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Fragile spit here for 10,000 years
Spurn Point is a stunning coastal nature reserve – and perhaps the best place in the UK to watch the autumn migration of birds. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
IT’S an autumn morning of thick mist, drizzle and a gusting easterly wind. Out on the exposed spit of land that is Spurn Point, the wind drives the drizzle into your face, down your neck and into every exposed gap in your clothes.
You can hear the roar of the sea crashing on to Spurn’s exposed easternmost shore. But you can’t see it. Visibility is poor – just a few tens of yards, even when you manage to wipe the water off your glasses.
Not a good day for bird watching, then. Except that it is – perhaps the best in the past five or six years to watch migratory birds, says Andy Gibson.
“The easterlies, the mist, the drizzle – everything said birds would be coming in,” says the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Outer Humber officer.
Spurn, at this time of year, is the perfect stopping-off point for birds – many of them from the forests of Scandinavia – undertaking their annual migration to the south.
On this October 22, the sodden bushes – sea buckthorn, hawthorn and elder predominant – are alive with them: exhausted birds, drooping with weariness, flapping along the narrow sandy road ahead of our 4x4 without the energy to fly away.
“Those are fieldfare,” says Andy, pointing to thrush-like birds perched wanly on a branch. “They would have been in Norwegian forests yesterday.”
Further on, a flock of redwing huddle on the margins of the salt marsh on the western, estuary side of the spit.
“They’ve come in on the easterly winds from Scandinavia,” says Andy. There are song thrush, and robins, their red breasts just visible through the murk. And then there is a great swirling flock of brambling, similar in appearance to chaffinches, dropping out of the sky.
“They’re feeding on the seeds – probably sea blight – at the edges of the salt marsh,” Andy says.
The sheer number of birds is overwhelming: every branch, every dune, every stretch of salt marsh or patch of marram grass, has its weary burden. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them – nearly 40,000 on this one day alone, birdwatchers later report – all pausing briefly to rest on the long journey south.
Their presence here, however brief, is a humbling demonstration of the power of nature: of the great annual cycle of life marked by the changing of the seasons. Spurn is the place to watch migration in action, Andy says: the best place in Britain, not simply in Yorkshire.
Unique is the only word for this place. Spurn is a three-and-a-half mile long, curving spit of sand, mud and gravel that stretches out across the mouth of the mighty Humber.
Everything about it screams at you that it is temporary, that it cannot last. The sea lashes and crashes against the groyne-studded beaches on the eastern side of the spit. To the west, salt marshes reach down onto the wide mud flats of the Kilnsea Clays.
When the tide is out, they stretch far into the distance, a favourite haunt for fishermen digging for lugworm. When the tide is in, as it is now, however, Spurn is heartstoppingly thin and fragile: a long, curving sand dune stretching for miles, with a sandy track down its centre leading to a larger circle of land at its tip.
It may seem fragile, but it has been here for 10,000 years, ever since the end of the last ice age. The long spit of land is made up of sand and silt washed down, by the action of wind and water, from the soft clay cliffs at Holderness, and then deposited in the mouth of the Humber.
Over the centuries, as the cliffs have been eroded away, Spurn has moved steadily westwards – in Roman times, according to an environmental resource pack, the coastline was probably three to four kilometers east of where it is now.
But it has always been here, constantly being renewed by the mud and silt being brought down from further north, a finger of sand and gravel protecting the deep water channel which brings shipping up the Humber.
It’s a dynamic landscape and attempts to fix it would probably ruin it, says Andy.
The sea has broken through the long spit of land at least once in recorded history – in the winter of 1849-50, when the tip of Spurn became an island. But the breach was probably caused by the Victorian practice of collecting sand and gravel here for use as ballast, Andy says.
When they realised what they had done, the Victorians filled the gap with chalk, and Spurn gradually repaired itself. Half way down the spit today is the area known as Chalk Bank; a reminder of that long-ago breach.
Spurn is a birdwatcher’s paradise – and not only in autumn when you can come to watch the great annual migration of woodland birds from the north. There are large numbers of waders and wildfowl, too – you can watch these to your heart’s content from the hides that dot the salt-marshes on the western, sheltered side of the spit.
Seals and porpoises have also sometimes been seen on the coastal stretches – and if you raise your eyes and look out to sea, you’ll see giant tankers and other cargo ships plying the deep-sea lanes not far out.
The eastern beaches are stunning in summer, exhilarating in autumn with the sea whipped to a foaming frenzy. And the entire length of the spit is criss-crossed with paths and animal tracks that make it great for walkers too.
Then there is Spurn’s military history. As you walk down the spit, you can’t help but see the remains of giant blocks of concrete tumbled haphazardly about. These were tank blocks, designed to prevent German tanks moving southward down the spit to attack the British garrison at the bottom, Andy says.
That garrison, perched on the little circle of wider land at Spurn Point looking out over the Humber, was there for one reason – to protect the shipping lane.
Today, 30 per cent of all Britain’s shipping tonnage passes up the Humber, Andy says – and it was clearly little different in the war.
The remains of two giant gun emplacements stand at the tip of the spit, overgrown by bushes and shrubs, the concrete crumbling. They gaze out southwards across the mouth of the estuary.
“There were two forts out there,” says Andy, “and a net strung across the river. If you gave the right call sign, they would let you in. If you gave the wrong call sign, these” – he pats the concrete of the gun emplacements – “would send you a present.”
The gun emplacements now are surrounded by a wilderness of elder and sea buckthorn scrub. You can pick your way through this to the beach at the very tip of Spurn. Detritus washed up from the North Sea stretches far up the beach.
There is a spongey cluster of whelk eggs; red seaweed washed down from Flamborough; and more unsightly rubbish, too – plastic bottles, chunks of polystyrene, empty cans and plastic bags. They’ve all been washed up from the North Sea, Andy says – visible proof of the damage we’re doing to our oceans.
Then he points to deer tracks running through the sand. “We have roe deer on the peninsula,” he says.
Nature, you see: it finds a way despite the worst we can throw at it.
The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust bought Spurn in 1960, and it was designated a National Nature Reserve in 1996.
A coastal reserve made up of a long, curved spit of sand and dunes stretching for 3.5 miles into the mouth of the Humber estuary, it is ideal for watching birds and other marine and coastal wildlife. It also has great beaches, open access footpaths and a fascinating history.
Dog walkers please note: dogs are not allowed on the reserve.
Spurn is about 65 miles by car from York, via Market Weighton and the A63 which cuts through the south of Hull. Then head to Kilnsea on the A1033 and B1445.
There is a £3 parking charge to access Spurn by car, although parking is free for members of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.
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