Bits and bobs from this post featured in a piece called ‘The Shipping Forecast’ broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, November 2nd. I took a trip to Yorkshire recently, to check out sea areas Humber and Dogger. Area Humber runs along the east coast from Berwick to south of Great Yarmouth. With no land boundaries, area Dogger adjoins areas Humber, German Bight, Fisher, Forties and Tyne. Named after a large local sandbank, sea area Dogger once covered a much greater area and had a land boundary from south Norway around to the Hook of Holland. Dogger is also an old Dutch word for a boat used to fish for cod, which is probably what we could have caught if we’d opened the car windows it was raining so hard on the drive to the coast.
‘Stop!’ I squeal about thirty miles from Leeds. We have just passed a signpost for a village with the pleasing name of Fridaythorpe but that’s not what’s distracted me. ‘Look!’ I point out the car window in the general direction of the Yorkshire rain, and through it, at the Yorkshire countryside. ‘A Medieval Deserted Village!’
My cousin Nick is driving and obligingly goes on a bit, turns around and goes back a bit. ‘Hang on,’ I say, a bit slow on the uptake. ‘A medieval deserted village? Do they mean it was found in medieval times when it was already deserted?’ When we eventually find it by tramping up and down various fields, another sign proclaims the site to be ‘a deserted medieval village’. ‘That makes more sense,’ he says.
Using my coat sleeve, I wipe the rain from the information board. Wharram Percy is the most famous example in England of a deserted medieval village, according to itself. Houses, cottages and paddocks have all been found, and the ruins of the village church are still hanging around. (And very nice they are too. I’m happy with my lot of church ruins this morning, but that’s only because I have yet to go to York and see the full glory that is St. Mary’s Abbey; a glorious construction founded by the Normans only to be put out for the bins by King Henry VIII.)
I don’t think I’m being churlish with Yorkshire Heritage’s ‘most famous example’ sales pitch, and I realise having stuff from medieval times is good, and well done everyone, but our visit involves a lot of standing around in a field wondering if the lumps in the ground under our sodden feet could have been one of the two main streets of downtown Wharram Percy. It’s not like I was expecting a Ye Olde Pizza Express, but when I dried off another information panel it had the cheek to say, ‘…none of the buildings or farmsteads have survived, but their sites can be traced through ridges left by buried stone walls and other earthworks.’ We trudge back to the car. ‘I think medieval deserted village suits it better,’ I mutter.
And that’s the first detour. There are more to come because we are going to Spurn Head via Flamborough Head via Bridlington. There are elements of the deserted village about Bridlington too when we arrive, the rain in tow. It warrants a mention in the Domesday Book apparently, but these days seems to be most famous as the former home of artist David Hockney. We walk in the wind past the Aloha Hawaiian café (also offers Tex Mex, in case you’re wondering) and down a long seafront with lots of beach and churned water that manages to be both brown and grey all at once. There is a lot of grey in Bridlington. And for variety, greyey-brown and greyey-blue and also some greyey-black. I imagine David Hockney looking out his window and desperately recreating the desiccated blues and yellows of California to warm himself up. It must be very different in summer; the town certainly seems set up for holidaymakers in a traditional guesthouse and chips-for-tea sort of way. Unusually, it has a town crier, but he wasn’t in evidence. Probably at home, keeping dry. Passing the Bridlington Spa, a local community centre and music venue on the seafront, we peer through the window at an art class and speculate what it was like for other local artists when David Hockney took up residence in the town.
Not far from Bridlingon is Flamborough Head, an eight mile long promontory on the Yorkshire coast (the photo is of the cliffs near the lighthouse). The seabed around these parts is awash with wrecks from before the time of the lighthouse, thanks to an unforgiving and dangerous coastline. Its beautiful chalk cliffs are the highest in the UK. Flamborough offers a twofer for us lighthouse fans: a Grade II listed disused lighthouse dating from 1669, and a second, which was constructed in 1806. Built from chalk (!), the first lighthouse is the oldest surviving lighthouse in Britain. It was never lit, which I can’t help but think must in some part contribute to its ‘oldest surviving’ status. Someone should have told the people of Whallam Percy that trick. In an odd parallel with the Met Office, apparently local fishermen have their own words to describe the weather. Wouldn’t it be great to hear regional versions of the Shipping forecast occasionally? German Bight, Humber: east or north-east five to seven. A bit scuffly at first in German Bight. Rain or showers. Good. Occasionally jowly.
Our primary reason for this tootle around the Yorkshire coast is to visit Spurn Head, a narrow sand spit that sticks out into the North Sea. Also known as Spurn Point, it forms the north bank of the Humber estuary. Humber is one of those sea areas where the name appears on land a lot as well, and I find it quite gratifying to see so many ‘Humbers’ around. I’m sure other sea areas – I’m looking at you; Sole, Fisher, Bailey – must be a bit miffed that although their names have other jobs to do in the English language, they are not associated with places.
