Hornsea - the coastal town battling against shifting sands

Chris Titley takes in a unique coastal town that's under siege from the sea Photographs by Neil Holmes

They’re a very friendly lot in Hornsea. People strolling along the ocean-liner style promenade greet you with a warm smile, as if they’ve not a care in the world. Which is all the more remarkable considering they live in a place that’s been under siege for the last 10,000 years.

Hornsea is almost in the middle of the Holderness Coast, stretching from Flamborough down to Spurn Point. This is the youngest part of England, formed a mere ten millennia ago when the ice age squashed a load of boulder clay onto the eastern edge of the country. That means the ground underneath Hornsea and its neighbours is fairly soft, fine stuff.

Not so much of a problem if it were located in a calm and sheltered spot. But the S-shaped Holderness Coast lies at the perfect angle to act as a crash barrier for waves that have travelled all the way from the Arctic, whipped up by the predominantly north-easterly winds.

The result is a coast which is being worn away at an astonishing rate: about three million cubic metres of material comes away each year.‘Immediately south of Hornsea,’ says Mike Ball, ‘on average the coast is going back getting on for three metres a year.’ That’s the fastest rate of coastal erosion in Europe.

As principal engineer at East Riding of Yorkshire Council, one of Mike’s tasks is operational management of the Holderness coastline. It’s an interesting job.

Hornsea, he says, is not a special case – it doesn’t suffer any more erosion than the rest of this stretch of coast. But the town’s infrastructure means it is one of the places chosen for protection.

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The original 100-year-old sea defences have held up well, and further safeguards were installed more recently.

Concrete sea walls are the main bulwark, Mike explains: ‘The classic sea wall, like the one we built 10 years ago, is called a wave return wall. The wave hits the wall then travels along it in a corkscrew manner. The curve of the wall takes the energy out of the wave. We’ve also got quite a few rock revetments, rock defences, particularly at Hornsea.’

A recently-completed shoreline management plan commits the authorities to safeguard Hornsea for another 100 years.

Other protected areas include the north-south B1242 coast road, where it travels close to the sea at Mappleton. Yet other stretches are left exposed to the full brute force of the elements.

Why? Partly because it isn’t feasible to build a sea wall all the way from Flamborough to Spurn Point. But also the sediment torn from East Yorkshire’s cliffs is deposited on Lincolnshire’s beaches, offering these low-lying areas vital protection from floods.

Mike is hopeful that they have got their sea defence calculations right, taking on board the latest predictions of rising waters caused by climate change. But he cannot be certain.

‘Managing a coastline is a black art really,’ he says. So far, so good, says Coun John Whittle, who is about to see his sixth term as Mayor of Hornsea come to an end.

‘Hornsea is well protected from the sea. Since I’ve been here we’ve had at least two further developments of coastal defences, and the award-winning makeover of the central promenade.’

But the erosion of the coast remains a concern, not least because the town ‘will become more and more exposed due to the coastline each side being worn away. This is known as outflanking.’

People are learning to live with the problem, John says. Caravan parks have a ‘roll-back policy’ and East Riding council instigated a scheme called the Coastal Change Pathfinder, to help relocate residents in danger of losing their homes.

Hornsea is in John’s blood. His grandmother lived here and he moved to the town as a child.

‘It is unique, it is special. We have a highly-developed sense of community,’ he says.

‘I don’t think I’ve known anywhere else the size of Hornsea where you can mention a house or a person and suddenly you can start dissecting the entire family tree.’

Some people say the town’s stuck in the past. Not true, he says. ‘We’re a town which loves its past but looks to the future as well.’

Several new developments are in the pipeline. A Tesco is due to open, which should not only stop residents shopping out-of-town but also bring outsiders in -hopefully to go on and discover Hornsea’s other delights like its wonderful museum.

And the town council is relocating from a converted lifeboat station to the refurbished Methodist Church Hall on Newbegin. The new town hall will double as a community centre and, John hopes, offer a new beginning to Newbegin. ‘We’re looking at a period of quite healthy investment,’ he says. ‘The future of the town looks quite sunny.’

My town

No other town can boast its very own Storm-Tossed Lady. But then, no other town has Sue Hickson-Marsay.

After 14 years in the job, Sue remains the only woman pilot launch coxswain. Her job is to operate a 50ft high-powered launch, braving the volatile waters off Spurn Point to take the Humber pilots out to the ships they guide into port.

‘I go up to 20 miles out to sea in all weather conditions. It can certainly be daunting. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But I’m trained, I can do the job, and the boats are very good.’

If that weren’t impressive enough, Sue is also a coxswain for, and chair of, Hornsea Inshore Rescue. It’s an independent lifeboat service set up 15 years ago after the coastguard boat was scrapped, and fills the gap between RNLI stations in Withernsea and Bridlington.

Last year Hornsea Inshore Rescue attended more than 60 incidents, on one occasion helping to rescue an 85-year-old fisherman from the sea after his boat sank. ‘Launching from Hornsea can be difficult,’ said Sue. ‘Because we’ve not got a harbour or a marina or a jetty, we’re straight into the sea. So if it’s rolling in, it can be quite daunting.’

Thanks to sterling fundraising, the service recently relocated from a converted pig pen loaned by a caravan park to a purpose-built boathouse on the front.

Sue, who is married to Martin and has two grown-up stepchildren, now gives fundraiser talks about her work under the name the Storm-Tossed Lady. Coach parties visit the boathouse for Fish and Ships, with food provided by award-winning Hornsea caf� Whiteheads.

She says they couldn’t provide the lifeboat service without the support of local people. ‘Without the community spirit we wouldn’t be where we are. It’s fantastic. It shows what you can achieve.’

Getting there: Hornsea is about 12 miles east of Beverley along the A1035 and B1244. It is also on the B1242 between Bridlington and Withernsea, and EYMS buses run to and from the town.

Where to park: There are pay and display car parks on Marine Drive and Broadway. Free parking is available off Hornsea Burton Road and Queens Gardens.

What to do: Visit Hornsea Museum, home to the Hornsea Pottery Collection and displays on bygone life. Shop at the Hornsea Freeport factory outlet and the town’s independent shops.

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