The lost villages of the Yorkshire Coast that now lie under the sea

A map showing the lost towns of Yorkshire from John Roberts' 1889 book "The Lost Towns of the Humber; with an introductory chapter on the Roman geography of South East Yorkshire, etc. L.P."
A map showing the lost towns of Yorkshire from John Roberts' 1889 book "The Lost Towns of the Humber; with an introductory chapter on the Roman geography of South East Yorkshire, etc. L.P."
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It’s no secret to residents living on the Yorkshire Coast that the landscape they know and love is disappearing fast.

Countless experts have warned that climate change threatens to displace thousands of residents from their homes in the coming years as coastal erosion speeds up to a faster rate than ever before.

Cliff erosion at Kilnsea Caravan Park in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Cliff erosion at Kilnsea Caravan Park in the East Riding of Yorkshire

Lost settlements

What fewer people realise, however, is that coastal erosion is no new problem in this region.

Since the Roman era, historians have documented dozens of hamlets and villages along the East Coast which have already disappeared, now lying beneath the waves of the North Sea.

The most complete account of these lost towns and villages was written by Thomas Shepphard in 1912, who used old accounts and map drawings to figure out the rough locations of these settlements claimed by the sea.

A sign warning of coastal erosion in Hornsea, which has lost at least one village to the sea since the Roman period in Britain.

A sign warning of coastal erosion in Hornsea, which has lost at least one village to the sea since the Roman period in Britain.

By the time of his writing in the early 20th century, he estimated that 30 or so settlements had been washed away, some of which had once played important roles in the fishing, farming and trade industries of the region.

Ravenser Odd and Ravenspurn

Undoubtedly the most significant of the settlements lost to the waves was Ravenser Odd and Ravenspurn. The latter even gets a mention in Shakespeare’s Richard II with the eponymous King speaking of a place called “Ravenspurg”.

It’s believed that the settlements lay a mile or so east from Spurn Point, on a sandbank on the mouth of the River Humber.

A lighthouse at Spurn Point. Ravenser Odd and Ravenspurn once lay a stone's throw from this site before they were consumed by the sea.

A lighthouse at Spurn Point. Ravenser Odd and Ravenspurn once lay a stone's throw from this site before they were consumed by the sea.

Ravenser Odd was founded around 1235 and was the first port of entry to travellers coming up the Humber from the North Sea, making it an extremely important fishing, shipping and trading point.

As a result, the town grew quickly, establishing a court, chapel, prison, gallows, warehouses, markets and an annual fair. It also contributed ships and men for King Edward I’s wars with Scotland.

But by 1340 accounts show concerns about the impact of flooding on the town, and a few years later around 200 buildings had been lost.

Townfolk reported that the final destruction came when the chapel was attacked by the North Sea, upturning the bones of the dead buried there. Most fled to nearby settlements like Hull and the once-bustling town was claimed by the sea.

Auburn

Auburn or Aborn was a small village within the civil parish of Barmston and Fraisthorpe that was abandoned in the 16th century due to coastal erosion, with the village reduced to just one farm of around 200 acres and a cottage.

The church was dismantled in 1590 and rebuilt further inland, but was demolished finally in 1731 due to the sea once again encroaching.

Hornsea Beck

Another settlement lying close to the sea in Hornsea, Hornsea Beck was a small settlement recorded to exist as early as 1367.

By 1747 however, it had been completely destroyed by coastal erosion, with an estimated 38 houses falling into the sea.

An anonymous poem was said to have been found in Hornsea referencing the encroaching sea, reading:

“Hornsea steeple, when I built thee,

Thou was 10 miles off Burlington,

10 miles off Beverley, and 10 miles off sea.”

Owthorne and Old Withernsea

Legend has it that the churches in Owthorne and the neighbouring town of Old Withernsea were built by two sisters who wanted to build a local church but could not agree on whether it should have a tower or steeple.

Both were eventually destroyed by the encroaching sea, with a huge storm in 1816 dealing the final blow to Owthorne church, destroying it along with large chunks of the town, and reportedly casting bodies from the graveyard into the sea.

Warning on rising sea levels

Along with dozens more, the stories of these lost settlements serve as a warning for the future of the Yorkshire Coast.

Without serious action, more communities are at risk from rising sea levels, with East Yorkshire highlighted as one of the English areas most susceptible to coastal erosion.