Spurn Point is an ever-evolving tidal island, the Land’s End of Yorkshire, its iconic peninsula curving between the North Sea and the Humber Estuary. It stretches for three miles, this oasis of sand, shingle and clay, washed down the coastline from Flamborough Head. It is easy to become one with its isolated beauty whilst meandering along windswept paths, the sea air lodging in your lungs and the dew of an early morning settled like peridots over the wild terrain.
The 1895 lighthouse punctuating the terrain, with its black and white stripes, is a bold statement of its time in a place where ships could fall victim to the hazards of the sea. It is a necessary man-made intrusion in a place where humanity has relinquished control to the petulant tides. Originally lit by oil, in 1941 – during the second world war – the lighthouse was converted to electricity. This allowed the beam to blaze briefly for the benefit of the allied ships and convoys before falling again into a blanket of darkness, refusing to betray the lives of the sailors.
The coastal artillery batteries, erected during the First World War, are still visible – great, concrete structures which once housed quick-firing guns as the fighting raged and the enemies attacked our shores and seas. Great, grey monuments – a testament to the courage and bravery of our ancestors.
I had been born in Hull in the late 1960s, and as a child, had explored the length and breadth of the East Yorkshire coast with my grandfather. It is a fine region, steeped in history, with a rich shipping culture going back many centuries. There was the brutal whaling trade which saw many lives lost. The undauntable fishermen brought in their hauls to the docks near my grandfather’s house, risking their lives for the fresh Friday haddock on our tables. I had merrily sailed on the Yorkshire Belle alongside Flamborough Head, jigging along to the ‘pirate’ fiddler’s cheery sea shanties; hauled my contesting lungs up the steep inclines of Robin Hood’s Bay; gazed at the scarlet-cheeked glass blower as he formed the sticky mass into a Whitby ‘Lucky Duck’; shrieked in giddiness as the surf of the incoming tide fizzed over my sand-kissed toes in Withernsea; slid and stumbled over the slimy rocks at Paull, searching the pool for reticent sea creatures, stirring as I swirled the water.
But I had never been to Spurn Point.
Way back before the birth of my child, we were reckless and free, caught in the vision of our rosy-lensed love. Twice a week you would cruise over to Scunthorpe in your Vauxhall and whisk me away on a romantic adventure. You were a keen fisherman, and this day your car was brimming with rods and fly hooks, maggots, and bait. We made the long drive over to Spurn Point, through the meandering back roads and across the Humber Bridge, observing the flamenco light catching the crests of miniature waves.
The island was accessible by car, at low tide and we drove over the grassy tracks, parking up a short stroll from the lighthouse. The fishing gear was heavy and the ground shifted under our sturdy, leather hiking boots as we marched our way towards the grassy bank. You sailed down the incline, like a well-oiled machine, whereas I approached – tentative, fearful, doubting. As soon as I placed my boot on the bank, I lurched forward, like an astronaut hurtling into the cosmos. I slid down ten feet, jostled by dusty rocks and clumps of grass!
The shore was stony muesli: shingle, in shades of grey, beige, and brown. My ears crackled with the arid sound of crunching soles, as the tang of salty moisture settled on my tongue. Sizable cargo ships speckled the hazy horizon, breaking up the dull monotony of this featureless shoreline. You already had your hands deep into the tub of maggots. They had a distinctive, meaty odour that churned my stomach into last night’s dinner. You had the stalwart patience that I lacked, insisting on silence. The sea surged with its age-old lungs, and the circling gulls’ cries splintered the moment of tranquillity between us.
There was a flurry of excitement. Your eyes flashed – steel knives in their now-cavernous orbits. Your arms lurched towards the hungry surge of the sea, as you yelled ‘I have a bite!’ Your frantic hands span the reel, as a creature thrashed around on the surface, reluctant to be hauled out of its watery home and into a vicious death. I had empathy for these creatures. Eating a plaice, in a Michelin-starred restaurant, is detached from the moment of the creature’s demise. But you stated, coolly, ‘That is the circle of life.’
We gazed at the expanse of the sea – the sanctuary of life, yet also the harbinger of death. How many sailors had succumbed to the waves? How many lovers had stood at the shore, waiting for their hearts to return? How many enemy bombs had fallen into the water around Spurn Point?
We embraced – lips crushed together in defiance of the cruel ocean. It was an act of mercy, the last time you ever saw the sea. This year we will scatter your ashes and you will be reunited with the place you loved above all else – the sea.
©2021 Sarah Drury