Is time running out for Yorkshire's shrinking coastline?

PUBLISHED: 11:30 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 01:20 24 October 2015

The Hornsea coast at sunrise is one of the attractions that draws thousands of visitors each year

The Hornsea coast at sunrise is one of the attractions that draws thousands of visitors each year

Thousands of visitors head for the coast between Spurn Point and Hornsea, but is time running out for Yorkshire's shrinking coastline? John Woodcock reports PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDY BULMER

Erosion at Kilnsea BeachErosion at Kilnsea Beach

Is Holderness the most angst-ridden stretch of coastline in Britain? There are signs that it might be. Some are an understandable consequence of the waves devouring slices of East Yorkshire on a daily basis. Others point to man-made perils, and plenty more reflect the extent of today's health and safety culture - the possible implications of having fun at the seaside, and officialdom's near-obsession with warning of the risks.

Here's a sample of the warnings which, like the forces of nature, intrude on human activity between Spurn Point and Hornsea: 'The sea is not a council swimming pool', 'Beware of offshore winds', 'Beware of large waves', 'Beware of sudden drop', 'Beware of strong currents', 'Beware of submerged objects', 'Do not use personal water craft', 'Cliffs are subject to erosion and collapse. Keep clear', 'You enter and use this beach and coastline at your own risk', 'Danger. Unexploded ordnance on this beach. It may explode and kill you', 'Caution. Electric fence'.

With so many hazards to negotiate the wonder is that anyone comes here for day-trips and holidays. But they do, and in their thousands. It's the appeal of the warring natural elements that erode and replenish the sands of the Spurn peninsula. It clings to a precarious existence, emphasizing the power of the sea, and man's struggles to exist alongside. The lighthouse was made redundant years ago, but the lifeboat is there, a reassurance in this slender, lonesome place where wildlife thrives, and much of the world passes by - ships, great and small, negotiating the Humber estuary.

Holderness means energy in various forms, but there is conflict. The North Sea gives, and it takes away. Human beings are harnessing nature's power, but upsetting other humans in the process.Wind farms have sprouted along the coast, and more are in the planning stage. Those who regard them as an antidote to the effects of man-made global warming are being challenged. A protest group called SHOWT (South Holderness Opposes Wind Turbines) argues that the area has enough already, as well more than its share of other forms of energy industrialization.

'Our backyard is full and overflowing,' says Cherie Blenkin of SHOWT.Withernsea Town Council is also opposing an application to build further turbines in its patch. It claims they would tower over the flatlands and be four times higher than its finest landmark,Withernsea lighthouse.

At Easington there's the dramatic visible impact of different forms of power. The sea is eroding the soft boulder clay cliffs, but beneath it pipelines are bringing ashore natural gas. The village, famed for its Grade I listed parish church, has now become, through its gas terminals, one of the most important energy providers, and security conscious sites, in the country. The Holderness coastline is one of the most rapidly
vanishing in the world. Spend a few minutes there at high tide and the locals say you'll witness it being washed away - from beneath your feet if you're not wary.

The phenomenon is nothing new in these parts, as a plaque on the promenade at Withernsea confirms. 'Approximately one mile offshore from this point lies the site of the 13th century Church of St. Mary the Virgin, lost to erosion by the mid 15th century'. That's no consolation to those who are losing their homes to the sea 600 years later. On the day we visited Aldbrough, a few miles up the coast, it was happening before our eyes. A former public highway, its double-yellow lines still visible, tumbled down the cliffs long ago, and 361 Seaside Road was about to meet the same fate.

Unlike the caravans across the way, you can't move a permanent structure to a safer place, and so the local council ordered the demolition of the bungalow built of wood and a hotchpotch of other materials about 80 years ago. A friend of the owner, an elderly widower who's been moved into a local authority flat, was salvaging what he could. Contractors will do the rest, and before long the waves will remove all trace of the land where a home once stood, just like it's claimed many others, plus a café, shop, and amusement arcade.

Such losses infuriate Graham Addy who retired to Aldbrough from Ilkley 16 years ago. His home is far enough from the clifftop to survive his remaining years, but he sympathizes with those who are next in line, and feels strongly that not enough is being done to safeguard the coast. 'If the government can bail out the banks with billions of pounds surely they can rescue acres of the country,' he said. 'It's England that's falling into the sea and our island isn't big enough to sustain these losses.'

He believes that sea defences should be extended, like those at nearby Mappleton. Its beach may not be the prettiest but it's much loved by visitors despite facing a double threat. The area used to be a military range and notices warn that a potentially lethal flotsam remains. Then there's erosion, though blocks of Swedish granite, heavy enough to absorb the ravages of salt water, are helping protect the base of the fragile cliffs.

Hornsea is shielded to some extent by its groynes and rocks piled beneath the promenade. 'Health and Happiness' is its motto, and there are signs of revival along the seafront. Things were rather different in its heyday. An information board near the old railway station tells how in the 1850s 'upper and middle-class visitors came to stay for weeks and months at a time', and the prom was the place 'to be seen'. The railway is long gone and the track bed now forms part of the Trans Pennine Trail, much of it a traffic-free route for walkers and cyclists, and linking the North Sea and Irish Sea. Currently it's 215 miles from Hornsea to Southport.

But as the East Coast shrinks, they may need to redraw the map. In some places, the two seas are getting closer.

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