lost town of Ravenspurn) is where, in Shakespeare’s Richard ll, Act 2, Scene 1, Henry Bolingbroke, setting out to dethrone Richard ll, is expecting his invasion force to land: “…eight tall ships, three thousand men of war, Are making hither with all due expedience”.

Further down was Ravenserodd, an important port well before the rise of Kingston upon Hull. This seems to have originally been a Danish settlement, a precarious toe-hold on this foreign coast. The first part of the word relates to the Danish standard, a raven, and the second portion, “eyr” or “ore”, denotes a narrow strip of land between two waters. Sheppard tells us that, “Ravenser is referred to at least three times in ancient Icelandic literature, in connection with the battle of Stamford Bridge, references to which in the Saxon Chronicle are well-known.” He adds that Olafr, son of Harold Sigurdson, led his fleet from England, setting sail at Hrafnseyri (the raven’s tongue of land), and in the autumn came to Orkney.

Stein Herdisson, an Icelandic poet from the mid-1000s, mentions this:

"The king the swift ships with the flood
Set out, with the autumn approaching,
And sailed from the port called Hrafnseyri.
The boats passed over the broad track
Of the long ships: the sea raging,
The roaring tide was furious round the ships' sides.”

The fourteenth-century Chronica Monasterii de Melsa ('Chronicle of Meaux Abbey') relates that, constantly embattled by the sea:

“…the inundations of the sea and of the Humber had destroyed to the foundations the chapel of Ravenserodd, built in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so that the corpses and bones of the dead there horribly appeared, and the same inundations daily threatened the destruction of the said town.”

The sea, of course, won the battle and Ravenserodd was finally engulfed and destroyed in the mid-1300s. From that time onwards, Spurn’s only permanent human inhabitants were the hardy lifeboat crews and their families, and those who manned the lighthouses. Now that they have gone, and a huge tidal surge in December 2013 left a washover area that is inundated by high tides, making the road down its length impassable except by the 4x4 ‘Safari’ vehicles of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, it is a wilderness once again.

Standing at the end of Spurn, even on a fine day, it’s easy to experience Larkin’s ‘unfenced existence’ at the edge of the world. If you are brave enough to be there in a storm, you may imagine yourself in the fifth circle of Hell itself.

This poem is my abiding impression of Spurn, written – perhaps prophetically – before the surge of 2013.


Firstly, it’s the wind;
an earworm that burrows
deep into the brain.
Here, where the hook of land
catches the relentless tide
and sea collides with shingle,
it’s the wind,
scouring from the east,
that, even above the regular roar
of incessant, crashing waves,
is what remains in memory
a lifetime after leaving.
And in the wind,
sung to the beat of the sea
and shrieking through sharp grasses,
there will always be
The Song:
here on the raven’s beak
the raven’s tongue no longer speaks
broken in the swirling creek
washed and buried fathoms deep
though memories will never sleep
few for ravens ever weep
this land was never for the weak
all weaknesses the sea will seek
the proud inherit not the meek
not the meek not the meek

The name defines the place.
Being strong by ever changing,
Spurn rejects the weak,
showing there is strength in change
and permanence is weakness
when wind and sea and time
conspire against the land -
a salutary reminder
that this land was never made
for weakling man