One of my most read blog posts is the of the lost village of Ravenser Odd, a town once situated at the southernmost tip of the Holderness coast in East Yorkshire. Since it has proved most popular I thought I would give you a taste of a couple of the other thirty or so lost villages along that coastline.
Owthorne and The Sister Churches
The story of Owthorne and its church comes to the fore to illustrate the almost surreal events that occasionally happened when the sea claimed the land.
Owthorne was a small village just north of Withernsea. In the centre of the village was the church, known as one of the Sister Churches. Two sisters owned the manors of Owthorne and Withernsea. Since the two manors ran side by side, they decided to build a church where their tenants could worship. The site of Owthorne Church was agreed upon and building commenced. It was only when the church had reached a certain height that discord between the sisters set in. One wished to adorn the church with a tower and the other to ornament it with a spire.
Square or Pointy? That is the question.
Finally the sisters decided that they would each build a church – one in Withernsea and one in Owthorne – in the design to which they each aspired. For ever after, the churches were known as the Sister Churches but no spire ever graced either church.
Whatever the circumstances of its origin, there is no doubt that the church at Owthorne was constantly under threat from the sea. Originally sited in the centre of the village, as the sea ate away the foot of the cliffs, the church at the top became a cliff-hanger:
‘standing like a solitary beacon on the verge of the cliff’.
By 1786 the church itself was only 12 yards from the cliff and the sea began its work on the churchyard. The villagers and their vicar made plans. In 1793 the chancel was demolished and six years later the rest of the church was partially demolished. It was not until a particularly violent storm in the early years of the 19th century that the remains fell with a crash into the sea.
Whitened bones and coffins landed on the beach and, it is said, that the villagers meandered sorrowfully among these relics, even recognising some of their erstwhile buddies although quite how one recognises a skeleton is a trifle difficult to imagine. It took 15 days of grisly work to collect up the relics, hopefully matching owners and bones correctly, before taking them for reburial to a new churchyard at Rimswell.
In 50 years the villagers of Owthorne saw the church and churchyard, vicarage, houses and streets disappear over the cliffs until almost nothing of their village remained. The second church in Withernsea fell into ruins by the late 19th century and was replaced by the parish church of St Nicholas.
Further down the coast was once the village of Old Kilnsea – called Chilnesse in the Domesday Book. At that time it was several miles inland and established on a hill. Houses and cottages with gardens were clustered around the Medieval church; there was a village pond and green as well as numerous small fields. On the village green stood a large stone cross which was originally taken from the ancient and lost town of Ravenser where it had been erected to commemorate the landing of Henry VI in 1399. It was removed to Old Kilnsea when the sea swallowed up Ravenser. Eventually though, the sea worked its mischief in Old Kilnsea and the cross was removed altogether to safer ground.
By the early 19th century the village was under attack. In 1822 it comprised the church and around 30 houses. 30 years later only a handful of houses and the foundations of the church remained; by 1912 all had gone.
In 1824 the chancel went over the cliff and a couple of years later a huge storm took the north wall, pillars, arches, pulpit, reading desk and books right over the cliff ‘with a tremendous crash’. The tower held out for another couple of years before finally following the rest of the church into the sea.
After the loss of the church, Abbot Geoffrey de Sawtry describes Kilnsea religious observance thus:
‘… This is therefore another churchless village; but having a population of nearly two hundred, they have set apart a room for divine service, in which it is performed every third Sunday, weather permitting; otherwise, it is reported, the worthy pastor, feeling for his flock, grants them an indulgence to remain indoors and takes the same himself.’
The church bell was suspended from a beam in a stack yard and struck by throwing stones at it to call the faithful to their improvised place of worship.
Eventually Kilnsea was resettled to the west. During the First World War a small fort and gun battery was established at ‘new’ Kilnsea but these too have gone the way of the old village. The resettled village is still being chased further inland by the sea.
You can read more in my book ‘Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast’ which is an eclectic mix of stories from this remarkable stretch of coastline