I was in Hull six months after the announcement that it is to be the UK City of Culture 2017 and I drove aimlessly about wondering what I should look at. There are lots of building works going on, but also lots of boarded up, run down buildings as well as some very smart Victorian civic buildings. I rang a friend who was brought up just outside Hull and knows it well. He said that I should head out for Spurn Point, the sand bar that hangs down at the mouth of the Humber estuary.
I headed east and was soon in real countryside. I turned south to Sunken Island, a stretch of reclaimed land (no longer an island) which hangs down into the north coast of the estuary and has some of the richest farmland in England. You can see for miles; the roads are narrow and straight, houses few and far between. A few pretty farmhouses have smart cars outside, large horseboxes and expensive-looking horses grazing nearby. I went as far as a remote Victorian church by a quiet T-junction close to the estuary. The church was locked and there was no one about, just the birds singing in the trees, so I turned round and retraced my steps back to the main road, turned right and headed for Spurn Point.
I didn’t get right to the tip but could see the lighthouse and some old sea defences looking out to the North Sea, the Humber to the right; the sound and smell of the sea felt huge. I talked to four birdwatchers carrying tripods and telescopes who were extremely pleased they had spotted a red backed shrike, a subalpine warbler, and a wood sandpiper… so pleased that I wrote them down. I had parked at Kilnsea near the Sandy Beaches Holiday Village and I dropped in to the office and talked to the lady in charge of sales. Do people live here year round? No, she said, it’s a 10-month season, you can’t imagine how wild it is here in December and January. I think I probably can. On 5 December 2013 there was a violent storm caused by an exceptionally high tide and a tidal surge: 12 caravans and a BMW went over the cliff. I could see where great chunks of sea defences had fallen into the sea as I headed north for Bridlington. This Holderness Coast is the fastest eroding coastline in Britain. I walked on Fraisthorpe beach, 4m south of Bridlington, where great lumps of concrete – which once sat on the cliff to protect the coast from a German invasion in the war – have now fallen into the sea.
Bridlington is the biggest shellfish port in England and I walked all round it looking for an internet café, but I had no luck. I was told to try Costa. Costa had it, but it wasn’t working. I asked in a few more places (“I doubt you’ll get wiffy in Brid love…”) I tried the Tourist Office and a pub. The barman was rushed off his feet. “Excuse me, have you got wifi here?” I asked. “Well we ‘ave dook, but I haven’t a clue how it works, something to do with a cloud.” No worries, I said, and left.
Back in the car park by the quay I was drinking tea and writing some cards when Lee Majors, the parking enforcement officer, came by to check I wasn’t planning to stay overnight. I might get moved on by the police in the middle of the night. I said I wasn’t planning to stay. He had lived at Spurn Point as a child when his father was a mechanic on the Humber life boat, and it was a great place for a boy to grow up; he and the other children ran wild and played in the sea defences… but it was really bleak in winter. Lee had been in the army for 25 years and had recently returned to Bridlington.
I asked him where David Hockney lived.
“Well it’s just over there, but he’s honestly not here much. He’s always saying he wants Brid to be back like it was when he was a lad. But things move on don’t they?”
So what had changed in the town since he went away?
“Nowt!” he laughed.