It was odd. We drove along the coast through Mappleton a few times. Cowden is a hamlet with a large caravan park between the road and the coast. But just south of Cowden there is empty country, well fenced off. And a sign referring to an RAF camp of which there was no other sign.
On our second run on the road, we saw the Unexploded Ordnance signs behind the fence. It made some sense now that the RAF had gone but traces of weaponry remained. The Landranger OS map marked it as a danger area. That itself held a historical nugget. ‘Ordnance’ refers to army equipment, especially guns and bombs. Our detailed tourist maps are from the Ordnance Survey, which started life in the eighteenth century when the government realised the military need for good maps amid fears of invasion. The job was given to a new army unit and stayed under military control until 1870. There are many areas of the UK that are no longer held by the military, but which have remains connected with warfare. Heritage tourism includes a very broad range of people who love to explore them, sometimes at risk of life and limb.
One day, the fog was quite extensive. It was getting late in the day when we approached Cowden again. Many years ago we had been there and found a lane that came to a dead stop where the sea had continued to attack the coast. There it was again, marked ‘road ahead closed’. The long, straight lane took us past the big caravan park, silent in the fog. There might be nowhere to park, or to turn around, further on. At the entrance to the park, I did a three-point turn and parked. A solitary figure of a man walking a dog was the only sign of activity.
It was not a long walk to a gate blocking the road. Derelict caravans and muddy enclosures made a sad sight to the left. Maybe it was a hive of enterprise some days. Today, life seemed to have been eroded just like the cliffs. A sign warning of the dangers of cars going over the edge was to the right. On the same side stretched the empty fields with more chilling signs – keep out – unexploded ordnance.
Back at the laptop when we got into better range of a mobile phone signal, I typed ‘Mappleton’ and ‘bombs’ into Google. Top of the list came a report in the Daily Mail from July of this year. The headline was about a landslip tipping a thousand Second World War bombs onto the beach. During, and after, the war the cliffs were used by the RAF for practice bombing runs. Most of the devices were practice weapons but still fitted with detonators that still posed the threat of severe injuries if they exploded. Within a few hours, the army was clearing them by controlled explosions. The Mail report (link below) carries photographs showing the staggering number of bombs that had buried themselves into the earth of the cliffs and now been revealed. Interviews with visitors who had been going to walk on the beach showed just how dangerous the unexpected landslip could have proved.
And it could all happen again.
Click here to see the Daily Mail report
After a couple of clear, sunny days the fog came down. Or in – from the sea. Scotland’s coast has the har; Yorkshire has the fret. You can be in glorious sunshine a mile or two inland while a grey blanket if fog drifts in from the sea. One morning we woke to see what looked like a combination of low cloud and fret. We still made a trip out, to Patrington and the beautiful St Patrick’s Church. Driving was slow through fog but it thankfully cleared entering the village and remained a distant mist returning back to the caravan later. These misty trees stand a mile or two from Great Hatfield. The main view is out towards the Humber Estuary near Welwick. At a guess the tiny tower seen under the tree picture is actually Grimsby’s monumental Hydraulic Tower that stored water to operate lock gates and other harbour services.
The Vanishing Coast
The North Sea scours sand from the cliffs of Holderness, eating away at them by the metre each year. Holidaymakers are used to the brown waves breaking on beaches here as the water is full of sand. Slowly, it gets washed south along the coast. At the Humber Estuary the conflict of river water and sea currents reduce the power of the waves to move the sand further. Over thousands of years, a tongue of land formed like a barrier extending part way across the mouth of the Estuary – Spurn. Stormy seas push the sand spit west and even break through in places. Calmer waters allow sand to be added. The land of Holderness used to extend further east with at least one island off shore. An important town known as Ravenser Odd existed east of Spurn, one of the busiest ports on northern Britain. It disappeared in the late Medieval years.
At Mappleton there are higher cliffs crumbling into the water. A barrier of huge boulders has been built out into the sea next to a cleft in the coast. Sand piles up on the northern side as seen in the photo. Further south are gas terminal installations where the fuel is piped in from offshore wells. These have to be protected against erosion. It is expensive work and may only alter the location of wave action, not prevent it. Many East Coast authorities in Yorkshire and East Anglia are now saying that the sea cannot be beaten. Only a few places can be protected. The sad fact is that even that might just have the effect of increasing the problem for someone else on the coast. Houses are being lost, roads washed away, and property values reduced to zero accordingly.
But there is another threat....
Holderness is the long projection of land between the Yorkshire Wolds and the North Sea coast. The Humber Estuary is to the south and the curve of the Wolds to Flamborough Head makes the northern boundary. This is chalk country like the Wolds, except that it is low ground covered by a thick blanket of clay dumped by ice age glaciers and sediment washed into wide beds by slow-running rivers.
