Spurn Point: Unfenced Existence At Yorkshire’s End

Spurn Point is a little-known wonder of the British Isles; a slice of paradise that could make even Philip Larkin smile.
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Spurn Point is a little-known wonder of the British Isles; a slice of paradise that could make even Philip Larkin smile.

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Spurn Point is a sadly forgotten peninsula in East Yorkshire that feels like the start and end of the world. There aren’t many places in the UK that can claim to have the look of a Caribbean island, or have had a song written by Vaughan Williams in its honour or are classified as heritage coast, or made Philip Larkin happy. Spurn can claim all of these things, so why have you never even heard of it?

Spurn Point (or Spurn Head or just plain Spurn, depending on who you ask) is a long, curved finger of land pointing out into the North Sea at the mouth of the Humber. More accurately it’s a spit, 3 miles long and just 50 yards wide in places. It’s made up of wild beaches, sand dunes, grassland and mudflats and if you look at aerial photographs taken above its enlarged, circular southernmost tip it genuinely looks like some exotic island in the Caribbean – well, on a good day it does, if you squint a bit. It’s a fine, bracing, handsome place, constantly shifting but hardly changing; it’s as fascinating and dramatic a location as you can visit in the whole of the UK and, best of all, no-one’s ever there.

Spurn is made (and constantly being re-made) of sand and shingle washed down the Holderness coast by the North Sea. The long shore drift gathers material from as far north as Flamborough and deposits it as it slows on convergence with the Humber. This leaves a peninsula – the only one in Yorkshire – which slightly changes shape every single day and which entirely reconstructs itself every 250 years or so. During particularly high tides and in the right weather conditions Spurn has even been known to breech, leaving its southerly parts an island.

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On Spurn’s western side the sand and shell beaches are constantly buffeted by the unrelenting North Sea. Adjoining this are steep, sheltering sand dunes. It’s an untamed, primitive, elemental environment with only a few well-worn tidal groynes punctuating a vista unadulterated throughout time. Down the middle of the spit and at the headland are more sand dunes as well as gorse and grassland which provide habitat for many species of butterfly, caterpillar, ladybird and even deer. The plants also grow around the remains of decaying wartime defences; Spurn was an important point of strategic defence in the Second World War and the remnants of train tracks, artillery bunkers and other military miscellanea provide a vivid history lesson. In addition there’s a very picturesque disused lighthouse, sadly no longer accessible to the public.

On the Eastern side, adjoining the Humber are mudflats, populated with a dazzling array of indigenous British birds and visiting rarities.  It’s this aspect of Spurn which draws the most attention, with twitchers accounting for the majority of the peninsula’s visitors. Over two hundred species have been recorded and at Spurn’s observatory you can expect to see the likes as Wheatears, Whinchats and Flycatchers as well as rarer sights such as the Lanceloted Warbler and the Black-browed Albatross.

In spite of all Spurn’s many virtues it’s been pretty much over-looked by the rest of the world for a very long time now. There has been some recognition of the unique nature of the place amongst the artistic community; Vaughan Williams was inspired by Spurn to write one of his Six Studies in English Folk Song for Cello about it and Philip Larkin was a regular visitor – the term ‘unfenced existence’ from his 1964 poem ‘Here’ is generally attributed to the uncharacteristically non-miserable feeling Spurn engendered in him. But, these scant mentions apart, very few people seem to know it’s there. If such a place was located in Cornwall or Kent there would be images of it on every tin of fudge in the tourist shops that lined its beachfront and novelists would set wistful memoirs of their childhood days among the sand dunes. As it is Spurn’s praises remain unsung and, while this may be good for the privacy of the indigenous wildlife, it’s a shame that more people don’t make the effort to head out there because there’s a roughed natural beauty about the place which may well stay in your memory longer than you’d expect.

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