Tilted / A Traced Village (part 2)
JANUARY 2020 – Sweden
The eroding cliffs stay with me in the new year, I am invited to perform at the Festivalen13 performance festival in Gothenberg. The performance seems to take on a life of its own, gesticulating cliff falls outside in the cold, wind and wet, and my inability to control its direction, shape, structure, time or place of movement.
Back on the chalk of Brighton, and within a space of only weeks since my last visit to Skipsea, there has been a sudden escalated surge in the devouring of the cliff edges there. In January, the speed of the erosion is covered in the national press. The sense of urgency is even more pressing. I want to return very soon to meet with the people there.
A friend who lives further up the coast where erosion is also an issue sends me newspaper articles, and other friends phone to let me know about media coverage of the escalated eroding edges.
‘It’s a monster’: the Skipsea homes falling into the North Sea: Residents on fastest-eroding coastline in northern Europe told of ‘imminent risk’ The Guardian 18th January 2020. It says:
`A combination of stormy weather and rising sea levels caused more than 10 metres of cliff to disappear from a 2-mile stretch of coast in just nine months last year, compared with the annual average of 4 metres. In just six months, three strips of coastline lost nearly double what they expected to lose in a year.’
The article interviews residents and the council, but also points out that:
`The erosion of Yorkshire’s soft clay coast is not a new phenomenon: about 30 villages have been lost to the sea since the Middle Ages. The steady nibbling away began about 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, but the global climate emergency has accelerated the process. Rising sea levels and more frequent volatile storms have seen huge chunks of land disappear in the past 20 years.’
One of the links in the piece goes to an earlier article in same newspaper, from autumn 2006,
`Living on the edge: Britain’s coastline has remained more or less intact since the end of the last ice age. But as sea levels rise, erosion is accelerating and more than a million homes are now under threat. Is the only solution for us to abandon the shore?’ The Guardian 9th October 2006.
Coincidentally, the article refers in text to the eroding chalk cliffs of East Sussex, close to my current home, and has a picture of cottages on the cliff edge being demolished there, a place where there are no sea defences.
`Natural processes will be allowed to take their course at Birling Gap [East Sussex, near Beachy Head]. The retreating cliff will remain pristine white, and evidence of any human intervention will in time be removed by the sea’. The Guardian 9th October 2006
But the article also refers back to East Yorkshire, including an interview with the principal engineer for the East Riding of Yorkshire Council, who says of the erosion:
“This is a sacrificial coast… it feeds the Humber, prevents it overdeepening, and the Lincolnshire beaches, which protect the low land behind them. And some of it goes to Holland.”
National news of the erosion continues sporadically to the end of the month:
`Fastest collapsing cliffs in northern Europe leaves Yorkshire coastal homes on brink of falling into sea: Residents in Skipsea regularly wake up to find chunks of garden have dropped away as land recedes’ The Independent, Thursday 30th January 2020. This also reported `10 metres of land falling into the sea in the last year alone’ and with an aerial photo.
But its not as though its new news. As I’m told, just two years ago the local paper in Hull pointed to the average and the more extreme:
`Recent historical records suggest the soft boulder clay cliffs between Skipsea and Spurn Point are eroding at an average rate of between 1.5 and 2.5 metres a year. However, in some cases up to 20 metres of cliff have been known to disappear overnight.’ Hull Daily Mail 23rd January 2018.
Back in 2013 the BBC, reporting on villages lost on this coast since Roman times, said that `Today it is Skipsea that is on the front line. There is an annual rate of land erosion of nearly two metres.’ And `For the residents of Skipsea, on the Holderness coast in the North East of England, coastal erosion is a fact of life. As the years pass the village has seen the sea claim more and more land and the future is far from certain’.
I’m booked to stay in caravan called Lovely Jubbly at Skipsea Sands caravan park.
SKIPSEA VISIT – March 2020
I travel from Brighton up to Hull by train, and the winds are picking up. The forecasts are for strong winds in Skipsea. From the train window I see a flag in a field being used to scare off crows. It will be good to somehow try and capture/catch that wind. The winds that are known to add to escalating erosion of the Holderness coast.
