Spurn’s future in the spotlight

Spurn Point after last year's tidal surge - (Photo credit: Environment Agency.)
Spurn Point after last year's tidal surge - (Photo credit: Environment Agency.)
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Its owners say a new visitor centre promises ‘a brighter future’ for one of the Yorkshire’s remotest landmarks.

Not everyone agrees. Alexandra Wood reports.

On a blustery December’s day there are many more birds than human visitors on Spurn Point.

Romantically highlighted in a shaft of light which breaks through the close embrace of cloud a man is digging for bait way out on the mud, and behind him three miles out in the estuary, the old lighthouse glowers. Ships are passing on the river, but otherwise it is a solitary scene.

For many the attraction of this iconic landmark is its wild and natural landscape. Sticking like a crooked finger into the estuary, it is the end of a natural funnel and first landfall for thousands of migrating birds in spring and autumn, and not just birds, large migrations of insects, ladybirds, dragonflies and butterflies, can occur.

It is the fear that its “very end of the earth” feeling could disappear as a result of Yorkshire Wildlife Trust building a new visitors centre which is ruffling feathers among some visitors and locals.

As one person commented: “It’s probably the nearest we come to East Coast wilderness. A large, modern building just doesn’t belong here.”

Plans for the centre emerged after last year’s tidal surge, the biggest in living memory, swept away a chunk of road. It left in its wake a strand which is now washed over at the highest tides, leaving Spurn periodically cut off for several hours.

The pilots who used to guide the shipping into the Humber from Spurn have shifted to Grimsby and numbers of visitors have plummeted as cars can no longer drive to the Point.

People face a seven-mile slog over the sands, with just a few making it to the very end.

An artist’s impression of the centre, to be built close to the gates to the reserve, south of Kilnsea village, is striking, with a dramatic curving wall, and a location most developers can only dream of, with wonderful views across the Humber, Spurn and out to the North Sea.

It will have a classroom that can be used by school groups and a ringing laboratory for the Spurn Bird Observatory for volunteers and visiting scientists, a cafe and car park.

Built on rock-filled gabions - using concrete recycled from piles dumped in previous doomed attempts to stop erosion - it will have an undercroft which can take up to 8ft of floodwater.

YWT says the £900,000 centre - funded by E.ON who are developing a huge wind farm off Spurn - will “nestle” in the fields with “little visible impact” on the landscape.

The trust says the centre will help them manage visitors, minimise their impact, keep them “safe”, and inform them about Spurn’s wildlife, cultural and social heritage, environment and renewable energy.

But objectors including a Facebook group, No To Spurn’s YWT’s Visitor Centre with more than 50 “likes”, oppose the plans, saying it will be impossible to develop without impacting prime habitat and disturbing shorebird populations.

And they take issue with the description of the plans as “modest.”

One wrote: “Loss of revenue from the road closure has perhaps refocused the trust’s minds on income generation at this reserve.

“What nearly all locals and regular visitors do agree on is that the proposed site is totally inappropriate.”

Dr Jan Crowther, a Kilnsea resident, who wrote a history of Spurn - The People Along The Sand - and who resigned from the parish council earlier this year over an equally contentious planning application to allow Sandy Beaches caravan park to “roll back” off the eroding clifftop, says the two main issues are location and funding.

She is part of a body of opinion who thinks it should be at the wellfield, a few hundred yards from the Bluebell Cafe, where YWT currently have offices and an information point.

But to her mind building a centre at all given the vulnerability of the area to flooding is “folly.”

She said: “It’s very close to delicate feeding areas for waders and very close to special sites of scientific interest and special area of conservation and it’s vulnerable to flooding; when we had the surge the road down to it was completely flooded. It was an unusual event but with global warming we could have it again tomorrow.”

She says E.ON consulted East Riding Council but not the locals over what to fund, and other projects, like the youth club never got a look in.

Another local Peter Martin said: “The YWT have owned Spurn for 55 years and done virtually nothing with it. There’s not even been toilets on Spurn in that time. The new centre will include car parking at a price, a shop and cafe - which all seems to suggest it’s a financial venture rather than environmental.”

Dave Steenvoorden, Humber Lifeboat coxswain, says Spurn “is for sharing”, but feels nature may well have a trick or two up her sleeve, given the fragility of the narrows: “When we had the storms last year it stripped the beach down to the riverbed. I am uncomfortable with the level of investment with YWT when I don’t think nature is done with it.”

However YWT’s director of development Jonathan Leadley says there’s plenty of support for the project: “We’ve had a lot of people who are not necessarily birdwatchers who have made comments that it will secure their business and people have e-mailed, including very long-standing visitors to Spurn that it’s about time we do this and people also posting onto some of the Facebook sites.

“There’s a vocal group who are objecting, but a lot of people who are not sticking their heads above the parapet for fear of being shot down are emailing to say they are completely in support and it’s a great idea for Spurn’s future.”

Mr Leadley said they did a huge amount of work on the scheme, considering the options with Natural England and a company called Footprint Ecology and the chosen site has the least impact.

Just how many more people will visit in future as a result of “improvements” like this, is a ticklish subject.

Project officer Andy Mason suggests “If it can handle up to 70,000, which it did previous to the surge, that would be the number you would be looking for.”

He accepts “sensitivities around Spurn are very heightened” and says this is why YWT are consulting now, before a planning application is submitted in the New Year.

He said: “Some people think it may be done like a country park - it will categorically not be like that. Just to put in a sign in you have to have permission from Natural England.”

He believes the centre will fulfil an important mission to educate people, steering them towards being more conservation-minded.

“My real love is education and conservation - to put both together will be fantastic. Spurn is an amazing place but we need to look after it. The trust would not do anything that is detrimental to Spurn.”