Exploring it by car over a few days left a strong impression that we were in Norfolk again, a county we visited last year before going on to Suffolk. To think it was still Yorkshire – the East Riding – took some concentration since our Yorkshire is Pennine hill country with a favoured alternative in the North Yorkshire Moors. Beyond Hull, there are the Holderness resorts of Hornsea and Withernsea or the Minster town of Beverley. And not a lot else. Not of the major attraction kind. But there is plenty of small detail to discover for those who enjoy reading the landscape. On our list, we had the disappearing coast, eaten away by the sea in places at the rate of a couple of metres a year. And there is the Mean to be seen.....
It is arable country by and large. We saw some sheep and some cattle. There are large battery units producing eggs by the thousand. The spaces the big livestock roam are nothing to the acreage of crops – cereals and vegetables. As the cycle of the year turned through autumn, winter-growing crops were beginning to show in long lines of green. Many fields had only recently been cropped. Others showed the heavy, moist earth deep-ploughed. Some had been harrowed into smooth expanses awaiting seeding. The little streams that drain these fields have usually been cut into deeper ditches to be more effective, though not in the way the Fens further south have been scored with ruler-straight new rivers. Lots of ancient hedgerows have gone. Wind-protection for farmhouses and hamlets has been arranged by rows of trees or short runs of defensive hedges. Roads twist and turn. Some corners have been straightened, leaving the old curves as rough parking. Many roads are l.ittle more than lanes serving farms. At this time of year, as tractors are busily ploughing, muddy tracks abound along the tarmac. And why not? This is crop-farming country where such back lanes are highways to the busy tractor drivers.
The villages have the usual churches and chapels. Skipsea, seen in the photo, stands on top of raised ground where it once looked across a small mere to Skipsea Castle, now reduced to ground level traces. The mere has gone, drained for useful land. Though churches sometimes make landmarks for miles around – Patrington being the most prominent – there are now more modern structures. Cell phone masts, wind turbines and concrete water towers serve this lowland community from their lordly heights
We took our caravan to a Caravan Club CL (Certificated List: five vans maximum) in Great Hatfield for a ten-day stay. At first, we were the only caravanners on site. Two or three others arrived on one or two night stays. It was half term but very mixed weather and late in the year. The pictures of our caravan on this page were taken on the site. A tall hedge and line of trees enclosed the site sheltering it from wind and rain. I thought it might have once been an orchard, but the owner said no. There was once a corn field here, then a pig farm. He bought it for his haulage business in the mid 1980s and had to plant poplar trees to screen the site. This was a condition of the planning consent. He enclosed one area with a hedge with more poplars in a line along two sides, keeping them well trimmed. When he retired it made a good little caravan site.
Hornsea is the nearest town. It is a coastal resort that like most British seaside towns has lost much of its visiting trade, but not its attractive character. The promenade has been redesigned to improve sea defences and general appearances. Commuters into Beverley and Hull have added something to the population. Many small shops line the streets, but a new Tesco near the centre has good access and parking, and must be having an effect – good for some, bad for others. We used it as soon as we were settled in to our pitch. Then we did a little exploring, finding the delightful Hornsea Mere with its boating and wild fowl. The lake is two and a half miles long and three quarters of a mile wide at it’s widest. Holderness had other meres, but these have been drained leaving Hornsea Mere alone, Yorkshire’s largest freshwater lake. It was formed by glacial scouring. Besides being a recreation area, it had an unusual history during World War I when seaplanes flew from its surface.
Most of the shoreline is private and not accessible. At the town end, a signposted entry off the street looks like the way in to someone’s house, but leads to a good parking area with a café, the dinghies and skiffs for hire, and hundreds of hungry water birds. At least, that’s the impression they give. A swan came rapidly across to the car and pecked on the window in search of food. There are Great Crested Grebes, Little Gulls, Reed and Sedge Warblers to be seen. Winter brings Gadwalls, Shovelers and Goldeneyes and sometimes Water Rails and the occasional Bittern. There are Roe Deer and foxes in the woods and lots of marsh plants to be seen.
The nice thing about vehicle-based touring is the mix of freedom with solitude. At least it is if you stay on certificated list sites. That’s Caravan Club parlance for small sites taking no more than five vans per night. They are usually on farms where water, waste disposal and – probably – electric hook-ups are provided. Some don’t have power connections. Others might have toilets and perhaps a shower. Farmers get extra income without having to put up with hoards of visitors. The big sites are the ones for socialising and entertainment: they might have a bar, a café and a shop. CLs, as they are known, tend to be used by older caravanners or families wanting a quiet stay with plenty of open space for children to play. In the UK, the big commercial sites – usually with static vans for hire – are more like the well-known continental caravan resorts. We opt for CLs and the quiet activity and friendliness of farm sites. Good ones have views of grazing sheep or cattle, fields of crops or pleasant orchards. We have pitched among apple and pear trees. More likely, farmers have grubbed out most of their old fruit trees to find space for caravans. One favourite had a few harvestable trees left, chickens pecking around, a fishpond and an aviary.
