There are peninsulas and there are peninsulas. The narrowness of the fragile spit that links Spurn Head to the mainland means it is easy to stand with water visible on either side of you. Proceed south and the Head itself is more substantial, but climb to one of the highpoints and you now have a third watery vista ahead where the North Sea’s salty waters blend with the silts, muds and fresh water that the Rivers Ouse and Trent feed into the Humber. A sailors playground.
Yet in the 85 miles or so between here and Whitby, the East Yorkshire coastline is believed to have 50,000 shipwrecks, of which the most famous is probably the Bonhomme Richard. Remarkably this was as a result of a sea battle in the American War of Independence.
Now I’d always assumed that the hostilities were confined to the far side of the Atlantic, but American naval hero John Paul Jones brought the fight to the British and engaged HMS Seraphis. Though the British ship had the upper hand for most of this single vessel conflict, a falling mast from the Bonhomme Richard crashed into the British frigate’s hold and ignited the gunpowder there. Most of the other vessels that lie on the seabed here didn’t have such spectacular ends, and fell victim to the rocks and heavy seas that crash against them.
Naturally Spurn has a part to play in protecting mariners and their craft and it does so in several ways. Let’s begin with the lighthouses since they are my theme for the year. Two of them. One raised up, the other living dangerously by dipping a toe into the waters at each high tide.
There are records of lighthouses at Spurn dating back to the 15th century though the present examples are far more recent. The lower light was originally one of a pair that would be aligned to mark the safe passage, though the original was washed away and this continued to be a problem until 1852 when the present design proved strong enough to survive the forces of nature. Now the highlight’s days were numbered for 40 years later a single light was brought into service (the current black & white tower). Nothing remains of the highlight that it replaced but the lower light stands defiantly in the Humber, though with a curious piece of redesign. The lantern has been removed and replaced with a water tank.
Spurn Head’s position makes it a good place to establish a lifeboat station to rescue those in difficulty whether at sea or in the estuary, but it’s remoteness and the transient existence of roads and paths from the mainland, renders that same location impractical in the event of “a shout”. It would take too long to get there even on those occasions when it is possible. Spurn is therefore home to the only permanently resident lifeboat crew in the UK. Even with a team permanently at hand there are practical issues.
Their craft are moored on the Humber where the shallow mud flats mean that the high and low water marks are some distance apart. No use anchoring your vessel after a high-water rescue and then finding it stranded on a mudflat next time you need it. Instead the vessels stay some distance offshore, and the crew have a purpose built pier allowing them to reach them at any point in the tidal cycle.
Yet another organisation plays a part in the safety of shipping here though. Another large structure, akin to an air traffic control tower looks out over the river mouth. And that’s pretty much what they are: Vessel Traffic Services.
So plenty of help for the sailor. But the lighthouse is surely the most elegant.