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...lonelier and lonelier, and after that the birds and lights of Spurn Head, and after that the sea.
– Philip Larkin
Spurn Point in East Yorkshire is a ruggedly beautiful sandspit 3½ miles (5.6km) in length. The most extreme portion, Spurn Head, tapers to a finger which points across the River Humber towards Cleethorpes on the east coast of Lincolnshire. Spurn, as locals know it, is sometimes cut off from the mainland, mainly due to harsh winter storms. This uncultivated wilderness is now part of England's Heritage Coast, a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
Defence of the Realm
Spurn was part of the portfolio of the ennobled Constable family for over 700 years until 1925 when it was the subject of a compulsory purchase order by the War Office. Sea defences were built and maintained while the military were in control of the area. Around the mid-1950s the Ministry of Defence decided the peninsula was no longer required and offers were invited from anyone interested in buying the land. Among the bidders was a local consortium who wished to develop Spurn, populate it with chalets or caravans and promote it as a holiday park. Other people objected to that particular idea. Finally, in 1959 Spurn was purchased by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. Thanks to the efforts of the Trust, Spurn is now a designated Special Protection Area, but they could not afford to maintain or replace the old sea defences, so its fate now lies at the mercy of the sea.
As you head towards the lighthouse along the narrow road, the spit of land thins down to a mere 165ft (50m) in places, giving a feeling of vulnerability with the River Humber to your right and the North Sea to your left. These bodies of water are quite different, the North Sea is energised and dynamic, actively crashing against the rocky coastline. In complete contrast, the River Humber barely laps against its shore, shepherded as it is by the 'arm' of Spurn. The stillness is deceptive though, because the gravitational influence of the Moon is at work. Therefore the vegetation on this side has to be able to withstand being immersed in salt water every 12 hours due to the tidal movement.
On your walk you will pass a variety of wildflowers; depending upon the time of year you can admire fragrant bluebells, willowy poppies, vibrant viper's bugloss and spectacular orchids. No flower-picking is allowed. Other plant species include sea bindweed, glasswort, sea buckthorn, marram grass and sea holly. Pop onto the beach and you'll find objects like 'mermaids' purses', which are actually the washed-up egg cases of skates and rays. Nestled among the shingle are fossils of ancient sea creatures dating back to the Jurassic Period. These include the easily-identifiable ammonite and the 'Devil's toenail' (Gryphaea arcuata) – an extinct bivalve oyster.
As you gaze across the vast expanse of the River Humber it's difficult not to think of the hardy souls who have swum across it. Haydn Taylor (1897 - 1962) was the first person to conquer the great divide (he also swam the English Channel). Women have also succeeded in this challenge, but some people have died in the attempt. The River Humber is a main shipping route which ships and tankers have to navigate on their way to and from the industrial port of Immingham, just north of Grimsby. There are also North Sea ferries on their way to European destinations. With all this floating traffic, nowadays swimming across the mouth of the River Humber is not allowed unless you have permission and the attempt is undertaken with strict supervision. Should anyone wish to try it, the swimming distance from Cleethorpes to Spurn is 5.6 miles (9km). The same distance in the car via the Humber Bridge is around 58 miles (93km).
Spurn is a haven for migrant birds, giving them a stopping-off place during a long journey. It also provides a sanctuary for overwintering birds. One esteemed ornithologist who was a regular visitor to Spurn was Dr William Eagle1 Clarke (1853 - 1938), who was Curator of Leeds Museum and Keeper of the Natural History Department of the Royal Scottish Museum during his career. He wrote up his observations in The Birds of Yorkshire (1907) and Studies in Bird Migration (1912).
So abundant are the avian numbers and variety of species, some of which are rare visitors to UK shores, that a special Bird Observatory was set up just after WWII. Conditions have improved since those early days, when there were two chemical toilets and no heating. Today at the Observatory you can stay overnight provided you book in advance and follow the strict guidelines. Annually up to 200 bird species have been logged at Spurn, making it a magnet for twitchers all year round.
