As a child in the West Riding in the 1950s, local historian Stephen Wade used to visit the east coast of Yorkshire on boyhood holidays. Long, lazy weekends were spent plodging along the beaches at Filey, Whitby and Scarborough: hearty portions of fresh fish and rapidly melting ice creams were his abiding memories of those times.
Sixty years on, it was those memories that stirred as he wandered through Filey and Spurn Point on a day trip. But something was missing. ‘If you know Filey, there’s a yacht club on the north bay,’ says Stephen. On his childhood visits, the cliffs below the yacht club were walls of stone standing high above the sea. ‘When I was a kid, the yacht club and the cliffs below it were really prominent,’ he says. ‘It seemed as if in my imagination there was once several hundreds yards of land that wasn’t there when I went back. I was staggered how much of the cliffs had gone.
During his recent wanderings along the coastline, he was struck by many differences, but ‘the thing that got me was the various remains I saw,’ he explains. ‘The vestigial evidence of what had been going on there. And that started me thinking about lost communities.’
Along the route that Stephen walked at Spurn Point – now home to a massive colony of birds and the twitchers that brave the weather to see them – are countless foundations. ‘There was a military settlement; a school,’ he says. ‘The more I looked into it and these foundations I walked past, the more I thought about what had been there. Being a historian, I couldn’t resist trying to find out.’
Through his research, Stephen has uncovered the vivid tapestry of communities that once lived on the Yorkshire shorelines – but for one reason or another, aren’t there anymore. One explanation is a simple one: the ebb and flow of the vast expanse of the North Sea has degraded the shoreline, displacing communities and squeezing the boundaries of the island on which we live.
‘Centuries and centuries of attrition through the actions of the tide, the long shore drift, gradually erodes and carries southwards the susceptible clay agglomerates,’ explains Stephen. ‘In other words, a good chunk of Yorkshire ends up on the Norfolk coast.’
It’s a problem that’s still going on today: barely a month goes by when reports of anti-flooding measures or coastal erosion. Among the latest actions being taken are massive concrete blocks being installed along a stretch of Holderness to prevent Humber flooding. ‘The more I went into this, the more I realised what a massive subject it is,’ says Stephen.
‘You’ve not got much written evidence to go on,’ he says. ‘Without the Domesday Book you’d be totally lost. At least that gives you a basis of who owned the land and what the communities were.’ A handful of Victorian geologists wrote about the state of the land (and how it had shifted), but the everyday stories of those living on the land were less well-recorded. ‘You struggled to get a clear idea of what the communities were,’ he says. ‘When you look at their accounts you see little glimpses of them, talking about people going to church and when you look at a map you realise those churches are long gone, and you look at another map and see there isn’t even a name recorded now.’
However, more recent documentation, including a bank of reporting by local newspapers from the middle of the 20th century until today, told a richer story, as did a number of oral histories gathered from locals.
Among the discoveries Stephen made were further details on the Roman settlement that once lay where Filey Brigg now stands. ‘That’s the one that grabs my imagination because it’s a place I used to scramble over as a kid,’ says Stephen. ‘I used to spend hours and hours on the Brigg. At that time I knew nothing whatsoever about the Romans in Britain but now I know that would have been quite a major coastal Roman military settlement.’ In 1857, Stephen discovered, the local reverend, Richard Brooke, arranged for a large excavation of the site around Filey Brigg, which contemporary accounts say revealed ‘five large stones arranged as the corners of a square of size about 60 feet long by 25 feet wide, with one stone at the centre.’ It turned out to be one of a string of Roman coastal forts running down the boundary between land and sea in Yorkshire, and would have been a world away from the sights, sounds and smells that the soldiers experienced in Italy. ‘It must have been a pretty scary place for them to protect,’ Stephen says. ‘It was very vulnerable.’
Another large settlement Stephen found much more information on, was a place dating back to Medieval times called Ravenser Odd, once referenced in Shakespeare’s plays as home to kings and princes. It stood on the sandbanks of the Humber Estuary, very close to what we now know as Spurn Point, and at one point was one of the most vibrant communities in all of Yorkshire. ‘Now there’s nothing whatsoever,’ Stephen says. ‘There’s probably something in that estuary mud, or it’s all turned into grit and shifted with the tides down the estuary. It’s one of those mindboggling thoughts.’
Throughout history, those who have come across Ravenser have at times thought it to be a fictitious place for which they could find no evidential record, and also a large place, with two MPs, busy markets and bustling fairs. Stephen discovered that Ravenser Odd was in fact two separate communities that were linked, but became separated as the sea encroached. At first, they were split into two islands as the path that connected them was washed into the sea, then Odd was taken by the waters. Eventually, Ravenser went the same way: as an account discovered by Stephen written by historian and writer Thomas Sheppard noted: ‘The town of Ravenserodd ... was an exceedingly famous borough ... but yet, with all inferior places, and chiefly by wrong-doing on the sea ... it provoketh the wrath of God against itself beyond measure. Wherefore, within the following few years, the said town, by those inundations of the sea and of the Humber, was destroyed to the foundations so that nothing of value was left.’
Spurn Point was the location of a rich seam of discoveries for Stephen: he uncovered more details about the Spurn Head railway, a four-mile long former military rail track that linked two coastal military forts between 1915 and 1951 and gave the isolated workers on the coast’s lifeboats a connection to the mainland. (It was also, as Stephen learned, used by locals as a sport track for small vehicles, pushed along by the coastal winds.)
Other stories are better known. ‘The one that nearly everybody in Yorkshire knows is the Scarborough hotel that went into the sea,’ he says. The four-star Holbeck Hall Hotel disappeared in June 1993 when a massive landslide scythed away part of a 60 metre-high cliff. Many are nowhere near as high-profile: ‘Sometimes there’s nothing that anyone’s logged: it might be a café or a small B&B or a fisherman’s home,’ Stephen explains. ‘It can be an uphill task to find these places.’
And though Stephen’s keen to tell the histories of these buildings and communities that make the Yorkshire coast so unique, he is also worried about the future. ‘You keep seeing reports of people with their home a few yards from a precipice,’ says Stephen. When he visited Skipsea, he saw a man mowing his lawn. There was less than 10 feet from the edge of his house to the edge of the cliff.
Just as Stephen charted the historical communities that were once around this part of Yorkshire, so the tales of those living there now under the threat of further future coastal degradation might make a good book. ‘It’s interesting you should say that,’ he says. ‘Wouldn’t it be a great idea if somebody did an oral history now, so if someone writes a similar book to mine in 100 years’ time, they’ll have a bit more to go on than I had.’
Lost to the Sea: The Yorkshire Coast & Holderness by Stephen Wade is published by Pen and Sword Books, £12.99