Ravenser Odd – The Town Under the Sea

Today’s tale, an extract from my book ‘Close to the Edge – Tales from the Holderness Coast’  is of the 13th/14th century lost town of Ravenser Odd, now lying under the North Sea, off the Humber estuary in East Yorkshire

Lost_Places_Graphic

By and large they were a bad lot in Ravenser Odd:
“The town of Ravenser Odd was an extremely famous borough, devoted to merchandise with many fisheries and the most abundantly provided with ships and burgesses of all the boroughs of that coast. But yet, by all its wicked deeds and especially wrong-doings on the sea, and by its evil actions and predations, it provoked the vengeance of God upon itself beyond measure.”

Such was the verdict of the Chronicler of Meaux Abbey in the mid-14th century when documenting the destruction of the town. The Abbey records reveal that the town began life as a sandbank, probably an island, thrown up by the tides and currents between the river Humber and the North Sea. Located off the tip of Spurn Point and about a mile off the Holderness coast, at some point it became accessible from the mainland.

The sandbank grew and was initially inhabited by a handful of enterprising souls selling provisions to passing ships. Around 1235 the Count and Countess of Aumale whose fiefdom embraced Holderness, recognised the strategic possibilities of the site and started to build the town. A few years later the monks of Meaux Abbey got in on the act and acquired buildings there for storing fish and other provisions.

The town prospered. Its position between the Humber and the North Sea was perfect for fishing, trading and servicing shipping. Perhaps being at the outer reaches of the Holderness coast and away from any regular attention of the law, the men of Ravenser Odd were able to develop their own approach to trade by intercepting merchant ships and “persuading” them to berth at their port rather than at Hull or Grimsby. This practice, called forestalling, became a bone of contention with the merchants of Hull and Grimsby who saw their own trade suffer. In 1290 the King instituted an Inquiry into the deeds of the Ravenser Odd men. Grimsby merchants asserted that the Ravenser Odd men would:
“go out with their boats where there are ships carrying merchandise and intending to come to Grimsby with their merchandise. Said men hinder those ships and lead them to Ravenser Odd harbour by force when they cannot persuade them amicably”.
The men of Ravenser Odd triumphed at the Inquiry with all charges not proven and even commended for their entrepreneurship.

The town flourished with more than 100 houses, warehouses, quays and other port buildings. It was granted borough status in 1298/9 for which the then huge sum of £300 was paid. It is in keeping with the spirit of the town that little of the money was actually handed over.

Yet there is still some evidence that the Ravenser Odd men found it hard to shake off old ways and become model citizens. Around 1300 two Norwegian merchants petitioned the English king claiming that when their ship was driven ashore off Ravenser Odd:

“men came from there with force and arms and stole our ship and goods.”

The petition ends with a plaintive request for remedy and compensation for their goods as they “have nothing from which to live”.

Under the King’s patronage, whatever piracy and misdemeanours were committed were ignored and the town grew in importance, wealth and prosperity. The town was represented by two MPs in the Model Parliaments of the time and supported the king in the wars against the Scots by providing ships, provisions, arms and men.

However by the middle of the century it became clear that the golden years of Ravenser Odd were drawing to a close. Merchants started to move away as the flooding by the sea became more regular and more serious. There were a number of petitions made for the lowering of taxes because buildings and land had been washed away.

In 1355 flooding damaged the chapel in the town exposing bones and corpses. These were removed for reburial elsewhere. The chapel itself was ultimately washed away but not before some of the townsfolk looted many of its artefacts.

The town was abandoned soon after and, unsurprisingly, it became something of a pirates’ lair until the coup de grace was applied in 1362. In January of that year a south-westerly gale raged across the UK. This storm known as the Great Drowning of Men combined with unusually high tides, produced a storm surge that swept the last stones of Ravenser Odd back to the sea. The town founded on a sandbank vanished without trace.

spurn across the binks1

Chips With Everything

Today it’s time for the tale of Tom Moman who lived in the early part of the nineteenth century in East Yorkshire. He was a man whose wits were found to be wanting – a chucklehead or noddycock if you want the vernacular. Indeed for some time even up to the last century should anyone do or say something foolish, he might well have been called a “Tom Moman” in derision:
“Eeh tha big lummox, tha’s a reet Tom Moman”.

Be that as it may, Tom presents something of a paradox; on the one hand he is derided as a half-wit and on the other, the tricks he got up to show a great deal of native wit and shrewdness. Take for example the story of the great potato pie.

For those of you lacking an agricultural education a potato pie was a method of storing potatoes over winter. You dug them all up and lay them on a bed of straw in the field and then covered them thickly with more straw and finished the pie of with a “crust” of well-slapped down earth.