In Hull. I buy bamboo sticks and some white cloth to create flags for the beach, drawing with movement, thinking of white to reflect the ebb of waves, and the tidemark of sea on the edge of land, and to connect the sea to sky and trace the edgland. Also thinking of the bungalows that are so soon to go, and the inhabitants sadly having to leave, and the white flags representing a surrendering to the inevitable…
I reach my caravan Lovely Jubbly rented out by Jason. It is a welcoming cosy place, although I soon discover can be very chilly as the winds seeps through every little gap and crack. My first night’s sleep is disturbed, the caravan rocking from side to side in the wind. Reminding of recent human some – oft-time illusions of conquering nature.
The following night I decide to sleep in the tiny room where, if I stretch out my arms, my hands can touch opposing walls. It reminds me of a convent room I visited when looking for digs in my youth. The tiny room feels safer, should the caravan tumble in the winds. My thoughts go to the folks now living so preciously close to the edge, knowing the winds will be adding to the sea surge licking the mud cliffs away and its spray will be tapping on their windows
I settle into my new base, I set up a desk, turn up the heating, while howling winds of 40 knots plus find their way under the door and through window cracks. I wrap myself in a blanket and make my flags on bamboo sticks, trying to decide their best length for the vast open beach while I’m sat in the tiny caravan. I will work with the wind and draw out the edge. I play Olafur Arnalds, Icelandic folk music which, despite the winds, seems to fit perfectly with the bleak silence of the place.
The rain now lashing outside, but I manage to sleep. I wake to the sound of winds still howling, the feel of the caravan rocking, but the sky is blue, and the clouds running at a pace, their skimming through the sky making them part of the sea beneath.
The tide will be at its lowest by 11 a.m. I wrap myself in layers of warmth, and venture outside, and look for the place to get down to the beach. I’m carrying my tightly stitched flags and sticks. The fierce gusts nearly take me off my feet. But the light is amazing, bright and penetrating, and rhythmical with the scudding clouds across a milky blue sky. I find the make shift zig-zag path cut into the cliffs made by local folks, and clamber down the brick pieces and bits of concrete foundations once used for caravans which are now long removed.
Down the path, below the cliff, the beach looks so broad, open, and huge, wet and trying to dry in parts with the tide far out. I unfurl the flags, pushing them deep into the wet sand, placing them to delineate an inward tidal line. As a solitary human working on such a vast empty beach I attract the attention of a dog and what turns out to be his lone dog walker going by. Curiosity brings them over, Charlie and his dog Roy. We chat about the eroding coast and the weather. They continue on their way , I carry on working, setting up flags, watching the sea return from its outward limit of the day, and encroach on their footings, while the sticks and fabric flow with the wind, attempting to withstand the blowing of air and flowing of water. Their footings erode, they fall, and one gets quietly taken, quite suddenly, when I’m not looking.
March – Final day in Skipsea
Its my final day here, before I will go back to Hull and then onto Brighton to make plans for another return in a couple of months, though there is uncertainty in the air due the Covid virus.
I go down to the beach, carrying my flags and their sticks.
I begin responding to the winds, playing with the edge of scape and sea….
A couple I see watching me from afar whilst walking their dog as my white flags have flapped in the wind. They approach me, ask me what I am doing. We talk of the eroding coast. He offers to share their secret about a quiet place they have found on the coast. I promise I will not say where. I ask them what they would save should they have to leave their home suddenly. They both say photographic prints is what they would save, and ”we wondered if this would be the same for younger folks as everything has now become digitised?”
I decide to take my flags to the water’s edge. Despite the ebb, the wind is fierce and the sand wet, and although I push the bamboo deep into the wet sand, they all slowly fall to the ground, gracefully, apart from one. I film them and then lay them all flat, thinking of the cottages soon to fall.
I wait for a while,
for the tide to come and catch them. As I do
a wagtail appears.
Goes right up to one piece,
pecks gently at the end of the bamboo,
as the ebbing flows in,
I am filming the whole time,
the wagtail and the tide and the sun just coming out at the right time…
I’m so excited to be catching all this,
as the tide ebbs away and the bird walks out of shot as though on cue,
I realise I hadn’t clicked on ‘video’, and my camera appears to have… frozen…?
