Fort & Folly

Humber Estuary

Spurn Head Spit may now be significant as a natural habitat, but this sliver of shifting clay has military value too.  The Humber gives access to a number of major docks (though even in total they handle but a fraction of the traffic seen on the Thames) and so for an invading force coming by sea it provides an attractive objective for a fleet of ships, and so Spurn would make a convenient muster point for ground forces to disembark and attack Hull from both sides.

This was demonstrated in the late 14th century when Henry IV landed his forces here at the port of Ravenspurn (referred to by Shakespeare in his histories as Ravenspurgh) before going on to depose his cousin Richard II.  Seventy years later Edward IV repeated the act when he sought (and achieved) restoration to the throne which was then held by Henry VI.  There is no longer any trace of Ravenspurn.  It is one of 30 settlements along the East Yorkshire coastline that have been consumed by the North Sea in the centuries that have followed.

Jump forwards to the First World War and the estuary’s strategic importance resulted in new plans for its defence.  Construction work began in 1915 of two forts in the mouth of the river.  Each would be garrisoned by 200 troops and provide artillery fire to deter any waterborne forces.  Due to the challenges of their construction on sandbanks (one of which was a few meters underwater) they were not completed until the war was already over.

World War II saw the forts reinstated and this time face enemy fire, though a very different enemy to that envisaged when they were built.  They were regularly targeted by German aircraft who were perhaps seeking to destroy the new defence that they provided; a boom stretched between the forts and on to Spurn Head with a net to prevent attacks from the Nazi U-boat fleet.  

Spurn Head had two further forts, also constructed in the First World War, and placed at either end of the “head”.  These coastal artillery batteries were augmented by smaller gun emplacements in between.  At the southern end the fort is well preserved but a different tale is evident at the northern fort which has been completely devastated.  Foundations have been overturned, revealing the imprint of sandbags long since turned to solid concrete.  Bricks are scattered liberally and reveal the “LBC” makers mark (London Brick Company) that was evidence of the capital’s dominance.  Huge slabs of concrete stand at a variety of different angles and crumble around the edges in surrender.

No navy wrought this destruction with large calibre shells.  No land forces planted charges to undermine the defence.  This is the work of a greater power; the sea.  For centuries man has sought to battle this invader too and stabilise the shoreline, but in recent years the decision has been taken to let nature take her course; the spit will move, break and reform from time to time as a result, but to try to prevent it would always be a losing battle.

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