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

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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)?

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.