Two peregrine falcons were spotted displaying over the River Humber in January 2012. Other magnificent birds of prey like red kites and sparrowhawks have been seen, as well as seabirds like the noble albatross and enigmatic puffins, long-legged wading birds, and even a stately kingfisher. Visitors can take part in ringing birds so long as the appropriate permits are held and there is a qualified ringer present. Even though the breeding area at Beacon Ponds is protected by an electrified fence, a crafty fox still managed to get inside and help himself to all the Little Tern chicks which had hatched in June 2012.
Judging by the sheer number of cocoons on display in the bushes, the actual caterpillar tally of Spurn must be incalculable. You can also expect to see lizards darting in and out of the bushes, newts swimming in ponds, porpoise breaching in the sea, Hebridean sheep grazing, seals basking on the shore and roe deer roaming the gorse and bracken. Whales have been known to swim around Spurn and into the River Humber – this is not cause for celebration, such events rarely have a happy ending. The decomposing body of a Minke whale was washed up on Spurn in April 2012 but the next tide took it away. Some White-beaked dolphins and Bottle-nosed dolphins were spotted in the North Sea, 22 nautical miles off the coast of Spurn on 30 May, 2012.
Over 20 species of butterfly have been recorded at Spurn, including Brown Argus, Camberwell Beauty, Clouded Yellow, Comma, Common Blue, Gatekeeper, Green Hairstreak, Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Meadow Brown, Orange-tip, Painted Lady, Peacock, Red Admiral, Small Heath, Small Tortoiseshell, Speckled Wood, Swallowtail and Wall Brown.
Beware of the Brown-tail Moth Caterpillars
As you walk along you may find yourself dodging Brown-tail moth caterpillars which are trying to cross the road (there are many casualties). These creatures must not be touched as they can cause skin irritation, rashes and, in some cases, allergic reaction. Asthmatics should take particular care not to come into contact with them, as they have been known to cause breathlessness. There are signs warning visitors about these caterpillars as you enter the area, with reminders situated at various intervals all the rest of the way. These caterpillars aren't unique to Spurn. When there was an invasion of them in 1997, a popular beach on the Isle of Wight2 had to be closed to the public.
The Humber Lifeboat
There has been a lifeboat station on Spurn since the early 19th Century. The lifeboat crew and their families lived in houses provided for them and for many years this was the only fully-manned lifeboat station in the UK. On 1 July, 2007, four adults and three children adrift in a 1.8m dingy were rescued by the lifeboat crew. Sometimes there isn't a happy ending; on 3 May, 2008, a callout ended with the recovery of a body. In 2009 there were over 50 lifeboat callouts which the crew answered, with no fatalities. Some of the calls were to help people who required aid while on Spurn itself, like the boy who fell off his bicycle, grazing his knees and shins, the woman who twisted her ankle and a very distressed young lady with sun lotion in her eye. In March 2010 the lifeboat was on standby to attend the Gas Rig 47-3B in the North Sea due to a possible gas leak. Luckily that wasn't the disaster it could have been.
Due to the increasing erosion and breaching of the only access road, early in the 21st Century the RNLI debated whether it could continue to support the small community if their safety could not be guaranteed. In 2012 a decision was made to relocate the families inland. That wasn't the end of the lifeboat station though, as their work is imperative. A new shift pattern has been devised, and the lifeboat will still be available 24/7 thanks to the crew working a six days on/six days off rota.
The first lighthouse at Spurn was built around 1360. According to historical records this was the third lighthouse to be built in the British Isles after the Roman Pharos at Dover Castle (c1 AD) and St Catherine's Oratory (1328) on the Isle of Wight in the English Channel. As the sea encroached, that early Spurn lighthouse was destroyed. Justinian Angell's Lighthouse was erected in its place in 1674. It had to be moved westwards several times until it was dismantled and replaced with Smeaton's Lighthouse in 1776. Smeaton's Lighthouse was overcome in 1830 but was repaired and back in working order by 1831. It was taken down upon completion of the current lighthouse in 1895. Designed by Thomas Matthews, it stands 128ft (39m) tall and contains a total of 145 steps. The oil lamp was replaced by electricity in 1941 which was then converted to gas in 1957. After 90 years of continuous use, the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1985. Since then it has fallen into a state of disrepair, the peeling external paintwork is quite a shock when viewed for the first time. Although it is possible to get up close and personal with the lighthouse, admission to the interior is not allowed. Looking east across the River Humber from Cleethorpes promenade on a clear day it's possible to make out the tiny black-and-white sentinel which guided many a boat to safety in olden times. One wonders how many sailors' lives it saved, and why this iconic landmark has been left to rot.
