Savouring Yorkshire’s Viking Coast

Savouring ‘Yorkshire’s Viking Coast’ – a new book
Ian D. Rotherham

A misty morning for the fishing fleet off Flamborough 1920s

A remarkable coastline

I call this shoreline, ‘The Viking Coast’ because in the year 1066 it was witness to one of the most dramatic moments in English history, indeed a turning point in all that has followed since. It was here that Viking invaders led by King Harald III of Norway (Harald Hardrada), with Scots and Northumbrian allies, arrived to defeat the Saxons at the Battle of Fulford, 20th September 1066. The tables turned at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, 25th September 1066, when the English army under King Harold Godwinson routed the invaders, but this proved costly to Harold when at Hastings, William beat him. The Vikings had arrived in a great fleet of maybe 300 longships but vanquished, departed the Humber in perhaps thirty or less. So Holderness boasts unique history, landscape, and heritage, and a worryingly shrinking shoreline too, the most rapidly eroding in Europe. The region is rich in wildlife too, especially for seabirds, with major nature reserves dotted along the shore from coastal sand dunes and beaches, to dramatic cliffs. Day-visitors and holidaymakers flock here especially in good weather, and wildlife enthusiasts come all year round. New developments now maximise the benefits from wildlife watchers through a network of nature reserves and visitor centres, from Bempton and Flamborough, to Hornsea Mere and Spurn Head. South of the stunningly beautiful cliffs of Flamborough Head, Bridlington Bay sweeps southwards to the mobile, sandy promontory of Spurn. Formerly, the inland area was a vast wetland of fen, marsh, mere and carr, with higher ground of the Yorkshire Wolds sheep walk and rabbit warren. Over fifty small lakes or ‘meres’, formed after our last major glaciation which ended around 15,000 years ago, have been lost to agriculture, drainage, and endless erosion by the North Sea.

Ancient peoples

Today, though still eroding, the Holderness coast is a major seaside holiday destination and a rich in wildlife. Inland is excellent farming country where centuries of human interaction with nature and landscape created a rich heritage of old villages, ecclesiastical buildings, castles, great halls and parks, and more recently, nature reserves. Traditionally, the region’s economy was farming and fishing, with trading ports especially at Bridlington and, in the south, Hull. Herring fleets, deep-sea cod fishers, whalers, coalers, and others have long plied their trades along the Viking Coast. Nowadays, leisure trips by the Yorkshire Belle and smaller pleasure boats from Bridlington Harbour, head out to view seabirds at Flamborough and Bempton.

Bempton Climmer 1922 Flamborough Head Ian Rotherham 3A   Leaving Bridlington on July 11th 1910

Prehistoric peoples populated the high cliff-tops around Flamborough, and later, the Romans had coastal signal stations here, a rich tapestry of human settlements and archaeology. With early medieval churches dotting the countryside there are grand estates and houses from the Normans to the Victorians, a backdrop for today’s tourism. Bridlington has a surprisingly long, distinguished history, Old Burlington and Bridlington Quay harking back many centuries. The truly magnificent Bridlington Priory Church, Gatehouse, and monastic ruins are testimony to when this was an important centre. Medieval monks improved, drained and harvested the Holderness landscape. They took crops and fish including eels, and peat turf for fuel, plus withies and other materials for construction. The Holderness hamlets and villages are a richly interesting heritage with Saxon and early Norman churches, dramatic Norse heritage reflected in places and place-names, and ancient settlements with stone crosses, and even massive, prehistoric standing stones.

Landscapes of contrast

The Viking Coast is one of dramatic contrast, from Flamborough’s chalk cliffs to Bridlington Bay’s flatlands of dunes and low clay cliffs. The southern end of the Bay has extensive beaches where unexploded munitions shells are still found with relative ease; but don’t touch, and certainly, unlike someone I know, don’t load them into the car and drive home. That way lies potential tragedy and misery!

