From busy port to lonely headland north of the Humber
The ancient city of Kingston upon Hull is still a centre of seafaring although it stands some 22 miles up the River Humber from the open sea. East of Hull lie the flat fields of Holderness, punctuated by the towers and spires of old village churches. The fields come to an abrupt end to the east, where low earth cliffs drop to the sea along the edge of a straight stretch of sandy coast, which terminates to the south in the narrow appendix of Spurn Head.
Opened in 1981, after nine years in the building, the Humber Bridge has the longest single span of any bridge in the world. At 1,542 yds, its main span is 122 yds longer than that of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York. It has twin towers 533 ft high from which are suspended two main cables, each 27 in. across and containing 14,948 separate wire filaments. The total length of wire in the cables is 44,000 miles – more than 1/2 times the circumference of the Earth.
The statistics are impressive, but there is no measure for the awesome beauty of the structure towering above the flat landscape of Humberside. The bridge is beautiful because it is unadornedly functional, and its elegantly curving lines are born of engineering and aerodynamic necessity. There is a toll for motor vehicles crossing the bridge, but pedestrians and cyclists cross free.
Although it is almost swallowed up within the suburbs of Hull, Hessle is still a village at heart, with a pleasant central square and good Georgian houses. Anchored off the foreshore is the paddle-steamer Lincoln Castle, which used to ferry cars and passengers across the Humber between Hull and New Holland. Now it has a new lease of life as a floating restaurant, with fine views of the Humber Bridge which brought its ferrying career to an end.
KINGSTON UPON HULL
When Edward 1 gave the first Charter to the port on the River Hull in 1299, the town took the name of Kingston (King’s Town) upon Hull. Officially the town has retained its full name, but it is usually shortened to Hull. The River Hull was one of the town’s watery boundaries, the Humber was another, and in 1321 a defensive moat was dug that joined the two rivers, thus fortifying the town on its own island. These fortifications are still in evidence, because sections of the moat were widened to create Hull’s enclosed docks in the 18th and 19th centuries. The area between these docks and the River Hull is still known as the Old Town.
A stroll around Hull’s Old Town is rewarding, with intriguing juxtapositions of old and new. The area still retains its medieval street pattern, and some of the buildings date back to the 18th century and earlier. In High Street is Wilberforce House, birthplace in 1759 of William Wilberforce who campaigned vigorously for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. His statue stands on a tall column overlooking Queen’s Gardens, and his birthplace is a museum to his memory. It contains some of the grim relics of the slave trade, such as whips, chains and leg-irons.
The River Hull itself, where the port’s prosperity began, is still a busy harbour for river barges and small coasters. At the mouth of the river a huge tidal surge barrier has been built, with concrete towers supporting a steel gate like a guillotine, which can be dropped to prevent the city from being flooded.
The first of the enclosed docks, built in 1778, was filled in and is now a large open space, Queen’s Gardens. The Humber Dock, also on the site of part of the original moat, is being converted to a yachting marina. The former Docks Authority office in Queen Victoria Square now houses a maritime museum, known as the Town Docks Museum. At the heart of the Old Town is Holy Trinity Church, England’s largest parish church and, dating from the 14th century, the earliest major building of brick.
On the Boulevard stands a statue of George Smith, skipper of the trawler Crane which was involved in a bizarre incident in 1904 that became known as the ‘Russian Outrage’. Russia was at war with Japan, and in the early hours of October 22 the Russian fleet opened fire on Hull trawlers fishing on Dogger Bank, mistaking them for Japanese torpedo boats. George Smith was killed instantly and his trawler sunk; three others were badly damaged.
The modern docks, which line 7 miles of Humber waterfront, include a North Sea ferry terminal for crossings to Rotterdam and Zeebrugge. The docks are not open to visitors, but a good point from which to watch the shipping is Victoria Pier, where the Humber ferry used to berth before the Humber Bridge was opened. This has been restored as an open space and decked-out with flowers, and there are band concerts in the summer.
SCRIMSHAW: THE SAILORS’ ART
Seamen of the 19th-century whaling ships amused themselves in their off-duty hours by carving intricate designs on whales’ teeth or walrus tusks. They used the blade of a jack-knife, and highlighted the design by rubbing lampblack or indian ink into the incised lines. Sometimes a sail needle was used to scratch particularly delicate patterns or portraits. Ships and whaling scenes were the most popular subjects of these carvings, which came to be known as scrimshaw and are now highly prized by collectors.
