Magazine article Geographical

Slipping Away: The Holderness Coastline in East Yorkshire Is Believed to Be Eroding Faster Than Any Other Land in Europe. Local Residents Want Their Properties Protected. but, as Mark Rowe Discovers, Defending Land with a History of Erosion That Stretches Back Millions of Years Is Far from Easy

Magazine article Geographical

Slipping Away: The Holderness Coastline in East Yorkshire Is Believed to Be Eroding Faster Than Any Other Land in Europe. Local Residents Want Their Properties Protected. but, as Mark Rowe Discovers, Defending Land with a History of Erosion That Stretches Back Millions of Years Is Far from Easy

Article excerpt

They look like images of the aftermath of an earthquake or a tsunami: reinforced-steel wartime defences lie mangled and misshapen, entire sections of cliff have been ripped away and left exposed, while tidily maintained roads front thin air. falling out of view like the dip in a roller coaster But Neil A White's striking pictures capture the one-sided battle between sea and land at Holderness, a hugely unstable stretch of East Yorkshire's coastline.

A FAULT OF GEOLOGY

This is a forgotten corner of Britain, a flank of land that stretches from the high chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head in the north to the sand spit of Spurn Head in the south. More than 25 years ago. Philip Larkin captured Holderness's sense of otherness when he wrote that 'Behind Hull is the plain of Holderness, lonelier and lonelier, and after that the birds and lights of Spurn Head, and then the sea.'

That sea is the problem: Holderness is believed to have the fastest-eroding coastline in Europe, with around 1.8 metres of land lost every year. Residents of small towns, villages and communities wonder if they will still be there when the Ordnance Survey next gets around to updating its maps.

The geology of the land is Holderness's undoing. Let's jump back two million years. Then. Holderness and east Lincolnshire didn't exist. Instead, the coastline stood west of Beverley and followed the chalk ridge that now forms the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire Wolds.

The Ice Age deposited glacial till that bolstered the cliffs. Quite how far out to sea this land finally extended by the time the glaciers began to retreat is uncertain, but artefacts uncovered in the North Sea suggest that our Mesolithic ancestors moved in as soon as they could to the newly exposed land.

As the ice sheet retreated, it left behind a deposit known as boulder clay, comprising fine silts, boulders, and gravel, which formed low sedimentary cliffs. Unlike the towering, hard cliffs of Flamborough Head, these rise no more than 15 metres above sea level, sometimes as low as two metres. And, says Gordon Ostler of the Hull Geological Society, 'when it rains, the clay has the constituency of butter'. It's certainly no match for a tide that can buffet concrete structures across a beach as lightly as it could a shuttlecock.

CRUMBLING INTO HISTORY

But it isn't just the land that's being eroded; history and livelihoods are, too. From records made by monks in the Middle Ages, it appears that 30 villages have been lost, along with a strip of land 5.5 kilometres wide, since the Romans arrived. These include Ravenser Odd, a medieval town founded in 1235 whose prosperity, rewarded with a Royal Charter, proved short lived: by 1366 it had slipped into the sea.

More worryingly, the local cliffs' underlying geological weakness is no longer the only factor at work. Climate change, with documented rising sea levels and projected stormier weather, is now playing its part. 'Some projections suggest that our sea levels will rise by a metre in the next century,' says Mike Bali. principal coastal engineer for East Riding of Yorkshire Council. 'That will bring an awful lot of additional energy crashing against our coast.'

Is it worth intervening? As a rule of thumb, fortifying the coast costs 5,000 [pounds sterling] per metre. The prevailing policy of DEFRA and the Environment Agency is to protect large urban areas and industry in the national interest, but to allow the sea to take over elsewhere. That mean5 fortifying Hornsea, Withemsea and the ga5 terminal at Easington, along with a stretch around Mappleton to protect a main trunk road. But 5maller places, such as Skipsea and the even tinier, isolated communities, will be let go.

EMOTIVE ISSUE

For most property owners there seems little option other than to resign themselves to cutting their losses, or to negotiating with DEFRA, which has allocated resources to strike an element of compromise, such as granting permission to rebuild on DEFRA-secured land. …

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