English: The Humber Bridge, England. Photo tak...
English: The Humber Bridge, England. Photo taken from Barton Waterside, Barton-upon-Humber, Lincolnshire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trawlers and trippers on the Humber’s southern shore

Along the southern shore of the Humber estuary, areas of mud-flats alternate with intense industrial development. It is an inhospitable shoreline, but inland there are many unspoiled villages on the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. At Cleethorpes the holiday coast begins, with immense solitudes of sands. The sand-flats, dangerous at low tide, extend to Saltfleet and beyond, and the small villages are fringed with holiday development.


In 1725 Daniel Defoe described Barton as ‘a struggling mean town noted for nothing but an ill-favoured ferry’. Today it is noted as the place where the A15 becomes airborne over the Humber Bridge, substantially shortening the journey time across the river, which in Defoe’s day took 4 hours.

In spite of the marvel of technology on its doorstep, and a sizeable influx of sightseers, Barton has kept its character as a handsome old market town. There are tree-lined streets of red-brick Georgian houses, and only a short step away from the large parish church of St Mary is a little gem of a church, St Peter’s. This is being restored, and is one of the best-preserved Saxon churches in the country. The tower has characteristic rounded stone arcades, and the original Saxon nave is the little chapel to the west of the tower.

South of the town a fine Georgian house, Baysgarth Park, contains a small museum of local history; its wooded grounds are a public leisure area, with a swimming pool.

For a close-up view of the elegantly curving lines of the Humber Bridge, go to Barton Waterside, where there is a car park and information centre. A footpath straddles the riverside embankment that passes beneath the bridge. The path skirts a series of lakes which were once claypits from which ‘Humber warp’ clay was dug for brick and tile-making. In this lonely watery landscape the silence is broken only by the intermittent tolling of a bell-buoy out on the estuary.


Once a port, Barrow has the air of a forgotten town that is quietly letting the 20th century pass by. As a result it is quite unspoiled. A street of fine 18th-century houses bends round to the knoll on which stands the church. The narrow road down to Barrow Haven passes a mound where a castle once stood. Further on, over the level crossing, a small muddy creek is home to a few local boats. The mud-flats along the shore are noted for snipe, known locally as humming birds because of the vibrant noise made by their tail feathers.


A long street of grey houses leads to a desolate riverside scene. The decayed wooden pier is the one from which the Hull ferry used to depart before the Humber Bridge was built. A vandalised railway terminus adds to the bleakness, but there are good views upstream to the Humber Bridge, and across the river to the bustling docks of Hull.


A long road across flat pastureland ends at the tip of the promontory that reaches out into the river towards Hull. No boats can moor on the estuary’s muddy banks, and only a single small farm crouches by the water.

The village of Goxhill, 2’A miles inland, has an attractive avenue of trees, and at the south end a moated farm house beside a ruined 14th-century priory; they are not open to the public.

A mile away, at Thornton, is the partly ruined Thornton Abbey, dissolved and demolished by Henry VIII. It is open daily.


It was from Immingham that the Pilgrim Fathers set sail in 1608, bound for Holland on the first stage of the voyage which finally, in 1620, took them to America. But the muddy creek where they climbed aboard has disappeared under the concrete and steel of the huge docks and industrial complex, and the memorial to the voyagers has been moved from the bank of the Humber to a site in the town beside the church.

Immingham is expanding as one of the nation’s most important ports for the shipping of oil, chemicals, fertilisers and iron ore. The four deep-water jetties can handle ships drawing up to 34 ft in draught at all states of the tide. The docks are closed to the public, but ship-spotters and lovers of industrial landscapes can join the footpath along the embankment that starts on either side of the docks’ outer piers.

In the town, opposite the Bluestone Inn, is a small museum, once a chapel, which is devoted to local history.


Fish are the main business of Grimsby, and have been ever since a Danish fisherman named Grim landed there 1,000 years ago and began selling fish to the locals. The docks are lined with small seine-net trawlers, brightly painted and hung with small sails, fish baskets and fluorescent orange marker-buoys. A few dents and patches of rust are the marks of the buffeting these little boats receive in the North Sea.

Around the perimeter of the dock is the long covered arcade of the fish market. Every night during the week the fish – mostly flatfish, scallops and cod – art-unloaded from the incoming vessels and laid out along the market for the morning’s auction at 7.30. The salesman moves rapidly along the rows of fish boxes, conducting the auction in a jargon that is impossible for an outsider to follow. White-coated merchants perch on boxes and indicate their bids with a wink, a nod or a twitch of the finger. Free permits to visit the fish docks and market during daylight hours are available at the Docks Office; gumboots are advisable.

The nationwide contraction in the fishing industry has hit Grimsby as other ports, and the fleet’s decline has left empty moorings along the quayside. But gradually the older, larger trawlers are being replaced by more economical seine-net vessels which fish in relatively shallow waters.

