Paul Kirkwood comes across a mausoleum, an urban lighthouse, the outfits of a 50s filmstar and crumbling roads on a journey to the far east of Yorkshire.
‘Hidden Holderness’ is the banner under which a local history group promotes its region today. Tucked away round the corner from Hull and not quite as accessible for holidaymakers from the industrial north as the North Yorkshire coast, Holderness has been left to flounder but, from what I saw of it from my bike during a weekend break, it has bags of potential for rejuvenation particularly as a cycling region.
There are lots of very quiet, narrow, blissfully flat country lanes. I barely used the large cog on my gears all day. The scenery may not be spectacular but the sheer joy of such easy pootling more than makes up for it and there are many spots of curiosity along the way.
Take the Constable mausoleum, for instance, the first of many reasons to pause on my route south from Aldbrough. Built by Edward Constable of Constable Burton Hall around the turn of the 18th century, it stands, domed and pristine white, at the end of an avenue of yew trees. Halsham House, on the other side of the road, is even older having been built as an Elizabethan school, its current occupant came out to tell me. Later it became almshouses and then a hospital. Sir John Constable used to live in a house at the bottom of the garden which was demolished in the 16th century.
Unassuming Ottringham was packed with interest. I past the villages’s former station which lay on the Hull-Withernsea line closed to passengers in 1964 courtesy of Dr Beeching. A few yards further on were the ruins of an anti-tank wall dating back to the second world war. Walls were built in staggered fashion on either side of and encroaching onto the road so that vehicles had to slow almost to a stop in order to weave through the gap. Large concrete cylinders were kept nearby to be rolled into the gaps in the event of an invasion.
Just outside the village I past the site of the once top secret BBC Otteringham, now the premises of a modular buildings company. From here during the war medium and long wave services as well as propaganda was transmitted as far as the heart of occupied Europe.
Withernea was much more important in the olden days too. I had my sandwiches on the beach beside the former gateway to the pier. Completed in 1877 and originally nearly a quarter of a mile long, it was thought to have been based on Conwy Castle in north Wales. The pier was sadly a magnetic attraction for ships. Four vessels crashed into it over a 13-year period and this, combined with storm damage, reduced the pier to a pitiful 50ft stub in 1903 when the final remains were demolished. The gateway couldn’t be in finer condition today, though. A new scale model of the complete pier is sited in front of it as smart and proud as a sandcastle.
Withernsea’s other main feature is its lighthouse which is just as quirky as the gateway on account of being the only lighthouse in the UK with a town separating it from the sea. The proximity of such a towering structure to terraced housing brought to mind old football grounds. It was built in 1894 and its beam last shone in 1976. I plodded up the steps to check out the light at close quarters and enjoy the fine view. Down below I looked around a museum which recalls how the wonderfully named Lewis Cole and his Monarchs of Melody performed at the Grand Pavillion, now a leisure centre. Among the ecletic exhibits are an ostrich egg, whale’s tooth and display about the town’s most famous daughter, actress Kay Kendall. You can see the dress she wore in the film Les Girls in which she co-starred with Gene Kelly. Married to Rex Harrison, she appeared in 28 films, most famously, Genevieve. She died of leukaemia aged 52 in 1959.
I left Withernsea passing Owthorne, the majority of which – including its church – was washed away by the sea about 200 years ago. For 15 days men laboured at the grisly task of moving bodies and bones from the stricken churchyard to the yard at Rimswell. I cycled in their footsteps to find the two remaining transferred graves – of brothers, Matthew and Henry Webster. The adjacent St Mary the Virgin church was built on foundation stones believed to have come from the Owthorne church or collected from the beach after its spectacular fall into the sea.
The story set the scene for an unexpected finale to my ride. After Tunstall I came to an abrupt halt. “Road closed expect to cyclists” said the sign. “Wonder what that’s all about”, I thought as I lifted my bike around the concrete blocks barring the way. A few yards further on – but some miles from my destination – I stopped in my tracks. I had reached the end of the road, quite literally. It had fallen away and down the crumbling cliff towards the sea.
There have been many occasions on my cycle travels when I’ve swore blind that there should be a road at a particular point and that the map simply must be wrong and, for once, I was right. My map had been published in 2005 and a couple passing in the opposite direction told me that the minor road from Tunstall to Hilton had existed on their last walk here two years ago. This was about as close as I’ve ever come to an earthquake in Yorkshire. Cracks in the tarmac made it clear which sections of the carriageway were due to go next. I looked gingerly over the edge, remarked at the spectacle and continued on foot along the grass on the landward side of the former road. Closed except to cyclists? Only just – and to those who don’t mind walking a bit.
Back in Aldbrough I saw further evidence of erosion. Signs warn of sunbathing at the foot of the cliffs for fear of cliff collapse and a bunch of flowers was poignantly tied to a sign at the end of the road saying “Warning. Cliff collapse. Road closure”. Hard-standings where caravans once stood are are now used as car parks for owners of caravans next in line for removal. The landlady of my guesthouse told me that the current rate of erosion is running at around one coast road cottage every five years. House no 228 even calls itself Cliff Top Cottage To Be. Holderness is hidden – and disappearing fast.
Cycle route in brief:
Aldbrough – Fitling – Roos – Halsham – Ottringham – Winstead – Withernsea – Rimswell – Tunstall – Hilston – Aldbrough. Distance: 40 miles. Other points of interest to look out include two follies: Admiral Storr’s Tower (visible to the right as you pass through Hilston) and the castellated Grimston Garth (visible shortly afterwards to the right of the B1242 to Aldbrough).
Weblink: http://www.hidden-holderness.org.uk. You can download a series of interesting leaflets about different aspects of the region.