Now in a certain Holderness village there lived a farmer who was more than careful with his “brass” – he was downright mean and miserly. He was a tough old bugger and his one pleasure in life (that we know of) was driving a particularly hard bargain. One autumn, after a productive potato harvest he made his “pie” in a small field a little away from the farm at the other end of the village.

On a dark autumn night, Tom, who did odd jobs to earn a penny or two, came to Miserly Farmer’s door with a heavy sack of potatoes that he had paid for from his earnings. Miserly Farmer, knowing of Tom’s reputed lack of wits, took great delight in bantering and browbeating him until he accepted sixpence for the sack of spuds. Delighted with the bargain Miserly Farmer asked Tom to bring more sacks and he would purchase them at the same measly price of sixpence.

Every few nights for a month or so, Tom would shuffle up to Miserly Farmer’s door, bent double under the weight of a sack of potatoes. Every few nights Tom would pocket his sixpence and Miserly Farmer would chuckle and congratulate himself at having beaten down the half-wit.

Later that winter, Miserly Farmer wanted to open his “Pie” and move some of the potatoes down to his barn. Seeing Tom lollygagging around the village he asked him to help him in this task. Tom agreed. The next morning, Miserly Farmer waited for Tom to show up but he never did. Fuming, he plodded off to the potato field to move the potatoes himself. When he got there, he found the pie had been opened up and his spuds nicked.

Tom had his revenge – all these past weeks he had been selling Miserly Farmer his own spuds and pocketing the sixpences.

Personally I think his reputation for half-wittedness undeserved. Tom merely reflects the old Yorkshire saying:
‘Ear all, see all, say nowt; Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt; And if ivver tha does owt fer nowt – Allus do it fer thissen.

Email me if you need a translation!

Winner Takes All

Time for another tale of the Holderness coast and this one involves two abbots and an argument about who can fish where.
Photos of Hornsea Mere, Hornsea
This photo of Hornsea Mere is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Fish were much munched in the 13th century and Hornsea Mere – the last surviving, post ice-age lake in the area – teemed with the wee beasties. Local spiritual homes, the abbeys of Meaux (rhymes with juice – don’t ask) and St Mary’s each had fishing rights on the Mere with supposedly a clear boundary between each abbey’s patch. However, the boundary wasn’t clear and the abbots of each establishment accused the other of poaching their perch and pike. Unable to resolve their disagreement through prayer and persuasion, the abbots opted for trial by combat – the most common way of resolving land, boundary and other disputes back in those days.

Trial by combat or Duellum was a fancy French method of resolving disputes brought over to England by no less than Billy the Conqueror. Each party to the dispute hired champions to fight on their behalf and last man standing was the winner. Once the champions agreed to do battle on behalf of their paymaster, they each gave the judge in the dispute a gauntlet with one penny in each finger.

Arriving at the fight arena suitably dressed for the rumble, each champion swore an oath affirming the rightness of their paymaster’s cause. They also solemnly promised they were not smothered in concealed charms, talismans or other magic tokens and had eschewed all forms of sorcery. It was to be a fair fight.

Now the Abbot of Meaux was probably a bit more worldly than his adversary and he mopped up the market for champions by employing seven of the best around at great cost to the abbey. In monopolising the market in this way he forced St Mary’s abbot to employ the left-overs and, by inference, the less accomplished. The appointed day of battle dawned; the disputed boundary marked out and the champions set to no doubt watched by a host of locals having a bit of a flutter out of sight of the holy men.

Trial by combat only ended when one party was dead or cried “craven” to submit. The abbots’ champions knocked seven bells out of each other for most of the day before surprise, surprise, the men of Meaux submitted and owned themselves beat.

Imagine the chagrin of the Abbot of Meaux after going to all that effort to secure the best and especially when back in his treasure house he counted the cost of his failed endeavour.

Clearly, on this occasion, might was not right.
Pictures of Hornsea Mere - Attraction Photos
This photo of Hornsea Mere is courtesy of TripAdvisor

One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things

The title quote from Henry Miller is right on the money this week for me.

I started to pull together all the considerable research I’ve been doing for my book on the lost villages of Holderness. For once I’ve managed the research notes pretty well, even if I have to say it myself. One folder for each village or village cluster working from north to south down the coastline. Each folder contains my “visit” notes where I tried to locate the lost site without disappearing myself under a freezing North Sea –although I cut it fine once when I got the tides wrong and went home with a soggy bottom (soggy not saggy…and yet the mirror never lies). In addition there are notes from historical documents, copies of maps and photographs. By and large a goodly haul of data and now all I have to do is to turn it into something magical, readable and sellable.

