Lost Villages

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.

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Map of the Holderness Coast showing the lost villages

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.

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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.

Old Kilnsea

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.

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Remains of the Fort and Battery at Kilnsea

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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

Storms, Surges and Floods

The storm surges of yesterday created wide-spread flooding all along the east coast of England. Last night the villagers of Kilnsea, a village on the edge of the Holderness coast near Spurn Head, were advised to evacuate their homes.

Kilnsea, low-lying, exposed to the elements and manna to a hungry North Sea was, according to the Domesday Book, originally  established on a hill and an inland village some distance from the sea. Later descriptions tell us of a scattering of cottages with gardens clustered around the Medieval church. On the village green stood a large stone cross originally taken from the ancient and lost town of Ravenser. It had been erected there to commemorate the landing of Henry VI in 1399 but was removed to Kilnsea when the sea took that town.

Eventually though, the sea worked its mischief in Kilnsea and by the early 19th century the village was under attack. In 1822 the village comprised the church and around 30 houses; thirty years later only a handful of houses and the foundations of the church remained and by 1912 all these had gone.

The indefatigable walker and writer, Walter White, gives us an account of his visit to the village in 1861* when he stopped off for a pint or two at the Crown and Anchor pub and learned something of the village’s history:

The place itself has a special interest, telling, so to speak, its own history—a history of desolation. The wife, pointing to the road passing between the house and the beach, told me she remembered Kilnsea church standing at the seaward end of the village, with as broad a road between it and the edge of the cliff. But year by year, as from time immemorial the sea advanced, the road, fields, pastures, and cottages were undermined and melted away. Still the church stood, and though it trembled as the roaring waves smote the cliff beneath, and the wind howled around its unsheltered walls, service was held within it up to 1823. In that year it began to yield, the walls cracked, the floor sank, the windows broke; sea-birds flew in and out, shrieking in the storm, until, in 1826, one-half of the edifice tumbled into the sea, and the other half followed in 1831. The chief portion of the village stands on and near the cliff, but as the waste appears to be greater there than elsewhere, houses are abandoned year by year.

Kilnsea exists, therefore, only as a diminished and diminishing parish, and in the few scattered cottages near the bank of the Humber. The old font was carried away from the church to Skeffling, where it is preserved in the garden of the parsonage.

Another writer (Geoffrey de Sawtry) notes rather waspishly that in this now churchless village:

“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’.”

When the weather did permit, the faithful were called to their improvised place of worship by the church bell which was suspended from a beam in a stack yard and struck by throwing stones at it.

Even though Kilnsea has resettled itself to the west it is still being chased further inland by flooding and by the sea. I hope that despite last night’s depredations everyone at risk anywhere along the coast kept safe.

(*A Month in Yorkshire by Walter White)

The Sounds of War

As I’ve spent the week on tenterhooks waiting to see if the offer on the French house is accepted it’s been a bit of a struggle to settle back to the editing work  so I shuffled off to one of my favourite places along the coast, Spurn Point. It was cold and cloudy and I forgot my camera so when I happened upon a weird object in the middle of a field I was a tad miffed with myself. Having almost decided that the denizens of the little village of Kilnsea (next door to Spurn) were not indulging in arcane rites and rituals involving whopping great lumps of concrete I needed to know more. A pleasant lunchtime chat with coffee in one hand and sandwich in t’other led to the disclosure of the area’s WWI history and this morning I’ll share some of it with you.

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The outbreak of WWI saw the East Yorkshire coast bristling with defences partly aimed at frustrating any attempts to land on the open Holderness beaches and partly to ensure the defence of the busy port of Hull. Military camps sprouted up along the coast and a temporary airfield was developed near Withernsea

The quiet village of Kilnsea was invaded by the military who built Fort Godwin there and what is now the wild nature reserve of Spurn Point was armed with three gun batteries and a signal station. All ships approaching the coast and the Humber estuary used a combination of lights, pennants and sound to show they were friendly. A railway was built to link the installations on Spurn with those at Kilnsea.

Perhaps the most intriguing military installation was that of a sound mirror – a huge concrete dish designed to pick up the sound of incoming enemy aircraft flying over the North Sea. So the mystery of the concrete lump was solved and no, the good folk of Kilnsea do not participate in idolatrous practices (to the best of my knowledge).

The Mirror works by capturing and concentrating sound waves from approaching aircraft (Zeppelins in Kilnsea’s case) via a microphone. Eventually, it was superseded by its big brother radar. The photo shows the mirror with the remains of the pipe for holding the microphone.

WW1AcousticMirrorKilnsea(PaulGlazzard)Jan2007

The Kilnsea mirror is around 4.5m high and is said to have provided three or four minutes of extra warning before the attack.  That doesn’t sound much to me but what do I know? Perhaps it was sufficient for the searchlights and gun batteries to gear up for action – although all the military defences on the coast were unable to fend off a Zeppelin attack in 1915 when it offloaded its bombs on the ports of Hull and Grimsby further down the coast, with 60 casualties recorded.

Today much of the WWI installations like Fort Godwin (photos below) have tumbled down the cliffs onto the beaches however the Kilnsea Sound mirror is now a monument protected by English Heritage.

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Thanks to urbanrim.org.uk and Paul Glazzard for the photos.

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)?