East Yorkshire – Withernsea, Erosion, a Pier and a Lighthouse

Leaving Spurn Head we travelled north along a road with more curves than Marilyn Monroe towards the seaside town of Withernsea.

On the way we drove through the unfortunate village of Easington and I say unfortunate because in the local Coastal Management Plan Easington is identified as a place not worth defending against the advancing sea and one day it will be gone.  It is called ‘managed retreat’.  I don’t know how long this will take but I noticed that the pubs were shut and there were no shops.

The advance of the sea is relentless.  The coastline here is the fastest area of erosion in the UK.  Every year six foot of land is swept away, an estimated average of two million tonnes which is moved south on the tides towards the Humber estuary and builds land there whilst it takes it away here.

On a previous visit I once came across an official looking man in a hard hat and a high visibility jacket who was taking photographs and making notes.  His name was Brian and I asked him about the erosion.  He explained to me that the problem is that this coastline really shouldn’t be here at all because it is made up of unconsolidated soft clay and small stones called glacial till that were scooped up from the sea bed by a glacier as it advanced south during the last ice age and dumped here as the ice eventually melted and receded north about ten thousand years ago.  It is just soft clay with the consistency and the look of a crumbly Christmas Cake that simply cannot resist the power of the waves.  In that time an area of land twelve miles wide has been eroded away and returned to the sea bed where it came from.

I didn’t have high expectations of Withernsea, I can’t explain why but I liked it immediately and we walked to the sea front and the Pier Tower entrance.  I say pier but there is no pier here anymore.   Built in 1877 it didn’t last very long as ships and boats kept running into it and by 1900 it had gone.

No one in England lives more than seventy miles* or so from the sea but when they get to the coast they have a curious compulsion to get even closer to the water and as far away from the shore as possible without taking to a boat. The Victorians especially liked piers and by the time of the First-World-War there were nearly two hundred sticking out all around the coastline.  If there had been satellite photography a hundred years ago then England would have looked like a giant pin-cushion.

English piers you see are rather fragile structures and over the years have had an alarming tendency to catch fire – Weston-Super-Mare, Brighton, Blackpool, Eastbourne, and Great Yarmouth have all suffered this fate but Southend-on-Sea is probably the most unfortunate of all because it has burned down four times which seems rather careless.

The problem with a pier of course is that they are generally constructed of wood and are highly combustible and a quarter of a mile or so out to sea they are also rather inaccessible to the fire service so once they go up in flames little can be done but to watch the blazing inferno from the safety of the promenade until the fire goes out by itself and all that is left is a tangle of twisted metal girders and beams.

There was once a railway line to Withernsea out of Hull which made it a busy seaside resort bringing visitors from South Yorkshire but it is long gone, swept away as part of the railway reforms of the 1960s, visitors stopped coming and today, tucked away on the far east coast it is too remote to attract holiday makers, they go to Bridlington a few miles further north which still has its railway line.

Pictures from the website https://withernsea1.co.uk/index.html

I always like to see how far a name has travelled and my research tells me that there is a Withernsea in Maryland USA, close to Washington DC and in British Columbia, Canada.

After a bag of proper Yorkshire chips and a Belgian lager we made our way now to the top visitor attraction in Withernsea – the lighthouse.  It is no longer used for its intended purpose, everything in Withernsea is redundant it seems but is now a museum with an energy sapping climb to the very top with some good views over the town and the North Sea.

* Based on a direct line drawn on an Ordnance Survey map from location to the first coast with tidal water, the village that is further from the sea than any other human settlement in the UK is Coton in the Elms in Derbyshire at exactly seventy miles in all directions…

32 responses to “East Yorkshire – Withernsea, Erosion, a Pier and a Lighthouse

  1. Interesting post Andrew. We live just 7 miles from Coton in the Elms. Often wish we were closer to the sea.

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  2. What a good looking lighthouse, Andrew. I enjoyed your little excursion and explanation of the eroding shoreline. It’s an extraordinary world that we live in, isn’t it? Have a great time in Corfu!

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  3. That was very entertaining, thank you for sharing. I’ve always liked piers. Skegness, I thought, was good but I think my favourite was Bangor in north west Wales, although it can’t lay claim to a mini-castle like Withersea has.

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  4. What an interesting post. I loved the stone sandcastles on the promenade, gave me the urge to get out my bucket and spade and head east.

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  5. I meant to say Sandstone castles not sand castles!

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  6. An interesting tour – a sad tale of erosion, and interesting point about wooden piers

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  7. How do “proper Yorkshire chips” differ from other sorts?

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  8. Another place I haven’t been to. I remember back in the 1980s it was said that Doncaster would be a seaside town by 2050 due to east coast erosion. It might take a bit longer..

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  9. And Ken Russell, filming Tommy, was responsible for Southsea Pier burning down in 1974, when we were living there. But it was the third time it had burnt down. Interesting post about poor old disappearing Withernsea et al!

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  10. If ever you’re down our way, take a look at Herne Bay pier, what’s left of it. The part that remains is put to good use (craft stalls and a micro pub for a start) but the fascination is the head of the pier, the far end, which remains way out at sea looking like some isolated sea life observatory. It was apparently the second longest pier in England (also with a train) and, looking at how far away it is, that’s not hard to believe. Easington was a coal mining village, wasn’t it? Was it one of the places where the mineshafts stretched out beneath the sea bed?

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  11. Super railway picture. I understand one of the main justifications for closing the Hornsea and Withernsea was that the level crossings choked up the traffic in Hull. My mother always used to pronounce it ‘Wither-en-sea.

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  12. . . . is there a concern that the seventy miles figures will get smaller?

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