Caravans have a mixed image for most people. There’s a bit of the romantic gypsy element left, which was at best always stronger in fiction than fact. Traveller life in a horse-drawn vardo was tough, even if spent in the open air. The freedom was hedged by poverty and limited life-styles. The modern touring van tends to appeal to older folk – like us. But technology and usage has brought about changes. We have met people who live in them by choice, working in well-paid occupations and enjoying home life in well-furnished vehicles. By the planning permission rules of caravan sites, they have to move after four weeks to another CL, which isn’t to every taste by any means. But for those who can handle it without having to worry any longer about children at school and so on, it can bring remarkably enjoyable variety of location.
Caravans can also be hi-tech. When we bought ours, we specified an addition that we had seen at a trade show in Birmingham. There, a caravan was seen moving around in a display as if on its own. In a way it was – tiny electric motors engaging with the two rubber-tyred wheels were doing the work. A demonstrator with a remote the size of a TV controller was making it pirouette, advance and reverse. We took a training course on moving our van using our tow-car but the mover system made handling it a doddle. Another tricky task is that of levelling the caravan when arriving on a pitch. Get it wrong and the shower won’t drain, the cooker isn’t level and, well, you might even roll out of bed at night. So we got a computer-controlled device called a Caralevel fitted. Most people will be happy to use a power-drill attachment or a winding handle on each corner steady. These wind-down struts have to be lowered individually while watching a spirit level to show how far each needs to go. The realities of aging make this kind of system a great benefit rather us either of us creaking up and down to do the job manually. Turning a key sets the Caralevel going. We stand back and watch for a couple of minutes as the computer does its work. The steadies go down in turn like a wading bird testing the water. The front of the van rises and then settles down. It is level.
We also had all the interior lights replaced by halogen lights to save power, and a second battery fitted. They’re just like car batteries. On the roof, we added a solar panel to keep the system charged. In theory, at least we could use electricity overnight without attaching to a mains hook-up. It also keeps a satellite-based tracking unit charged. If the caravan is moved without a special code being activated, a control centre is informed. They can read the latitude and longitude, and direction of travel, of the van, in order to call the police. We control it from a mobile which also tells us the power level in the batteries. The tyres on the van and the towing car have pressure monitors sending readings to a unit in the car. Sat nav and satellite TV are also fitted.
Wet, Wet, Wet
It has been a bad year for weather. After a dry first few months when there were warnings of drought in South East England, it began to rain. And it rained and rained. Drought cancelled: floods began. Parts of the Calder Valley were hit last year and then twice in quick succession this year. In Mytholmroyd, the residents have left sandbags against their doors for months. Hebden Bridge was awash as torrents poured down under the old packhorse bridge. The side stream there of Hebden Water could no longer cope. Water flooded into the streets. Shops closed, the tourists stayed away, to be replaced by TV crews. For the news, it was a nine days’ wonder. Government spokespeople promised action, insurance companies promised quick compensation, but months later many home and business owners were reporting little or no action had been taken.
Our house is in part of Halifax up on a hillside with little risk of flooding. We look out onto a small Victorian park boxed in by attractive Yorkshire stone terraces. Up beyond the houses the hillside reaches to a ridge glimpsed between trees. For much of the year it has been layered in cloud or hidden by rain. The idea of taking our caravan off for a week or two seemed like inviting the worst that St Swithin’s Day could offer. “Let’s hope for an Indian Summer” became a motto.
It soon became obvious everyone round the country was using the phrase. How on earth the tennis at Wimbledon escaped reasonably well was a mystery. By long tradition bordering on group pessimism, it rains during the Wimbledon fortnight. Then came the Olympics. It’s bound to go wrong, muttered the pub know-alls. It would (a) not be built in time, (b) get attacked by terrorists or (c) be washed out by the downpours obviously being saved up by letting the tennis off its usual fate. None of these things happened. From the genius of the opening ceremony, through hugely entertaining sports and impressive Paralympics to the final dousing of the ring of Olympic torches (by turning the gas off, not by a cloudburst), it was almost without a hitch. The airports coped and the city transport was not overwhelmed. Partly it was because potential non-Olympics visitors stayed away, which was a negative for the infrastructure trade. The shambles of the commercial firm supposed to handle security at access points caused a flurry of alarm, but the army stepped in to defend the national reputation with its armoury of smiles and politeness.
So at least a summer of sport (and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, including turning Buck Palace into a colourful, computer-based pop-concert backdrop) took the nation’s minds off the weather. And we decided to enjoy the freedom of retirement by taking the caravan to the east coast. Even if it poured down.