Trouble is, once I started on the first of what is usually a zillion drafts, my ever sharp, incisive brain cell that has just returned from its holiday in La-la Land – noticed a theme emerging. I mean how many different ways can you say “Fell into the sea, 1413” “Went back to the sea 1172” and so on? Even old Roget the Thesaurus would be hard pressed to find sufficient verbs to describe falling, slipping, sliding, tumbling, going arse over tip etc all whilst keeping a reader’s interest. Ay, and there’s the rub – the whole saga (as I had conceived it) is mind-numbingly, eye-wateringly, jaw-breakingly bloody boring- just ‘words, words, mere words’. How could I have been so stupid? That’s a rhetorical question folks. One day a week for I don’t know how long, I’ve ventured forth bristling with cameras, notebooks, pens, thermos and water wings to search for evidence; all that time and effort for what?

But soft, what light through yonder tunnel breaks? (Those of you still with me will notice something of a Shakespearean touch this morning.) OK, so the plopping into the sea of thirty or so villages is a trifle tedious not to say repetitive, but what I also have hidden within my notes is a far more interesting story; it’s the story of the people and communities along the coast who, down the centuries, have lived with their hungry, briny neighbour lapping at their doorsteps. These communities have learned to adapt or perish and as far as this book is concerned, I think I have to do the same. Sorry Lost Villages – you’re only part of a much larger story – you’ll just have to exit stage left minus the bear.

(Altogether too much Shakespeare in the Park – Ed)

Close to the Edge

As it is the weekend, I thought I’d give you another story gleaned for my book about the Holderness Coast. I’m still trying to find a title for the book; to date its working title has been the Uncertain Coast – in reference to the fragile nature of the coastline. However, it’s a naff title so I’ve moved on to Living at the Edge. If any of you have any ideas pleeeeeese tell me.

Anyhow, to commemorate the start of the 2013 Ashes series – that’s the traditional cricket series v Australia for those not in the know – I thought I’d tell you a tale about the disappearing village of Skipsea. True Followers of this blog may remember Drogo and Skipsea castle but this story rolls us forward several centuries from the 1100s to the 1950s. At that time Skipsea was a peaceful, sleepy backwater, beloved by post-war caravan and chalet tourists. Its regular inhabitants numbered around 350. The only thing disturbing the peace was the constant nibbling away at the land by the hungry sea on Skipsea’s doorstep.

However, in deepest Aldermaston, the boffins at the Atomic Research Establishment were hatching a plot to convert sleepy Skipsea into the UKs first above-ground nuclear test site. It was this tranquil character plus proximity to local RAF bases that won the casting vote from the Aldermaston boffins.

Once the initial shock/horror passed, common sense and a helping of recalcitrant Yorkshire character prevailed when Skipsea’s great and good pointed out the proximity of the proposed test site to bungalows and beach huts with a public right of way running through for good measure.

The Aldermaston folk eventually came to their senses and switched their focus back to Australia where the first test had been carried out. 12 further tests were carried out in the mid 1950s, giving a whole new meaning to the terms “Test Series” and “Ashes” and a shameful legacy from nuclear testing lives on today.

Have a great weekend.

My Arm is Long and My Vengeance Total

The title of this post is one of my favourite quotations taken from the film Billion Dollar Brain, based on the book by Len Deighton. I use it frequently to keep friends and relatives in their proper places. However, in researching stories for my book on the lost villages of the Holderness coast I discovered a gory tale which illustrates the quote perfectly. Being the generous sort of gal I am, I thought I’d share it with you.

The little village of Kilnsea squats right down on the southern tip of the Holderness coast, open to all the elements and particularly the depredations of the sea. There’s not that much left of it now, just a small huddle of cottages. But the story goes that back in the seventeenth century a horrendous, gory crime was committed there by a woman called Peg Fyfe. A few claimed she was a witch but everyone knew she was the leader of a band of ruffians, practising theft and extortion with equal aplomb.

Deciding to rob a Kilnsea farmer of his horses, she threatens and terrifies the farmer’s servant lad into leaving the stable door open one night so she can perpetrate said theft. She promises that should he reveal the plot to anyone she will skin him alive. The lad, being of Yorkshire stock and therefore having more wits about him than most, is torn between fear of Peg and duty to his gaffer. Craftily he asks the farmer to come to the stable and in his presence the lad whispers to the horses telling them what’s going to happen – thus letting the farmer know what game was afoot whilst not spilling the beans directly.

Peg and her mob come to get the horses only to find themselves on the receiving end of a load of lead shot. Despite being injured she and the gang get clean away.

For weeks the lad is terrified of going anywhere for fear of Peg. But as weeks turn to months and nothing more is heard of the gang, the lad gets braver and goes further afield only to find himself one day snatched by the robber gang and taken to Peg. There she makes good her promise and flays the poor boy who despite the agony makes nary a squeak until it comes to the skin on his palms and the soles of his feet when he emits a terrible cry, heard far out at sea. He crawls home, a bloody mass before snuffing it on his doorstep. Peg, the charmer, was later captured and hanged for her many crimes.

