Lost world of vanished villages

Holderness is disappearing at an average rate of two metres per year. Here you will come upon dramatic endings to tarmac roads, with edges that make them look like giant jigsaws with the straight piece required to complete the picture missing.

The destruction is a relentless process and has been going on since post-glacial times. The only certainty for those who live here is that no-one is going to be a winner.

Dilapidated shacks, made of tin and timber, cling gamely to the cliff edge between Ulrome and Skipsea. Abandoned farmsteads with rusting structures and a mass of obsolete machinery and tatty outbuildings litter the area.

And yet this is a coastline of contradictions. In parts it looks like a wilderness, a land that in some ways echoes the mid-West of the United States, mostly flat and with tumbleweed-style locations. Elsewhere it is host to delightful villages such as Atwick and Mappleton.

Taking in Barmston, Skipsea, Aldbrough, Tunstall and Holderness's twin seaside resorts of Hornsea and Withernsea you will find pleasant holiday sites that are up-to-date and enjoying reasonable success in the present economic climate.

Some 30-plus villages have been lost since Roman times, remains of some of them are now up to three and a half miles out under the waves of the North Sea. House-owners threatened by erosion have been forced to leave their properties and bear the cost of demolishing them without compensation.

There is no insurance you can take out against your home falling victim to the sea.

The Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs is responsible for national coastal policy. They encourage and assist councils that have coastlines to draw up a Shoreline Management Plan (SMP). These were introduced in 1994 to provide a large-scale assessment of flood risk and erosion and end the previous piece-meal approach to coastal management. East Riding of Yorkshire Council does not yet have an SMP in place. Michael Ball, the council's principal engineer says: "On a practical level we are now part of the Humber Estuary Coastal Authorities Group (HECAG).

"This covers the area from Flamborough Head to Spurn Point and as far south as Gibraltar Point north of the Wash. There are four councils involved – ourselves, North East Lincolnshire, East Lindsey and Lincolnshire. Also involved are the Environment Agency, Natural England and English Heritage.

"We are in the process of putting together an SMP which will be due for completion by mid-2010. That will set the policies for the next 100 years regarding sustainable management of the coastline."

Whenever that word "sustainable" crops up in connection with council activity a suspicion sometimes arises in the public mind that it's an excuse for doing nothing. In this instance individuals living on the edge fear an SMP will mean only protecting the main communities.

"We're not going to do something today that will inconvenience future generations," says Michael Ball. "You cannot just put in hard defences right along the stretch from Barmston to Spurn. It costs around 5,000 a metre to put in hard defences, but it's not all down to budgets.

"The material that is swept from the East Riding is used to help the environmental balance in the Humber and Lincolnshire, which relies upon the sediment. We may have eroding cliffs in East Yorkshire, but Lincolnshire has no cliffs. Without the sediment attracted from ourselves there could be a greater risk of flooding for them. And because their land is so low-lying, the water can go in a long way – as it did in the great floods of 1953.

"The council has protected the conurbations of Bridlington, Hornsea, Mappleton, Withernsea and Easington, and we constantly work with the residents over future plans. The reasons for the hard points at Mappleton and Easington are fairly straightforward.

"At Mappleton we have the strategic highway of the B1242, which connects Hornsea and Withernsea, as well as the rest of the coastal villages. Relocating the road would cause both massive cost and inconvenience. Easington is also of massive strategic importance – 25 per cent of the UK's gas comes in here from the North Sea gas fields

and Norway.

"Jonathan Owen, deputy leader of the council, and Coun Jane Evison have

made major representations over the plight of all our residents affected by coastal erosion and the Government has

been very receptive to what we have been saying.

"We have shown Defra officials what is happening and the actions they are currently undertaking have shown us that they are not just paying us lip service. Their Coastal Change policy, which is in draft form at present and currently being consulted upon, is evidence of that."

The Coastal Change policy plan might give those who live by the sea renewed hope and a sense that their plight is at last being recognised.

Michael Ball is encouraged by the new plans. "We really are working with the residents and the other bodies in order to ensure everyone's futures.

"Of course, there are financial limitations. We have to bid for public monies like any other department, but we feel that we have an extremely strong emotive case.

"Coastal erosion isn't something that the council came up with, it has been going on for thousands of years, but we are trying our best to alleviate some of the problems that residents face."

But he points to the case of Happisburgh in North Norfolk which seems to have been an example of how a community had its hopes snatched away. This time "sustainability" was not the criterion but "cost-benefit".

After analysis, it was decided maintaining Happisburgh's sea defences was not cost beneficial.

Over the coming 100 years of global warming, experts anticipate the sea will rise by a metre. For the East Riding this poses immense problems. "I don't think we are likely to see floods of biblical proportions," adds Michael Ball. "That's why sea defences are so important."

There are six miles of sea defences along the whole of the Holderness coastline.

Expert opinion is that these will have to extend further into the sea as time goes by. But these defences, "hard points", are problematic for those living south of them. There seems a unanimous view from those living on and near the cliffs at Cowden, Hollym, Holmpton and Kilnsea that they have suffered extra erosion due to the hard points at Mappleton, Withernsea and Easington.

Their impact causes the sea to carve out new bays. But not just yet.

The earliest predicted will be in 180 years, just south of Hornsea. However, with the incessant power of the North Sea, and the rising tides and sea levels that day will come.

A problem that was millennia in the making

The East Riding and the Holderness coastline comprises post-glacial clay which began eroding immediately after its formation.

During this time, until about 6,000 years ago, much of the North Sea was a swampy area fed by the rivers Humber, Thames and Rhine.

Holderness still retains much of its post-glacial appearance.

The rolling hills of the East Riding were formed by the glacial deposits as the ice sheets retreated.

The coastline is eroding at between 1.5 to 2 metres per year, but there are many points where it is happening much faster.

What happens is known as longshore drift.

The North Sea attacks the coastline mainly from the north- east. This removes whatever gets in the way of the tidal surge and, via its tremendous power, takes it further down the coastline. The severity of the impact is governed by the angle of the cliff and the height and depth of its sand layer.

The cliffs at Barmston have one of the highest rates of erosion in Europe. Kilnsea, near Spurn Point has cliffs that are no more than 10 feet high in places.


Hartburn; Hyde; Withow; Cleeton Northorpe; Hornsea Burton; Hornsea Beck; Southorpe; Great Cowden; Cowden Parva;

Old Aldbrough; Ringborough; Monkwell; Monkwike;

Sand-Le-Mere; Waxholme; Owthorne or Sisterkirke;

Newsham; Old Withernsea; Out Newton; Dimlington;

Turmarr; Northorpe; Hoton; Old Kilnsea; Ravenspurn;

Ravenser Odd.