Atlas of vanishing places lists Yorkshire seaside town with Xanadu and hanging gardens of Babylon

Out Newton, Dimlington and Ringborough: their names read like a roll-call of the railway stations Dr Beeching laid waste.

Coastal erosion affecting the cliffs at Skipsea
Coastal erosion affecting the cliffs at Skipsea

Yet in centuries past, before their inhabitants abandoned them to the sea, these were the settlements that dotted the Yorkshire coast.

It has been more than a century and a half since a village was last lost, but the publication of a new book has brought Skipsea an unwelcome reminder of a threat it had long known.

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The seaside town has found itself listed – alongside the hanging gardens of Babylon and Xanadu in inner Mongolia – in an atlas of vanishing places, past and present.

Author Travis Elborough. Picture: David X Green

Travis Elborough, the cultural historian who compiled it, said a reader picking it up two centuries from now might find Skipsea as intangible as either of them.

“These ruined sites and lost landscapes remind us of the fragility of our own presence,” he said.

Skipsea’s story is one that has been played out many times. A map, newly commissioned for the book, lists 28 settlements strung out between Bridlington and Spurn Point, which have been lost to the sea.

“In their time they had churches, fields, farm-houses and cottages,” said author and local historian Dr Jan Crowther, a parish councillor at Easington, on the tip of the Holderness peninsula.

The existence of some is known only from the Domesday Book, but contemporary accounts exist from around 1850 of a time when an entire village moved itself.

Kilnsea was considered “the prettiest village in all Holderness, standing on a hill with a wide prospect over sea and land, a noble old church, pleasant gardens sloping down the hillside and a fine spring of bright water surrounded by willows”.

But faced with the encroaching sea and the erosion of the soft boulder clay on which their cobble and thatch houses were built, the residents abandoned the land for a new village further inland.

“They had to start all over again,” said Dr Crowther. “But they were practical people. Their church was gradually collapsing, so they took some of the stones and used them in a new building.”

Old Kilnsea lies slightly north of an even more remarkable settlement that is now beneath the waves. Ravenser Odd was not a farming hamlet but a nationally important sea port with a Royal charter, a market and an annual fair. At the height of its fortunes in the early 14th century, it supplied the king with two ships and armed men to help him fight the Scots.

But by 1360, the entire place was gone, the erosion exposing even bodies buried in the town graveyard – an episode that was to repeated in Old Kilnsea.

“There is a parallel with the caravan sites in Skipsea today,” said Dr Crowther.

“They start by moving them gradually away from the cliff until the clubhouse is threatened and they have to abandon the site completely.”

The vanishing villages of the East Riding were identified and chronicled first by Thomas Sheppard, a museum curator in Hull and amateur geologist, who in 1912 published The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast. He suggested that up to that point, a strip around a mile wide had been washed away at the rate of some 7ft a year.

But erosion had been a far older phenomenon, said Dr Crowther, who suggested that settlements must have existed on Doggerland, the submerged area beneath the North Sea that connected Britain to continental Europe, which was flooded as early as 6200BC.

Erosion is also not unique to the east coast. On the edge of Snowdonia earlier this year, a Welsh council said it could not protect the village of Fairbourne from the elements forever, and that sooner than later, everything would go.

But the tragedy of the homes lost to time ran deeper than bricks and mortar, said Paul Lisseter, who represents Skipsea on the East Riding of Yorkshire council.

“You can replace a house but not the memories of the people who were there,” he said.

“I remember going down the coast as a boy, and it’s alarming to see how much it’s changed and how much has disappeared.

“There is an inevitability about it but that doesn’t make it any less distressing for people whose homes are disappearing.”

Travis Elborough’s book compares Skipsea with the Florida Everglades, the Dead Sea and the drought stricken River Daube among the world’s “shrinking places”.

His book also takes in what he calls the “threatened worlds” of Venice and the Congo Basin rainforest, as well as several historical sites.

Of the vanished villages of the East Riding, he said: “The retreat began such a long time ago and these wonderful names have vanished beneath the sea.”

He will speak about his atlas, published by White Lion at £22, on October 1 at the Morley Arts Festival.