Now isn’t that an uplifting story to start your day (or finish it)?

Seductive Synopses

Something from the motivational conference I attended earlier this week must have snuck into one of the spare rooms in my brain because I have shifted some work this week. For the first time ever I chose to put writing above the day job so I got a real feel for what life might be like if I ever give up the day job.

In line with my policy of trying to get a couple of articles accepted every month I have a queue of pieces all waiting in their allotted folders to be fully developed. The basic idea is there together with notes and research material. To get them all placed I sent out a half-dozen pitches and whilst I was at the conference two came back as acceptances…well one had a laconic “let me have a look” but ever the optimist I take that as a yes. Writing those two articles kept me full at it until the witching hour on Tuesday.

But the big thing this week was a nibble from a publisher and very pleasant it was too. In a rush of enthusiasm, on spec I had submitted a 150 word general summary of the book The Uncertain Coast via the publishers’ website. Just in case you’ve forgotten the Uncertain Coast is an illustrated light-touch history of the towns and villages lost to the sea on the unstable Holderness coast and of some of the people who lived in them. On Wednesday the publishers came back and asked for a full synopsis.

Yikes – this presents something of a problem. They want details of word count, how many photos/piccys, chapters and chapter summaries, markets and market sizes, hat and shoe sizes – no I made those up just to check you’re still awake. The problem is I simply don’t know. I’m about a third of the way through the research and have just the first chapter written plus two others.

I’m not great at planning out a structure, chapters and content before I’ve completed the research. When I judge I’ve got all the material I can access together, then I start to fit the pieces and the book evolves. So collecting up some emergency rations – fruit, energy bars and sport water – what? Who wrote that? My emergency rations come in the form of choccy, cashew nuts and a fruity red wine. I went into conclave with my co-author i/c photography and we knocked something into shape. I was elected to turn that something into a persuasive, seductive come-and-buy-me to the publishers.

I’m currently on version 5, weary, wordless (well almost) and most telling of all, I’ve realised that seduction is not my forte.

Y’all have a good weekend now.

Crime Doesn’t Pay

I’m dividing my writing time between a perhaps overly ambitious family saga, “Ravensgill” – conceived as a trilogy but who knows how many tomes it will actually fill and a work of non-fiction, current title “The Uncertain Coast”. Probably I should focus on one or t’other but then I’ve never been someone who takes much notice of “should”.

The thing is I like the mix and I flatter myself that what wits I have are kept honed by the variety of fact and fiction, research and imagination.

The Uncertain Coast is a joint venture with a photographer friend and documents the lost and disappearing villages of the eroding Holderness Coast in East Yorkshire. We fossick up and down the coastline digging out (sometimes literally) the stories of people who made their mark on this landscape and the places they lived.

I have already introduced you to Drogo, alleged wife murderer and East Yorkshire big-wig back in the days of Billy the Conq. Now perhaps, you should meet Adam Alvin, aged 25, man servant, lover and priest killer.

In 1708 Adam was a man going places;an opportunist with an eye for a fortune. He declared his love for Mary Sinclair the eldest niece (and heiress) of his boss, the Rev. Enoch Sinclair. She returned his affections and our Adam decided that something must be done about Uncle Enoch since the Rev. was proving an obstacle to both his leanings for lucre and his love. The something was murder – carried out with the connivance of both Mary and her younger sister who also shared Sinclair’s household.

The deed done, the three of them put it about that the Rev. Sinclair had gone visiting on horseback. Later his horse was found, fully tacked up but sans rider. Despite an extensive search no trace of the Reverend was found. The marriage of Adam and Mary took place soon after these events.

However, the locals were a suspicious lot and, Adam, Mary and nameless younger sister all fled to London to escape the gossip. They lived there for 4 years – probably waiting for a loud knock on the door at midnight.

When the younger sister was taken ill, fatally so as it turned out, before expiring her last she ‘fessed up about the murder and the knock on the door finally came.

Rev. Sinclair’s body was recovered from a ditch near the house and Adam and Mary arrested and tried in York. Mary was acquitted but Adam was sentenced to hang. During the preaching of the condemned sermon Adam loudly declared his innocence. Scarcely had he done so when the preacher, a Mr Mace, dropped down stone dead. Not one to miss an opportunity, Adam shouted out that the hand of God had shown itself in support of his innocence and almost convinced the congregation that it was so. However, sanity returned the following day and Adam was hanged, confessing his crime at the very last.

The church, the vicarage and the village Owthorne where the dastardly deed was done have long given themselves up to the sea and the murder of Rev. Enoch Sinclair is merely a footnote in time.