Apart from fish, Grimsby is an important commercial dock, and has a near-monopoly of trade in Danish dairy products and bacon. There is a yacht marina in Alexandra Dock, but berths are not available for visiting yachts. Grimsby docks are tidai, and the dock gates are open for only 3½ hours either side of high tide.

The buildings of Grimsby docks are stolidly Victorian, and are presided over by a magnificent folly, the 309 ft high finger of the Dock Tower. The folly was modelled on a medieval tower of the Palazzo Publico in the Italian city of Siena, and is a landmark for miles out to sea.


Trippers arriving at Cleethorpes by train can step straight out of the station on to the promenade. Walkways extend almost a mile along the seafront – past a fairground, a stubby little pier and a new leisure centre with swimming pool – down to the pleasure gardens with boating lakes at the south end of the town. All the way along the promenade the gardens are bright with flowers in summer, some of them arranged in patterns that spell out names or mottoes.

The sea goes out almost a mile over the sands, but at low tide the beaches at Cleethorpes and south as far as Saltfleet can be very hazardous. Because the sea has so far to travel, it rushes in very fast, quickly filling the dips and valleys in the sand, so that large areas of the lower beach become islands of sand, surrounded by water. Swimming is safe at high tide, when the sea is only waist deep 70 yds out.

From the seafront there is a clear view across to the opposite bank of the Humber, and to Bull Sand Fort and Hailc Sand Fort which straddle the estuary. Submarines patrolled between the forts in the Second World War to guard the Humber. At night the string of illuminations along the promenade is mirrored by the lights of shipping making its way past the flashing light of Spurn Head.

Away from the seafront, Cleethorpes has a short but delightful High Street. At Old Clee, hidden among the suburbs, 1 mile inland, stands a Norman church.

The seafront is taken up by a large holiday complex called the Fifties. Regiments of fixed caravans and chalets line the numbered streets, and there are restaurants and shops. Beyond the man-made sea bank the tide goes out more than a mile, and as at Cleethorpes unwary bathers run a risk of being cut off by the incoming flow. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach at weekends in summer. (J) TETNEY

Pleasant trees shade bungalows in the village, but towards the sea the view is dominated by rows of huge oil tanks, filled from tankers that discharge into a pipeline out at sea. The nearby canal, once used bybarges coming up from the sea to Louth, is no longer navigable. Footpaths along the embankment on either side of the canal lead from Tetney Lock to the sea-wall which skirts the sand-flats and salt-marshes of Tetney Marshes – a bird reserve, with a breeding colony of little terns.


Just south of the hamlet of North Cotes, Sheepmarsh Lane cuts across flat fields, reclaimed from marshland by a network of dykes. There is a car park beside the sea bank. Horse Shoe Point is no more than a spit of land above high-water mark. A tiny stream meanders across the shore, and at low tide there are almost 2 miles of sand-


INSHORE BOATS At 75 ft long, the seiner is among the largest of the vessels designed primarily for inshore fishing. Seiners can be recognised by the clear space behind the deckhouse, which allows room for the seine net to be hauled in over the stern. The ‘whaleback’ at the bow shelters the fishermen. The Essex bawley, used for shrimp, oyster and cockle fishing, is more often seen motorised for use as a private pleasure craft. The coble of the Northumbrian and North Yorkshire coast is a descendant of Viking long-ships, while crab boats of the Norfolk coast are designed for beach launching. flats, deserted apart from the occasional cockle-digger striding barefoot across the flats with his fork and pail.

Care should be taken when walking across the flats, as the stream fills up rapidly as the tide begins to flood.


A road, Marsh Lane, leads out of North Somercotes and across 2 miles of flat reclaimed farmland to the car park for Donna Nook at Stonebridge. Donna Nook takes its name from a ship once wrecked on its desolate shore. When the tide is out, the sea almost disappears from view beyond the flats and banks of muddy sand. Around the edge of the shore where the sea does not reach, a wispy cloak of vegetation has colonised the low dunes, but there is hardly a bush or tree in sight.

The vast sprawl of dunes and sand-flats between Grainthorpe Haven and Saltfleet includes a county trust nature reserve. Some 250 species of birds have been recorded there, including many rare passage migrants using Britain as a stopping-off point on the long journey between their breeding and wintering grounds. Both common and grey seals breed far out on the flats.

Part of the dunes is an RAF bombing range, and when this is in use danger areas are marked with red flags and with red lights on beacons and buoys. Otherwise, if visibility is good, it is safe to walk out on the sands as the tide ebbs – but be sure to turn back before the tide turns.


A scattered farming community, North Somercotes has a few old brick cottages with an infill of modern bungalows. South-east of the village, sheltered within a wood, is a holiday park that uses a small lake for boating and fishing. There is access to the shore at Howden’s Pullover, which is reached by a gravel track at Skidbrooke North End. The sand-flats here are part of Donna Nook nature reserve.