A Fort and a Wind Farm
Bull Sand Fort sits at the mouth of the estuary. It was built on a sand bank during WWI and provided armed protection for the east coast during WWII. In 1987 it was awarded Grade II Listed Building status.
The Humber Gateway Wind Farm is being built in the North Sea 5 miles (8km) east of Spurn, with a projected construction cost of £736m. Planning consent for 77 turbines was granted in February 2011, despite the objections of anti-wind turbine campaigners who have expressed concerns about the effect the wind farm would have on marine life.
If you are going to visit this unique area, check the tide times first. You don't want to risk getting cut off! Remember to take your binoculars and sunglasses. As there are no shops and the only café is seasonal, you'd be wise to take some food and drink along as well. Beyond a certain point you have to leave your car and walk the rest of the way, so sturdy walking shoes are a must. Spurn is completely exposed to the elements so be aware it will be windy and there will be sand blowing about. Although the area is flat, the road is uneven in parts and when the road ends, further passage is hard work. Therefore, some thought should be given if people with mobility issues wish to proceed further. There is deep sand which is tiring to walk through, and high dunes which are strewn with prickly bushes. Once past these the sand becomes firmer, and a walk around the Point to witness the North Sea clashing with the River Humber's strong current is well worth the effort. As Spurn is a National Nature Reserve, no dogs (except guide dogs) are allowed, and no smoking is permitted. Cyclists and walkers are not charged admittance.
Prior to Doctor Beeching hacking Britain's railways apart, there was a decent rail service which would get relatively close. If you were in the army, you could have hitched a lift on their supply railway which actually went right down to the head. What Dr Beeching didn't destroy, the tide has, however. Now all that's left is a few bits of rail that cross the road at very strange angles on the long drive down the spit, testament to the movement the point has undergone over the decades. The nearest railway station is now Hull (coded HUL on the National Rail Enquiries website).
By car: In 2012 cars were charged £3 at the main entrance, but you don't have to leave your car there. There are car parks staggered along the way so you can tailor your ramble to suit your needs. You can actually drive right up to the lighthouse, but you'd be missing an awful lot. Also, the road is narrow and there isn't room for two cars to pass each other in some parts, so there will be plenty of pulling over, stopping, and starting again. Meanwhile, ruddy-cheeked backpackers enjoying the bracing fresh air on foot will overtake! Yorkshire Wildlife Trust members can park free on production of a valid membership card.
By bus: The bus service number 73 operates between Withernsea and Spurn Point and connects at Patrington to provide a direct connection from Hull. Through fares are available.
By bicycle: There are some cycle ways if you refer to Google Earth, but much of these are little better than muddy tracks better suited to wellies than bike tyres. The road is by far the best bet, Google Earth provides useful directions. The route is busy at first, but once out of Hull it improves, and is fairly easy to follow. In total it's just under 30 miles (48km), so it's a fair slog (that's just one way – you're in for a 60 mile (96km) round trip!). Be warned there's no refreshments there, but you will pass a pub or two on the way. The last of these is The Crown and Anchor at Kilnsea, which is the most easterly pub in Yorkshire. They do accommodation if you need somewhere to stay. The ride itself is about as flat as you can get, so not tiring hill-wise, just hope for calm winds as it's very exposed. Not recommended as a winter ride unless you're a hardy, serious cyclist. Worthy of note: during the ride you cross the Greenwich Meridian shortly after you leave the village of Patrington – there is a signpost at the side of the road marking the location of this.
If you make the effort to visit this special area, you won't be disappointed as you experience the delights of nature in the raw. You'll be following in the footsteps of poet Philip Larkin3 and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams who sought this desolate, isolated place for inspiration.