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Auburn, Hartburn, Northorpe, Monkswell, Monkwike, Waxholme, Dimlington, Turmarr, Orwithfleete, Tharlesthorpe, Owthorne, Hoton, Sunthorpe, old Kilnsea, Ravenser and Ravenser Odd — they all lie under the sea off the Holderness coast, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. In their time they had churches, fields, farm-houses and cottages, mills and ponds, but they were established on the boulder clay coast of Holderness, and their down-fall was inevitable, as the cliffs crumbled into the sea. Some of their names are perpetuated in village street names or houses. Otherwise they are lost indeed. It has been estimated that when the Romans were in Britain the coastline of Holderness was about three and a half miles further east than it is now. And when the Domesday Book of 1086 gave us our first full list of settlements the coastline was probably about two miles further east. Some of the villages named above still had open fields stretching out to the sea at that date. Their downfall was however predictable, and the retreat of their populations must have been anticipated, though the loss of good farmland, their only support, probably meant penury.

Most of the collapses of these little communities went unrecorded, since they happened before regular written records existed. But the end of Ravenser Odd is a different matter, because it was associated with the Abbey of Meaux, near Beverley, and the monks kept excellent records. Ravenser Odd was a thriving, bustling sea port with streets and buildings at the end of a peninsula (a predecessor of Spurn Head) at the tip of South Holderness. At the height of its fortunes in the early years of the fourteenth century, Ravenser Odd was a town of national importance, supplying the king with two fully equipped ships and armed men for his wars with the Scots. The port flourished from about 1235,  but by about 1340 it was being threatened by the inroads of the sea. By 1346 two thirds of the town and its buildings had been lost to the sea, and the people that remained were no longer able to make a living by trade, or to pay the tolls and tithes that had been levied upon them. Between 1349 and 1360, the sea completed its destruction of Ravenser Odd. The erosion exposed the bodies buried in the chapel’s graveyard, much as it was to do some 450 years later at nearby Kilnsea and Owthorne.  As was to happen later at Kilnsea, the bodies were re-buried in the churchyard at Easington. The final days of Ravenser Odd saw scenes of looting and panic-flight, when the town ‘lay open to devastation ... [with the] floods and inundations of the sea ... surrounding it from every side like a wall, thus threatening its imminent annihilation. And so with the terrible vision of waters seen on every side, the besieged persons ... preserved themselves at that time from destruction, flocking together and tearfully imploring grace.’ And so ended Ravenser Odd. The destruction of Ravenser Odd was quite dramatic. But most of the other lost villages of Holderness probably slipped slowly over the edge.








Old Kilnsea and the lost villages of 
Owthorne Church

At Owthorne, just north of Withernsea, the loss of the village happened in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In 1786 the church was only 12 yards from the cliff edge. The congregation and incumbent recognised that its downfall was inevitable and made plans accordingly. In 1793 the chancel was taken down, and six years later the rest of the church was demolished (the dressed stones being utilised for other buildings). The graveyard was now on the cliff edge, and some of the bodies were taken out of the churchyard and removed to Rimswell Church. However, removing the bones of centuries of parishioners was impracticable, and a description from George Poulson’s History and Antiquities of the Seigniory of Holderness (1840), is quite harrowing, describing : ‘whitened bones projecting from the cliff, … and after a fearful storm, old persons tottering on the verge of life, have been slowly moving forth and recognising [!] on the shore the remains of those who in early life they had known and revered’.

With the church, once in the middle of the parish, gone, the villagers watched whilst the rest of their little settlement disappeared over the cliffs. When Owthorne’s southerly neighbour, Withernsea, was transformed by the new Hull to Withernsea railway line in 1864, almost nothing of Owthorne remained. Happily the villagers had a new source of income when Withernsea became a prosperous seaside resort.

Old Kilnsea

Kilnsea’s downfall was very similar to that of Owthorne. Kilnsea is a small triangular settlement, at the tip of South Holderness. It is bounded on the east by the North Sea, on the west by the River Humber, and on the north by the village of Easington. As the land narrows to the south it merges into the Spurn peninsula. Kilnsea has lost, and is still losing, land to the sea. The soft boulder clay cliffs crumble away, and the annual loss varies between one and three yards (or metres) annually. Even on the western side of the parish some loss of land is experienced, though only when westerly gales coincide with tidal surges in the River Humber. When it was recorded in the Domesday Book (1086), Kilnsea village was several miles from the sea, and the dwellings of the village were established upon a hill. By the late eighteenth century the village was still intact, though it had lost its East Field. Around the houses and cottages were little gardens and small fields, with a village pond and a green, and a Medieval church. Apart from the church itself, a large ornate stone cross was the most prominent landmark. It had apparently been erected on the peninsula further south to commemorate the landing of Henry IV at Ravenser in 1399, but was removed to Kilnsea in the early sixteenth century when the peninsula had become eroded.


Kilnsea Cross

The cross was placed upon the village green, but by the early nineteenth century it was on the edge of the cliff and the proximity of the sea enforced its removal to Burton Constable in 1818. James Iveson,  the agent and attorney of the Constables, had plans to establish a high-class housing estate in Hedon, and asked the Constables if he could incorporate Kilnsea cross as a focal point. Although he never fulfilled his plans he did move the cross to Hedon, where it remains, much eroded, in the grounds of Holyrood House. By the early nineteenth century Kilnsea was right on the cliff edge, and about half of the land of the parish had disappeared. The church of St. Helen’s, which was stone-built with a nave flanked by aisles as well as a chancel, a clerestory, and a three-storey tower, was teetering on the edge of the cliff. In 1824 the chancel fell over the cliff, and a wall was built at the east end of the remaining part of the church so that services could still be held inside. A year or so later another large storm took the partition, with the north wall, its pillars, pointed arches, pulpit, the reading desk and books, down the cliff ‘with a tremendous crash’. The tower remained for only a year or two, before finally falling over the cliff in 1831. The dressed stones from the church can still be found in the gardens of Kilnsea, or incorporated in houses or walls. Even Easington still has stones from the church.At that time the villagers were still farming strips of the open field in the way that their ancestors had been doing since time immemorial. Until the arable strips, the pasture and the meadows were re-allocated they could not build new houses away from the sea. So in 1840, they decided to apply for an enclosure act, almost the last one in the East Riding. That allowed the villagers to build themselves a new settlement, on the western side of the parish. But those who remembered the old village, never ceased to mourn its loss — ‘old Kilnsea was the prettiest village in all Holderness, standing on a hill with a wide prospect over sea and land, and a noble old church, pleasant gardens sloping down the hillside and a fine spring of bright water surrounded by willows’



St. Helen's Church