At first sight no more than a quiet and attractive little market town, Hedon has a few intriguing relics of a short but glorious past in the 12th century when it was a major port, important enough to send two MPs to Parliament. A muddy stream, Hedon Haven, is all that remains of the port, but a sunken grassy lane beside the stream is a silted-up canal, probably dug in the 12th century for mooring ships.
Once the town had three churches, but only one still stands. This is St Augustine’s, a large and impressive 13th-century building with a fine tower. The grid-like pattern of streets, and street names such as Souttergate and Fletchergate, point to Hedon’s medieval origins, but most of the town was destroyed by a fire in 1656. By then it had already been eclipsed by Hull.
Beside the road to Paull vast oil tankers, moored off the 13P chemicals plant, loom incongruously above cornfields. A row of houses line the river front, with a car park beside the little redundant lighthouse, dated 1836. From the sea-wall there are good views back to Hull, and across to Immingham, with shipping making its way up the Humber to the two ports.
There is little stone at Stone Creek – only mud bordering the Humber estuary and, inland, flat hedgeless farmland stretching for miles all round with a few isolated dwellings. The little muddy creek is occupied by a few boats of the local sailing club, but sailing is hazardous because of strong tidal currents in the estuary. A stone wall protects the farmland from flooding, and at nearby Sunk Island, 12 square miles of land have been reclaimed from silt by dykes and banks.
A church of breathtaking beauty puts Patrington on the map for all lovers of the Decorated period of English Gothic architecture. The church of St Patrick is structured like a cathedral, with a central tower and spire, and transepts on either side. The entire church was built between the late 13th and the mid-14th centuries, and among its glories are some 200 carved stone faces -human, animal and grotesque – that peer down from the columns and the roof.
A scattered community straddling the narrowing promontory that ends at Spurn Head, Kilnsea has two shores, a sandy one exposed to the North Sea, and a muddy but-sheltered shore within the Humber estuary. The majority of dwellings are on the Humber side.
One house, now a shop, has a plaque that states that it was built in 1847 and was then 534 yds from the sea. The house is now little more than 200 yds from the sea, which is a measure of the erosion that has taken place.
A narrow spit of sand and shingle, the peninsula curves 31/: miles into the Humber estuary like a hook at the end of the arm of Holderness. Spurn has no rocky base. It has been built up over the centuries by the accumulation of sand from the eroding shores to the north, and by silt deposited by the Humber. Spurn itself is subject to erosion, and occasionally the narrow spit has been breached by the sea, only to be built up again a little further to the west.
In places only 50 yds wide, the peninsula is bordered by a sandy beach on the seaward side, and by flats of muddy sand on the Humber side, with sparse duneland vegetation where the sea does not reach. The area from Kilnsea to the tip of Spurn Head is a nature reserve, belonging to the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Trust, and there is a charge for drivers using the road to the Head.
There is a car park near the lighthouse, from which the tip of the Head is only a few hundred yards walk along the shore. It is a wild and windswept spot, melancholy with the sound of oystercatchersand the drone of warning buoys out to sea. The shipping lanes into the Humber are narrow and difficult, and all ships entering and leaving the estuary are accompanied by pilots. Their boats can be seen speeding out from the jetty on Spurn Head. Moored off the jetty is the Humber lifeboat, one of only three in the country manned by a full-time crew.
Spurn is an important site for observing bird migrations, since it acts as a narrow funnel through which vast numbers of birds pass in spring and autumn on their journeys along the east coast.
A few of the houses in this attractive little farming village are built of sea cobbles- large stones of various colours collected from the beach. The thatched red-brick barn behind the church dates from the I4th or 15th century. Coastal erosion is eating into the low cliffs that border the sandy beach, but the sea has not yet disposed of some ugly wartime concrete pillboxes. Bathers should beware of strong currents at right-angles to the beach.
To the north of the village is the gas terminal where the first North Sea gas was piped ashore in 1967. At Easington, also, pioneer work has been done in pumping gas back under the sea for storage when demand is low.
The builders of the handsome lighthouse of 1894 at Withernsea may have been allowing for coastal erosion when they set it back several hundred yards from the sea, in the midst of residential streets. The seafront is remarkable only for a castellated gateway that leads nowhere but faces the beach like a yellow-brick sandcastle. The gateway was once part of a pier built in 1875 but long-since vanished.
Withernsea declined as a resort when it lost its railway in 1964. Nevertheless it has a good sand-and-shingle beach with safe swimming. On summer Sundays there is a general market.