A small and sleepy village of red-brick cottages, overlooked by a derelict windmill, Saltfleet has one of the few natural harbours along the Lincolnshire coast. Saltfleet haven is the estuary of the Great Eau, and although narrow and muddy along its straight half-mile, it has moorings for small vessels. Boats can be launched for 2 hours on either side of high tide.

A rough track alongside the Haven leads to the seashore – a vast expanse of windswept dunes and flats of sand and mud.




Fishermen are among the few hunters still left in our society. Over the years the seas round our coast have brought modest fortunes to a few-but for the great majority the sea has meant long hours of desperately hard and often dangerous work for little reward.

Generations of fishermen have exploited the rich resources of the North Sea. Whitby cobles were fishing for crabs and lobsters when Captain Cook began his career at this Yorkshire port in 1746. Towns like Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft thrived for more than 300 years on the herring trade. The large trawler fleets of the Humber ports of Hull and Grimsby fished the Dogger Bank for cod, haddock and plaice.

Today’s fisherman, although he lives more comfortably on his trawler and has the latest in electronic aids to help him track the fish, still has to spend hours on an exposed deck sorting the catch and mending torn nets. It is not a 9 to 5 job: once on the fishing grounds the trawl is ‘shot’ and ‘hauled’ continuously, and between hauls fish are sorted, gutted, washed, packed and covered in ice to keep them fresh.

Up in the wheelhoLise the skipper is in command, and it is his task to find the fish and to make big catches. He may own his boat or work for a company. His second-in-command is the mate, and a North Sea trawler may have a further six or eight hands, including engineers and a cook. Weather is the fisherman’s worst enemy, so when the weather is fine the crew of a fishing boat work without respite.


Blacktott Sands Reserve (RSPB), Ouselleet, 30 miles w of Barton-upon-Humber, via A18 and A

Elsharn Hall Country Park, 7 miles S of Barton-upon-Humber, Daily,

Normanby Hall. 9 mites W of Barlon-upon-Humber, via B1430. Most days

The Old Rectory, Epworth, 25 miles SW of Barton-upon-Humber, via A18and A161 Birthplace of John and Charles Wesley, Daily in summer.

Scunthorpe Borough Museum and Art Gallery 15 miles SW of Barton-upon-Humber. Daily.

Wrawby Windmill, 9 miles S of Barton-upon-Humber, via A18. Working post-mill. Certain days.

PORTS AND PREY In days gone by, trawlers from Britain’s east coast worked fishing grou nds as far away as Iceland, the Labrador coast and well into the Arctic Circle. Today, the extension of territorial limits -to 200 miles in the case of Iceland -has deprived our fishermen of many distant water grounds, and many of the larger trawlers have been laid up, scrapped or converted to oil-rig support vessels. Most British fleets now work fishing grounds in the North Sea alongside German, Dutch, Belgian and French boats. To try to prevent overfishing, there are regulations restricting the size at which fish can be landed, and enforcing the use of larger mesh nets. But overfishing of cod, haddock and herring has already led to declining catches of these most important prizes of the North Sea.

SORTING THE CATCH The crew of a Grimsby side trawler sort the catch – haddock, whiting, sole and plaice-after a ‘haul’. The nets are cast, or ‘shot’, every 3 hours and the boat stays at sea for 5 to 12 days. This type of vessel operates anywhere in the North Sea, and has electronic navigation and echo-sounding equipment enabling it to locate and follow shoals of fish.

TRAWLING Most deep-water fish such as cod, plaice and haddock are caught by trawling. The trawl is a conical net, the mouth of which is held open t’t/ two otter boards which are pushed outwards by the water resistance. Inshore shellfish such as oysters and mussels are caught by a dredge dragged across the sea-bed

DRIFTING One method of catching herring employs a net designed so that when the fish swim into it they become caught by their gills. The net hangs just below the surface in line loith the vessel, which ‘drifts’ with the wind, towing the net behind it. Drifters operate at night, when the fish feed near the surface.

SEINING The purse-seine net is used to catch shoals of fish such as herring or mackerel near the surface. The net is cast round the fish in a wide are; then a rope along the bottom is pulled in like a draw-string, and the filled ‘purse’ is hauled in. Another form of seining uses a conical net to catch fish on or close to the sea bottom.


The freezer trawlers, usually more than 200 ft long, freeze and process their catch within hours of hauling it aboard. They can stay at sea for more than 3 months. Like the freezer trawler, the stern trawler is easily recognised by the wide ramp at the stern, up which the trawl is hauled. The catch is then sorted, gutted and boxed under cover on the lower deck. Side traxolers tow their trawls by cables passing through gantries, called gallows, on one side or both sides of the vessel. Otter boards are attached to the towing cables to hold the trawl open.