The Holderness Coast: where land meets sea meets sky

The forty or so miles of the East Riding’s coast are a place of contrasts...

Travelling southwards from Bempton, the dramatic high chalk promontory of Flamborough Head, with its caves, sea stacks and arches gives way to the broad sweep of Bridlington Bay and to the soft brown sea worn cliffs which form the retreating coast of Holderness, a place of quiet villages and small seaside towns but also of lost churches and townships - their original sites now far beyond the tides - and quiet seaward facing country lanes that once ran out to farms and villages now under the sea.

Today, several of these ancient country highways still weave their way through an open landscape of great skies and green fields but go to nowhere in particular, other than the very edge of the North Sea, their endings closed off by modern-day signs, blocks and barriers which warn of their abrupt disappearance over fast eroding cliffs. Here, road surfaces and foundations break away as the cliff edge subsides in sections onto the beach below to be completely swept away by wind and wave.

Eventually, yet further south, the long boulder clay coast of Holderness tapers into, a narrow four mile spit of gravel, sand-dunes and shingle, much of it covered with dense grey-green marram grass and sea-buckthorn, a place known as Spurn Point. Here two old lighthouses mark the entrance to the broad mouth and big skies of the Humber estuary, a world of busy shipping lanes, fast tides and languidly shifting mud banks.

The Plain of Holderness, which covers much of the area south of Flamborough Head can rightfully claim to be the youngest natural area of country and coast in the British Isles. The entire area east of the Yorkshire Wolds was added during the last Ice Age which ended a mere 10000 years ago. Its youthfulness is betrayed by its rapid rate of change and the levels of coastal erosion which are amongst the highest in Europe. Moreover, until they were drained in recent centuries much of the land behind the Holderness coast was an area of wetlands covered by meres and bogs which filled depressions in the deposits of clays and gravel left behind by the retreating ice flows.

The relationship between people and water, whether seas, rivers, meres or marshes, has always been central to the history of East Yorkshire. Early settlers were attracted by the abundant fish and wildfowl to be found in the area, monastic houses accrued their wealth from both water and land and the seas were home to some of Europe’s earliest commercial fisheries. Ashore, in ancient villages, you can see churches, farms and houses built using cobbles from the beaches. Offshore, the waters were not only sources of food and fuel but also an avenue of trade, commerce and shelter for ships voyaging up and down the North Sea coast, as well as the one-time haunt of privateers and smugglers and part of the maritime front-line during both twentieth century world wars.

East Yorkshire’s engagement with the seas continues to endure and evolve. Today, Bridlington is the largest shell-fishing port in the British Isles, and Bridlington Bay crabs and lobsters are supplied to markets and restaurants in France, Italy and Spain. Gas, oil and wind companies make use of the adjacent seas and coasts whilst the abundant wildlife that can be seen at places such as Bempton and Spurn attract many visitors every year. The long story of this coast’s rich heritage is etched deeply into its land and seascapes.





A snapshot of the coast
On the sands