Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A walk across the sands to Britain's newest island

Getting to Britain's "newest island” demands no more than driving about 25 miles beyond Hull and then, tides permitting, walking two and a half miles in either direction to reach the lighthouse.

Spurn Head has been an occasional island ever since the tidal surge of 2013 severed the isthmus connecting the tadpole shaped-peninsula to Holderness. The sea took away the grassy dunes and the road they bore, leaving Spurn Head definitively connected to the rest of East Yorkshire only at lower tides. Access to the lighthouse, lifeboat station and Humber pilots' watch is possible only on foot or by Landrover when the waters don’t cover the sandspit. There was further damage during a storm surge earlier this year and the official policy is now to “let nature take its course”.

In reality, the Spurn peninsula has always been a less than permanent coastal feature: it is the product of huge quantities of silt – from coastal erosion further north – washing down the Yorkshire coast with every tide. At Spurn that silt settles rather precariously on the remains of a moraine that once stood at the edge of a huge glacier. But the process appears to have a 250-year cycle, during which Spurn Head has always been, at intervals, an island.

Base camp for Project Spurn Head was a very pleasant Airbnb, called East Lodge, near the tiny village of Winestead, close to Sunk Island – an area of land reclaimed from the Humber some time ago and itself a reminder of the ephemeral qualities of “dry land” in these parts.

The world here has the air of passing at a slower pace and, driving through the village of Easington towards the car park for Spurn Head, there are signs that some natives are restless, amid clear suggestions that the onslaught of the sea is not the only issue disturbing the tranquillity.

Large posters declare opposition to plans for a new visitor centre. Given that the current Yorkshire Wildlife Trust visitor centre is no more than converted shipping container and that the site of the new centre is some distance inland, the suggestion that the development would compromise the area’s wilderness qualities seemed rather tenuous.

Walking through the dunes, we emerged onto the shingly spit that joins “Spurn Island” to the mainland. I was expecting a relatively narrow breach, but in reality a good half mile of duneland has vanished, leaving nothing to bind the land-bridge firmly together. You can see the remains of sea defences erected during the First World War, but these are now well to the east of the high point of the spit, whose natural tendency is creep westwards.
Approaching the new isladn from the remnants of the causeway
The walk across the shingle proved quite hard going, though sticking quite close to the water line on the western side offered probably the firmest footing.
Old tank ditch – just one of many military remnants on the island
Clambering up onto the intact section of the peninsula, a tidal shelter for walkers offered a stark reminder of the precarious nature of the link. The area of dunes widened progressively, offering shelter from what was just the gentlest of breezes as we walked south beneath a warm early summer sun. Knots of birdwatchers trekked back and forth and – as a kestrel patrolled up and down the length of the peninsula – swallows and skylarks were among smaller birds filling the sky beneath it. A rich carpet of colourful flowers and grasses belied the flimsy nature of the land, while a collapsed stretch of road predating the recent damage, and stretches of railway disappearing at intervals into thin air were reminders of that very flimsiness.

Looking back to the sanspit that joins the island to the mainland at lower tides
It seemed a long two and half miles to the lighthouse and, as temperatures rose into the 20s, so to did concern that we had set off minus refreshments of any sort. What relief then to find Wildlife Trust volunteers on duty at the lighthouse – restored and opened to the pubic with help from Heritage Lottery funds – and selling a range of crisps, chocolate and pop! I needed them even more after climbing 130ft of steps to the observation room.

Two gallery spaces punctuated the climb, while an informative video gave rise to a rather surreal feel, thanks to being projected onto the curved internal wall of the lighthouse tower.

Climbing the last few steps up the final “ladder” earned the right to enjoy a superb panorama, looking back up the Humber towards Immingham Docks, and the port and city of Hull, with the towers of the Humber Bridge just visible in the distance. To the south, huge vessels plied what seemed like a surprisingly narrow channel separating Spurn Head from Grimsby.

View across the Humber towards Grimsby
The view served only to emphasise that the lighthouse remains some distance from the point itself, which lies beyond the pilot station and the former homes of the lifeboat crew’s families (all now live on the mainland). Indeed, I was reminded by the artist whose work was on display that this end of the peninsula continues to grow, with elements of the military defences now stranded well inland. He suggested that even the flimsy sandspit might be getting wider and taller again, although another tidal surge might yet change all that.

After the long hike back to the car park, we felt a reward was in order and what better place to seek that reward than at the Crown and Anchor, in Easington – a pub enjoying unsurpassed sunset views across the marshes and up the Humber. In the immortal words of that son of Yorkshire, Wallace, it had been a “a grand day out”.

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