Sailing boats in Bridlington Harbour early 1900s

Inland, the flat coastal zones blends gently into rolling, undulating farmland of Yorkshire’s Wolds. Here, sadly, much wildlife and heritage has been farmed away to oblivion; another lost landscape. However, farming affluence from the 1700s to the present day reflects in comfortable farms and villages and splendid churches with tall spires. To the seaward, many old settlements have gone, lost to erosion, remaining hamlets and villages now closer to the shore than formerly. Ancient towns such as Bridlington morph into large and affluent residential areas behind seaside resorts of their Victorian and Edwardian heydays. Small settlements like Hornsea, barely existed two hundred years ago but became thriving holiday towns, and now sleepy, pleasant residential places.

Coastal wildlife in the raw

Sperm Whale washed up at Bridlington January 1st 1937

Along the Viking shore, you experience nature in the raw where land and sea collide and morph. Wildlife varies seasonally and whichever way you turn, there is something different and new. Autumn and spring bring massed migrations of birds and insects (butterflies, aphids, ladybirds). Seabirds move, sometimes in vast flocks depending on season and weather. Breeding birds inhabit the lowland Bay, but occur spectacularly in great seabird cities at Flamborough and Bempton. Watch for grey seals, harbour porpoises, dolphins, and even gigantic sperm whales.

Nature, ever-present, is found in built areas like Bridlington Harbour. A rare Mediterranean gull was once a winter regular and uncommon purple sandpipers huddle against massive harbour walls. Coastal walks extend along the shore, including from Bridlington along Sewerby Cliffs to Flamborough, one of Yorkshire’s wonders. This remarkable seashore is truly the ‘Viking Coast’, to be discovered and savoured.

Wassand Hall, Hornsea 1959

My top ten things to do or places to visit along the Viking Coast: It is hard to choose my favourite places to go or things to do, but here is just a selection.

1. The best place to enjoy traditional fish and chips today, undoubtedly, is sitting on Bridlington Harbour. Fish out of a newspaper wrap may be a thing of the past, but sat on the harbour wall with turnstones at your feet, it is still damned good.

2. Sit 300 feet up, at the top of Bempton cliffs in June to enjoy the sound, site, and smell of the seabird cities – a unique experience. Consider the lives of those intrepid ‘climmers’ who risked all for the sake of the harvest of birds eggs.

3. Take a trip to Burton Agnes Hall to step right back into Tudor England, but with a glorious garden and contemporary exhibitions. Make sure that you view the Norman remains as well as the Tudor house.

4. South along the Viking coast, head to Withernsea with its holiday resort heritage, but especially to view the dramatic Withernsea Lighthouse.

5. Walk the promontories and cliff-tops at Flamborough, stop for a chip butty at a local café, then sit below the lighthouse walls, and gaze out to the expanse of the North Sea, grey, mysterious and full of foreboding.

6. Have a rowing boat trip onto Hornsea Mere in late summer and watch for little gulls on the wooden fence-posts along the shoreline, and black terns skimming low over the water. Then take pause for a 99 ice-cream!

7. From Bridlington sea front head north along the Sewerby Cliffs to Danes Dyke and walk in the footsteps of our prehistoric forebears.

8. Try a visit to Skipsea Castle to step back into the steel grip of the Conqueror in Norman England. Today this is largely a very big pile of earth, but even so, it is a strangely evocative place. Close by, on a cold winter’s day, there are few places better than Barmston beach with wintering dunlin, sanderlings and knot at the waves’ edge. With a bit of luck you might see Lapland buntings or shorelarks too.

9. Journey to the south of Holderness and east of Hull, to Spurn Head; this is best experienced is a heavy autumn fog when migrate birds descend in huge numbers. The seabirds and waders muffled calls over the dunes and saltmarshes echo the wilderness of the greatest estuary in England.

10. Hidden from most tourists, old Burlington and Bridlington Priory are gems yet to be discovered by most visitors, and then to be appreciated over a pint in a local hostelry. However, don’t forget the other numerous historic, pretty churches scattered along the Holderness shore.

Yorkshire’s Viking Coast by Ian D. Rotherham was published in April 2015 by Amberley Publishing, at £14.99, and is a companion volume to Ian’s popular Yorkshire’s Dinosaur Coast.

Viking Coast

Yorkshire Post article

Viking Coast Yorkshire Post

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