Words and pictures: David Stead
When I started the River Ure Project I had intended to work my way down river only as far as the point where it changes its name to the Ouse but this inconsequential and indeterminate dissolution had always rankled – rivers after all, flow into the sea don’t they? they become part of that great cycle of sea, sky, cloud, rain and river that sustains life and here in Yorkshire anyway, gives us a regular soaking, so on a bright, breezy and thankfully dry day in April I set off to witness the transformation.
It’s easy to forget just how big this county really is but if you do need reminding, take a drive to Spurn Point from ……… well, almost anywhere else in Yorkshire – it’s a long way! Once past Beverley, you soon begin to get the feeling you are approaching the edge – the landscape is prairie flat, the roads straight and the sky, huge and indefinably coloured by the sea. The fields are tramlined into yet more straight lines and turbines harvest the wind. At Easington a huge gas terminal straddles the road; double fenced and dog patrolled it lends an air of secrecy, even menace to the otherwise wide-eyed innocence of the place.
The road narrows into single track, becomes sandier and the sun shafts onto the Humber estuary (the Ure estuary) to my right. I pull in to the small car park and as the engine dies the north-westerly rocks the car gently. Spurn Point is a narrow, three mile long blunted spike of land that curls out between the estuary and the sea carrying a road which has been so battered by the winter storms that it is now closed to vehicles and it seems unlikely that the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust who run and administer the area will reinstate it. For many years there have been attempts to stabilise this shifting landscape with concrete and steel but in the face of the sea’s power they have, over time, largely failed and now it is time to allow nature to take charge once again.
Marram grass dances and sings on the dunes adding to the voices of Curlews and other wading birds on the mud flats to the west; it’s what you might call ‘bracing’. The delicacy of this place is immediately apparent as the sea washes over the remaining blocks of roadway and eats away at the dunes, and the groynes that once arrested longshore drift loll drunkenly in churning sea-foam. The sea is not re-claiming, but re-sculpting like a potter with a ball of clay – what once was land is becoming sea and what was sea, land. Through this process of erosion and deposition Spurn is gradually moving westwards and will soon become an island; it is one of the most dynamic and fastest moving landscapes in the country. This is a compelling place to work – it feels like painting history, such is its transience.
After a couple of hundred metres the sand dusted road is protected by dunes and I follow it along the long, curving spit; a line of telegraph poles punctuates the way and washes out to the horizon. A beached lobster pot nestles in the sand and, mouth agape, waits in vain. I make some quick drawings and colour notes and continue along the road, crossing and re-crossing old, half buried railway tracks – the remains of a line built to transport men and materials to a gun battery built during the Great War (contemporary photographs show that some of the rail vehicles were wind powered and had large sails!) After an hour or so of walking, stopping, wandering, looking, scribbling, the land that curved away ahead of me, now arcs back to the ‘mainland’. I am standing beneath the now disused, Spurn Lighthouse; its once black and white livery now flaked with a patina of mellowing age, the light itself, doused in 1985. it is locked, of course, so I wander round the outside staring dizzyingly upwards at its blank windows and a Kestrel lifts easily from the telegraph wires and perches on one of the upper window ledges and waits for my departure.
In this predominantly horizontal scape it is the verticals that clamour for attention: the lighthouse itself, the telegraph poles and most surprisingly, a bus stop, surely now redundant, informs of past outings, of wrapped sandwiches and pop and ‘can we go now?’. Rust coats every metal surface, prematurely ageing so that a tractor and boat trailer have all the appearance of having been abandoned for years, though they may well have been used yesterday and the lifeboatmen’s bicycles are enough to make Bradley Wiggins weep.
As I near the end of the point, marine debris litters the beach – bottles, plastic in all its hideous forms and a blue nike trainer. Brutalist concrete bunkers and gun emplacements remind me once again of the other lives once lived here and I can’t help feeling there might have been a touch of the ‘Dad’s Army’ about it – “Make us a cup ‘a’ Rosie Lee Charlie; we ain’t gonna see the perishin’ Jerry tonight’.
I watch the stately progress of enormous container ships silently entering the estuary and as I do so a large log, washed up on the beach, opens an unexpected eye and starts belly flopping towards the surf with a backward glance of heartfelt reproach: it’s actually a Common Seal, one of the many marine mammals to be found in these waters but for me, a wonderful surprise and I rebuke myself for having almost blundered into the poor creature.
Time and tide as they say…….having reached the end, I turn and retrace my steps the three miles or so towards the car, and none too soon because the tide is coming in fast and the landward end of the causeway is almost under water. The air is a mist of salt water and the ground, unstable but soon I’m safely back in the deserted car park.
The car door clunks shut and suddenly all is quiet – the roar of wind and sea that have battered my senses for the past three hours are shut out; it’s like stepping out of a nightclub into the early dawn. I have loved it and I’m a little drunk.