A sunny Sunday afternoon spent driving out of York into the East Riding of Yorkshire proved to be full of surprises. With the intention of visiting a group of historic churches, a friend helped me carry some camera equipment and we loaded up our City Car Club car. Heading along the A1079, the sprawling suburbs of Hull and the Humber Bridge remind us that, lying amongst this vast expanse of rural East Riding, encompassing the idyllic Yorkshire Wolds and the rugged North Sea coast, the East Riding is home to industry and commerce including one of the country’s largest and most important ports.
With Hull eventually disappearing in the rear view mirror, we are heading into Holderness and arrive at our first destination, Hedon. Cast into the shadow of Hull’s sprawling mass of cranes and warehouses, Hedon’s former importance as a medieval port is not immediately apparent. Only from the air are the planned medieval street layout and deliberately positioned marketplaces obvious but the sheer size of St. Augustine’s church, one of three medieval churches in the town, is testament to its Royal borough status, granted as early as the late twelfth century. The port silted up in the fourteenth leading to the decline in prosperity all too familiar with medieval coastal havens, Winchelsea in Sussex immediately springing to mind.
Not far from the church is a convenient little car park with no other cars in but our own – plenty of space and free. At the church, a peaceful churchyard and blue skies make this the perfect time and place for our picnic as the 130ft tower looms over us, dominating the local townscape; architecturally similar, and almost as impressive in its perpendicular glory, to that at Howden Minster. Having eaten we look for the key to the church, which is easily obtained from Nutmegs cafe in Market Place, only a short walk through the south east churchyard gate. ‘Nutmegs’ is brimming with charm, a welcoming atmosphere and some tantalising homemade cakes for sale which would have been investigated had we not included a picnic in our itinerary. We know for next time.
With a disappointingly modern key, we experience only a short struggle to open the church door but we finally gain access via the north transept. Yes, transept! The church is huge and lives up to its reputation as King of Holderness – it was even bigger until the seventeenth century when the eastern chapels of north and south transepts were demolished. The blocked arcades and truncated walls will be obvious to even the architecturally inexperienced visitor. A big church in all respects, inside is textbook Early English Gothic, restored in the 1800s, with Minton tiles and an east window by Clayton and Bell adorning the chancel. The nave is grand yet featureless except for a rather badly worn but nevertheless interesting effigy of a civilian – no doubt a local medieval benefactor to the church but too late in date to be one of the counts of Aumale, the early founders of the town. Having arrived at the church immediately before a Christening party and some very friendly locals, we sign the visitor book, make our donation and leave.
A day out in this part of Yorkshire would normally absorb both churches of Hedon and Patrington, regarded together as the ‘King and Queen of Holderness’, as part of an ecclesiastical exploration of two of the largest and most impressive churches in the country. However, at Hedon we realise that the camera bag is bereft of some the equipment essential for photographing churches, the result of lens-cleaning activities leaving lenses lying around on tops of cabinets instead of being returned to the equipment bag. So the afternoon changes direction and the King of Holderness has proved to be more than enough church for a sunny afternoon. I have also been fortunate enough to twice visit Patrington over the past couple of years. So with only a brief stop at St. Wilfrid’s, Ottringham, a medieval church on a far smaller scale than Hedon but with an evocative medieval atmosphere and numbered eighteenth-century box pews, we exit through the extremely ancient door, our destination being the coast. Withernsea is in our sights.
Withernsea was once a seaside destination of choice for holidaying Victorians making use of the Hull and Holderness railway, which opened in 1854. It is one of the smaller coastal resorts and has so evidently suffered decline in recent years, but it is home to some enlightening attractions. Once parked in our second free car park of the day, we are in the immediate vicinity of the beach and only a few yards away from a particularly grand gateway of two embattled towers, once forming an impressive entrance arch to Withernsea pier, the pier itself long destroyed by stormy seas and a catalogue of nautical misfortune. Built in 1877 and gone by 1900, the pier’s short but tumultuous history is immortalised in a scale reconstruction along the promenade between the towers and the car park. The plaques along this miniature pier list the vessels that collided with the structure and commemorate the souls lost in each disaster – a fascinating and poignant read.
Having wandered along a surprisingly sandy beach and taken in a coastline battered and heavily eroded by the sea, to be fortified by man, over the centuries, Withernsea’s real treasure lay in wait and enticed us like a beacon standing sentinel over the town. Ironically, lighthouses, ultimately designed to repel, have an intriguing ability to attract and I must be one of the many thousands of visitors to Withernsea who have been pulled towards it like a magnet, interested, intrigued and awestruck by this whitewashed guardian. Parking close to the lighthouse, along a predominantly residential street, a short walk brings us to the gate and a sign announcing that the edifice is open to visitors and climbing 144 stairs to the top will only cost us £2.50 each. Overcoming the dizziness and vertigo resulting from the spiral ascent, the view from the top is breathtaking and the acoustics inside the building provide an eerie silence while looking out to sea. Withernsea lighthouse was built in 1892 for Trinity House, it is a loftier structure than the earlier and stockier-looking light a few miles north at Flamborough Head. The light ended its operational life in 1976.
Completing their descent, visitors can wander through the lighthouse museum, far more extensive than expected, incorporating artefacts from the RNLI and Trinity House along with a shrine to local 1950s film star Kay Kendall, on their way to replenish their energy in a tea room (sadly closed by the time we arrived late in the afternoon), and meet two affectionate cats – surely every lighthouse has a cat? Withernsea lighthouse is open to visitors all year round and more information can be found on their website www.withernsealighthouse.co.uk.
Leaving Withernsea and heading back to York, a brief stop in Beverley to wander round its quaint and historic streets led us to the remains of the medieval Dominican friary – a pleasant and unexpected find considering very little survives of the friaries which heavily influenced the religious and topographical layout of most medieval towns. The friary is now a youth hostel. Visiting Beverley Minster, we were rewarded with the choir in full harmony, concluding our circuit of the East Riding, the sun eventually setting just in time for our arrival home.