Point of no return

Andrew Gibson, Outer Humber Officer for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, in front of the lighthouse at Spurn Point
Andrew Gibson, Outer Humber Officer for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, in front of the lighthouse at Spurn Point
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It’s the most restless piece of Yorkshire, forever on the move, and now a change for the better is on the way to Spurn. Andrew Vine meets the men devoted to looking after it.

A REDWING, its strength almost spent battling against the gusty winds off the sea, flutters down to the sands of Spurn, and takes shelter from one of the lumps of concrete that litter the beach.

“All the way from Norway,” says Andrew Gibson, watching the bird through his binoculars. “Only just made it to land.”

The peninsula is filling with such fragile winter migrants, and with birdwatchers too, in weatherproof gear against the downpours, setting up with scopes and cameras to see the new arrivals. Andrew knows many of them, and stops to chat, asking what species are around.

It’s a natural rapport, because it was birdwatching that first drew him here as a boy, 37 years ago at the beginning of what has become a long love affair with this unique corner of Yorkshire, the ends of our earth, a slender finger of land crooked three miles out where the North Sea beckons the Humber, battered and overwashed by high seas.

Andrew is the man responsible for looking after it, and bleak and windswept though it often is, it’s his home and a source of solace as well as his workplace, the unceasing sound of the waves crashing on the shoreline easing the tinnitus he suffers from.

Andrew, 53, along with the crew of the Humber Lifeboat stationed at the tip of Spurn, is one of the handful of people who live here. He’s the outer Humber officer of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, which runs the Spurn nature reserve, and lives over his office.

At night, he can hear the ships as well as the waves, heading out or coming home, the sea traffic of one of the world’s busiest estuaries another soundtrack to his life. In the mornings, he can scrape away with his boots at the sand to see how deeply the temporary road down the peninsula has been buried whilst he slept.

It’s doubtful that anybody else knows more about Spurn, its quirks, its moods and its movement, than Andrew, how the sea can hurl massive timbers onto the shore, or how the endless scouring of the waves can turn up relics of prehistory, like the mammoth’s molar he found on the beach and which now sits on his desk as a paperweight. He’s fascinated by everything he sees here. As Andrew looks out over the mudflats of the Humber at low tide, a haven for wading birds, he says: “One cubic metre of that mud has more calorific value than a Mars Bar. I wouldn’t eat it, but just think what’s in it for the birds.”

This is a constantly evolving landscape, changing from day to day. Sand dunes taller than Andrew, seemingly vast and immovable, can be there one day and gone the next. The telegraph poles carrying power lines down to the lifeboat station need to be moved every six months because of the constantly shifting sands.

“It’s that change that I like about it,” said Andrew, a buildings engineer in his native Hull before he came to work for the trust in 2002. “Big skies, big horizons, constant change. It is the best place to see change in rare birds, and if you lived in Hull, you went to local spots and very quickly you realised that if you came to Spurn any day of the week, there will be change, there will be variety. That mirrors the land, and I wasn’t interested in the land aspects initially, and now that side of it is just as fascinating.”

And now there’s another change on the way, for the better. The old Spurn lighthouse, built between 1893 and 1895, and dark since 1985, is to be brought back into use as a visitor centre, thanks to a grant of £470,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund. If all goes according to plan, it will open at Easter in 2015, catering to the 70,000 visitors a year who either walk or cycle the length of Spurn down to the point, where the lighthouse towers 150ft high, commanding panoramic views of the Humber and its ports.

Two nearby military buildings – a First World War gun store and a Second World War gun emplacement – will also be restored and converted to provide a toilet block and a viewing platform.

It’s a project dear to the hearts of Andrew, who has long wanted to see the lighthouse brought back into use, and his colleague and friend Harry Watkins, 30, the conservation project officer who put the funding bid together. He came to Spurn two years ago to help a friend stage an art exhibition in the lighthouse, and was as captivated by the landscape as Andrew had been all those years before.

Harry said: “You go down there, and you do feel like you’re at the end of the world because you’ve got massive skies, and there’s no one around. Even on a busy day, say we have 2,000 people here, they are all spread out and you feel really remote.”

But one aspect of the constantly changing landscape fascinates Andrew and Harry above all others, and that is the movement of Spurn itself. This land is not just alive with birds, it is a living, shifting thing in itself.

It has long been held that Spurn washes away every 250 years, and then re-forms. Andrew, with Harry’s vigorous support, is having none of that. “Absolute rubbish. There is no evidence for that whatsoever. Movement is the thing that’s fixed in everybody’s mind, and we’ve been taught that it washes away, but it doesn’t.”

What happens, says Andrew, is that Spurn is gradually rolling westwards, the sands being moved by the sea, but the peninsula is constantly being renewed by debris washed from the cliffs as far north as Bridlington and brought south by the tides.

What worries him and Harry most is the legacy of sea defence works carried out across the course of about 80 years from the late 19th century. Concrete fortifications and groynes running out to sea about halfway down Spurn are causing the waves to have a greater impact on the unprotected land at either side of them.

More concrete was added during the Second World War, as Spurn bristled with gun emplacements and tank traps to protect the Humber against the threat of invasion. “That legacy is still there and having an impact,” said Andrew. “We don’t think of land as a moving structure, and that in itself is quite challenging to people.

“We protect Spurn by allowing it to move. You can’t protect it by trying to make it stand still. You’ve got to allow that dynamic nature, and as human beings we don’t like that. We’re at that point where man has interfered, and the question is how do you return that coiled spring back to equilibrium.”

Harry adds: “It’s a difficult concept to convey, because on the one hand you’re saying that Spurn is always moving and it’s moving on different timescales and it’s always dynamic. There are parts of it that are relatively stable, but it’s what happens because of all the sea defences that’s the tricky bit.”

The well-being of Spurn is on Andrew’s mind constantly, day and night. When darkness falls, he often goes out onto the peninsula, and remote as it is, the lights of the Humber ports are all around.

“It’s not as quiet as you’d think,” he said. “You’ve got the fourth or fifth largest port in Europe, over 100 pilots, operating 24 hours a day.

“You go down there on a night, and you walk along and all of a sudden you see some anglers’ lights and you think, ‘What’s he doing here?’ and he’s thinking exactly the same about you, so the context of quiet can be broken by one person.”