The island that isn’t

Paul Kirkwood ventures to the far-flung corner of Sunk Island in Holderness.

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An ornate old wrought iron gate stands about 200 yards west of the church in Sunk Island. It was erected over a century ago by Charles Lambert exclusively for his use to provide a more direct walking route to the church from his farm avoiding the road. The path has gone, the bridge over the dyke beside the gate has gone and the hedge either side of it has gone too so the gate now stands oddly alone. Sunk Island itself is also isolated, leads nowhere and has more to it than meets the eye but is far from purposeless, as I was to find out on a day’s exploration by bike.

Sunk Island hasn’t actually been an island for about 150 years and far from sinking actually rose from the Humber. It’s origins go back to the mid-16th century when a sandbank known as Sonke Sand began to form in the estuary as a result of deposits from the eroded cliffs of Holderness around the corner. The sandbank became an island and got its first resident in the 17th century, Colonel Anthony Gilby. Gradually it grew in size as more land was reclaimed from the sea and by the mid-19th century Sunk was an island no more and became part of Holderness.

Gate to nowhere

Gate to nowhere

Today, viewed from above on Google Earth, Sunk seems to comprise lots of islands in the form of clumps of trees surrounding its 13 farmhouses as if trying to keep them warm in the wind. The capital (if you can call it that) is a village around a crossroads consisting of no more than a farm, few houses, church, school and village hall. The influence of the sea is as strong as it’s ever been. When I visited a sign outside the hall advertised a meeting about flood protection.

Wherever you are on Sunk the church spire beckons you towards it like the viewing tower in the middle of a maze. The highest point in the area is a mere four metres above sea level – that’s if you exclude the spire and it’s little brother, the school bell tower. Views extends towards Hull docks to the west and the Italianate Grimsby dock tower way over the Humber to the south.

IMG_0115_1_1_1Geographical cues are confusing. Some liken Sunk to Holland but the flatness, constant breeze and quiet roads with passing places reminded me of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. On Sunk in May rape took the the place of machair and the view had just two colours and two layers, blue and yellow. I rarely needed to change gear and every road looked like a farm track which, in a way, it is.

Farm plaque

Farm plaque

Most of the farmhouses bear a plaque, often proudly painted, with a ‘VR AR 1855’ or 1857 motif. The initials belong to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Prince Consort, who took a particular interest in the island. As land reclaimed from the sea bed, Sunk had been under Crown ownership sink its emergence and remains so today. Albert commissioned Samuel Teulon who had designed cottages on the royal estate at Windsor, to design 30 or so farmhouses and cottages on Sunk. As a result, tenants had a much better standard of accommodation that was customary at the time. Teulon later designed the school and began a new church for the island which was completed in 1877 after his death by his friend Ewan Christian who’s achievements included the National Portrait Gallery in London. The school closed in 1969 and the church in 1983.

Houses without plaques – such as those on East Bank Lane – have a story too. Some were built in 1917 to house soldiers returning from the first world war. The idea was the they would form a Crown Island Colony each farming a small plot of land previously leased to five farmers who were evicted. Guidance was provided by a director working for the Board of Agriculture and based at Channel Farm. Few tenants arrived nor were they all ex-soldiers and the grand plan was abandoned within a decade with only 24 of the intended 44 cottages built. Life in the colony was an inspiration for Winifred Holtby’s novel South Riding dramatised by Yorkshire Television in 1974.

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First World War battery

The Sunk Island area played a part in both world wars. The holiday park at Patrington Haven lies on the site of the camp of the RAF radar station where former poet laureate Ted Hughes did his national service as a ground wireless mechanic in between 1949 and 1952 three years before the station ceased operations. He professed to have nothing to do except watch the grass grow and read Shakespeare. The former guardhouse was reclad as the gatehouse to the park.  A mile or so south I also passed the remains of the brick radar station called a happidrome which was used to guide night fighters onto attacking bombers.

I found another intriguing war relic on the opposite side of the island, hidden in the trees at the end of a track and tucked just behind the estuary embankment. The ruins belong to a first world war battery built of concrete to protect the entrance to the Humber while more substantial forts were under construction on sandbanks offshore. Soldiers at the battery – there were 200 of them – were under instruction to fire at any passing vessel that’s passage had not been authorised by the signal station at Spurn Head. In the event, guns were never fired in anger. It’s unusually secluded for these parts. After so much openness I almost felt claustrophobic as I padded around, only the rustling of the dry fallen leaves and cracking of branches underfoot breaking the silence.

Stone Creek

Stone Creek

Supplies were brought in a mile or so away at Stone Creek, a wonderfully peaceful spot which sounds and looks like a place from an Arthur Ransome novel. The stone in its name refers to the stones which were brought through the port on their way for use in churches at Patrington and elsewhere in Holderness. The port had wharves and a coastguard station and you can still see its little weighbridge house today. It’s also been a chapel and, allegedly, a morgue for bodies of drowned sailors washed up on the shore. The creek’s importance grew following the silting up of the former port at Patrington Haven in the mid-19th century. Fishermen worked out of the Creek until the 1950s but today the only maritime activity comes from members of the Stone Creek Boat Club housed in a shipping container and licensed to the Crown, of course.

I finished my journey at the eastern tip of Sunk. I cycled beside what would once have been the island’s northern shore but which now is reduced to a drainage channel. Where the road ended at a pumping station I dismounted and walked the last few yards towards the sea – or is the river? My map showed a footpath continuing south around the island but the sea appeared to have demolished parts of the embankment on which the path was built and what I expected to be terra firma was a lagoon of grass, mud, sand and water. I ventured no further. Sunk isn’t as remote as it feels – the “sunset smudge” of Hull, as Ted Hughes described it, is so near but yet so far – but there are few places in the county which seem so empty and on the edge. This is as close as you get to an island of your own – especially in Yorkshire.

Further reading: Sunk Island: the land that rose from the Humber by John Whitehead (Highgate Publications, 1991). Also see www.hiddenholderness.org.

First World War battery

First World War battery

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