It is anything like a typical seaside town. Amongst the Yorkshire coast resorts, it has a unique air. Aside from some amusement arcades and bucket-and-spade shops, there are few visible seaside trappings.
It’s almost like a market village that happens to be next to the sea. And it’s this atmosphere that attracts many of its visitors. Withernsea has a slower speed, a calmer feel to it. A walk on the blue-flag beach and some fish and chips stubbornly (and admirably) remain the biggest draw.
Just a tiny village at the time (a few households, a handful of residents and a church), the original Withernsea was abandoned around 1440 when coastal erosion took its inevitable course. The village was moved a little inland and a new church built around 40 years later.
The town continued to gradually grow until the foundation of the railways brought proper tourism to Withernsea. In 1854, the 18-mile line from Hull transformed the fortunes of the town, the grand Queens Hotel followed a year later and groynes were finally installed along the beach in 1871 to ensure the whole lot would never need to be moved inland again.
Seven years after the groynes, Withernsea opened its greatest ever tourist attraction – the pier. Built over two years by engineer Thomas Cargill, it reached over 1,000 feet into the sea and featured an impressive castellated entrance. Visitors paid a penny a head to perambulate over the beach, the waves and way out across the sea. Sadly, the castle is the only part of the pier remaining as it proved a somewhat cursed enterprise.
During a huge storm in 1880, a coal barge ran into the pier, leaving a 200-foot gap in the middle. It was rebuilt in wood rather than iron, but the pierhead and saloon were washed away in another storm just two years later.
A decade on, a fishing boat collision removed around half the remaining pier and then, in 1893, another boat – the Henry Parr heading to Grimsby - reduced the total length of the pier to just 50 foot. When the sea wall was built in 1903, those last few feet were removed and all that remains today is the castle entrance.
There is a fundraising campaign underway to raise money to rebuild the pier led by Withernsea Pier and Promenade Association with visitors and locals being encouraged to show their support and make a donation if possible.
If only the other great Withernsea landmark had been built in time, the original pier may have been saved, but the lighthouse became operational only in 1894.
Built on the western side of the town, it’s a rare example of an inland lighthouse; octagonal on the outside, round within and standing 120 feet high.
Operational until 1976, these days if offers tours to the top and the ground floor is dedicated to the most famous person ever born in Withernsea – Golden Globe-winning actress Kay Kendall.
Kendall was born in a house just up the way on Hull Road in 1926. She became a film star, primarily in the UK but latterly in Hollywood and is probably best remembered in this country for the 1952 Oscar-nominated British classic Genevieve, about the comedic adventures of two couples competing in the London-Brighton Vintage Car Rally.
The film was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic and led Kendall first to Hollywood and then into marriage with Rex Harrison, who she appeared alongside on-screen several times. She scored her biggest hit with the Cole Porter musical Les Girls, for which she won the Golden Globe. Tragically, she died of leukaemia at the age of just 32 while at the height of her fame.
The museum in the lighthouse is probably the best and only memorial to an unfairly overlooked British star.
Just outside the town, four miles south on the coast road, is the eerily-fascinating RAF Holmpton – a must for anyone with an interest in the Cold War.
Beneath an unassuming bungalow, alone in a field, is a concrete bunker consisting of a warren of tunnels, which was once a listening facility and war HQ designed to withstand a nuclear conflict.
Built in the 1950s and operational for more than 60 years, the bunker is now open to tourists and a gold mine for anyone with an interest in early warning systems or espionage. It even has an underground pub complete with a pool table and jukebox. It’s like a location from a Le Carré novel and entirely engrossing.
Another industry arrived in Withernsea more recently. The expansion of the offshore wind-farm fields in the North Sea provides shimmering, distant modern artworks as well as bringing workers from associated industry into the town’s B&Bs and guest houses, throughout the year.
More than ever, Withernsea doesn’t rely on tourism for its income and that sense of un-seasideiness continues.
A recent arrival in the town is poet Dean Wilson, who moved here last year after spending many of his childhood holidays in the town.
He attests that the draw of the place is found in its idiosyncrasy: “It’s unique in many ways. Like the rest of Holderness, it has this otherworldliness that makes for great inspiration for artists. It is and isn’t a seaside town; it’s ageless, especially when you’re on the beach. But there is also the sense of time pressing on you.
“The relentless ticking of waves that ate up the original village reminds you that you’re moving inexorably toward an end. That makes you want to create as much as you can before it arrives.”
So there you have it, Withernsea is quirky, interesting and unique – and well worth exploring.
For more information about the pier camapaign and to make a donation go to: https://www.withernsea1.co.uk/Pier.html
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