Formed from sand and shingle washed southward from the Yorkshire coast and clay from Flamborough Head that is deposited in the calmer waters at the mouth of the Humber, the sands of the Spurn peninsula are always shifting. The entire area is moving gradually westwards. It is part of a civil parish called Easington, which has lost many villages to the sea over the centuries. There must be lots of ‘and their church bells can be still heard to this day, ringing under the waves,’ folklore around this area. The walk to the tip of Spurn Head and back is almost 10k, and the rain kindly decides to give us a break for entire kilometres at a time. As we set off it’s nearly four and already beginning to get dark, and the path is littered with signs demanding to know whether we have left enough time to return before high tide. Although there isn’t a high tide in sight, they make me nervous nevertheless. The first sign I think is helpful. By the fifth, I am detecting a snippy tone in the question mark. ‘Have we?’ I ask Nick. ‘I guess we’ll find out,’ he replies. There is even a shelter for people caught in high tide to wait in, and as I’m puzzling over the logistics of being trapped in a small wooden hut with waves rising outside its crickety door, Nick patiently explains that the shelter – the clue being in the name – is in a place that doesn’t get exposed to the water at high tide.
At the end of Spurn Head are an RNLI lifeboat station complete with a small clutch of crew houses, and a disused lighthouse. Because of its general trickiness to get to, it is one of only two lifeboat stations in the UK is staffed full-time, even though it is no longer permanently inhabited by crews and their families, as it once was. Spurn also has an older lighthouse (they’re both in the photo), which according to my calculations makes four lighthouses in one day. The earliest reference to a lighthouse on Spurn Point is 1427, though neither of the buildings still standing there today is it. Now closed, the newer (1895) of the two is in the process of being turned into a visitor centre. After fifty years service guiding ships safely down the tricky River Humber, the Spurn Lightship – a ship that functions as a lighthouse – is now in permanent dock in nearby Hull and open to tourists. From protection to recreation: this is the story that will be told by so many lighthouses from now on.
The following morning, I waste a few minutes threatening the squirrels who are throwing conkers down from the trees in the car park of my b&b. I’m in a hurry because I’m going to York. There was a large poster in the arrivals hall at Leeds airport which declaimed ‘Visit York! The City Where Most People in the UK Want to Live.’ And who can turn down a challenge like that? I have another reason though, because as a Kate Atkinson fan since Behind The Scenes At the Museum was published in 1995, I’ve always wanted to walk down the same York streets – Micklegate, Shambles, Tanners Moat, Doss Gate – as the fictional Ruby Lennox and her loose sprawl of predecessors.
St Mary’s, the abbey that knocks Wharram Percy’s attempt at a church out of the park, is in the grounds of the Yorkshire Museum. William the Conqueror himself gave permission for a monk called Stephen (!) to build a new monastery. Whoever Stephen was, he gave it his all, got the local nobility on board and constructed his abbey on this large site near the city. By the late 13th century, the monks had become rich enough to think about knocking down Stephen’s edifice and starting again on a grander scale, with the result being the 120m long St Mary’s. It became the wealthiest monastery in England, which must have been like a red rag to Henry VIII’s bull. During the dissolution of the monasteries, its riches were confiscated and the building left to slowly fall down. Although its main claim to fame now is that it was sketched by Turner, if decaying buildings are your thing, this one is well worth the trip. The ruins inhabit the Museum gardens as perfectly as the most carefully curated sculpture, and autumn branches are framed like filigree through gaping vaulted arches.
People have been living in York for 4,000 years. Prehistoric farmers kindly dropped flints for modern archeologists to pick up; 10,000 Roman soldiers – who named the city Eboracum – stayed for a while; Eric the Bloodaxe (so-called because he had four of his brothers killed. You didn’t mess with Eric); Stephen and his monastic crew; Dick Turpin; Rowntree’s chocolate factory workers… all these visitors to York were, as a display in the Museum puts it, ‘here for a time and then gone.’
I have a sit-down near the ruined nave of St Mary’s. A brass plaque tells me this bench was presented by the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service canteen social club 1946 – 1965. I wonder how many of the generous women of this club were living in York in April 1942, when in revenge for the recent bombing of Lübeck and Rostock, Hitler decided to target British cities that were militarily unimportant but of great historical significance. This campaign became known as the Baedecker Raids, because he selected the cities using a Baedecker guidebook. He decided that any historic place in England marked with three stars was to be targeted. York was one.
And I’m sitting on my WRVS bench and I’m inland from sea areas Humber and Dogger, yet I can’t help but think about the Shipping Forecast when I read this particular piece of York’s history in my guidebook. How different would so many lives have been had he picked the two star cities? Or used a Shell Guide instead? A guidebook is a sort of forecast too; a prediction as to what you should expect to find, and where and why it matters. There are still times, in the face of such arbitrary warfare as using a genteel Baedecker to pick which city to destroy, forecasting has no power whatsoever.
The General Synopsis At Midnight is my exploration of the sea areas of the BBC R4 Shipping Forecast, thanks to the Maeve Binchy Travel Award. The earlier post ‘Counting Down To Midnight’ explains the project. Part of this post featured in a piece called ‘The Shipping Forecast’ broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, November 2nd.