I took the battery out, and put it back in to find a file that contains no image. I am saddened but for only a moment. I quickly turn the loss into a happening that is now stored in my memory rather than stored in film, perhaps something I will remember more due to losing it. I am reminded of Jean Sprackland and the disappearing footprints in her book Strands, the Mesolithic – Neolithic footprints. The researcher she was with at that moment took out his camera to record the footprints before the tide took them away forever, only to find his batteries were flat. So it became only something they both saw, written in word for others to see in their mind’s eye, the impermanence of everything.
I am exhausted but decide I must take advantage of this tide and the wind and the short opportunity to create the piece, and so lay the flags flat again and wait for the tide to come and take them. Then a new piece is created that wouldn’t have been had I not stayed.
As I walk back, hungry and tired, I see the chalk frames I had made earlier on the sand. I stop to take an image and then I notice the shadowed cliff on the sand, and I decide to trace its shadow using the Sussex chalk dust I have brought with me, as the tiny brilliant white of this beautiful material catches the sun. The material and line is illuminated by the sun, but as quickly as I draw the trace outline the sun moves, and the brilliance of the line is lost.
I drag my body home to the caravan, hungry and tired but full of the memory of place.
I had been putting it off, knocking on the doors of the folks still living in the bungalows. It felt somehow intrusive, explaining I am an artist wishing to make a work about the coast and stories of folks impacted by the loss of their homes on the edge. I managed to knock on one door; the woman who answered was very friendly but as I began to explain to her, I knew then I could not do this. Though I would dearly love to share their stories for others to know, this felt far too raw. We chatted about other things, I thanked her for her time and left.
This day I am to leave. I wish I could stay longer.
As I lock the caravan a woman called Julie saying in the caravan opposite says a cheery hello. She is so friendly and before I know it I have been invited into her caravan. She has a lovely plot with a view over a field with the sea beyond.
I meet other folk, I am invited into their caravan homes. They share their stories of things they would chose to take should they have to suddenly leave their homes. Some very poignant. I offer to make work in response to the words they share when I next return to Skipsea. I am still in touch with them and plan to make the work when I am able to next return.
For now I share a selection of words from just a few of the folks I met who either live or have had lived in Skipsea until the time allows for me to return to create work back in Skipsea incorporating the poigniont strories of others in a piece of work there.
These are some Julie’s words
”The coast erosion has been evident in our life time both from visiting the east coast and reports on television and news paper , one that really sticks in my mind is the one of the hotel in Scarborough being taken by the sea I think this was probably early 1980s , it was on the local news on telly a programme called Calendar .”
I ask what she would take with her if she had to suddenly leave her caravan home, she explained she would tear a piece of wall paper from the window with the view of the sea.
”My reason for choosing the piece of wall paper as the thing I would grab and take with me is ….
I would always have chosen a home with a view of the sea and so every day I would look out to sea from my window , my window wall I would probably wall paper in a seaside themed wallpaper .
So taking the piece with me would always remind me of the beautiful but cruel sea. So I suppose the memories would be good and bad , but I would hope that the good memories would out compete the bad ones .”
She continues to share some of her thoughts about the eroding cliffs
”Into the here and now when at our caravan on Skipsea sands we walk our dogs daily along the coastal path and often we have a conversation regarding how much the sea has taken the land, and when we stay for a length of time we have had little bets on how long a certain piece would be before it fell onto the sands .
Over the past 2 years we have noticed just how much has fallen in , and also that in some areas the sea takes the land away quicker than in others .
I could go on forever it’s such a interesting but sad subject”
The sun is bright, I would love to make just one more piece and continue to meet people, to collect more of their thoughts a stories. As I prepare to return, I must come back to the world outside of the wind, rain, sea, sand and my making. With news of this new virus spreading I feel somehow cut off and safe here, but my heart also wants to return soon to be close to those I love.
I say goodbye to this little caravan that has served me well, and let me stay so very close to the beach and broken road.
Whilst waiting for my lift back I notice that the cafe is open and there’s a milling around of people. The camp site is officially open today and has characters dressed as birds and pink unicorns welcoming children. There’s a buzz and excitement as the holiday folks arrive even while the folks in the bungalows pack up to leave for good.
I returned to Hull to gather my things, and find huge uncertainties about the virus. There’s no real advice or information. I bring my journey forward in order to return home in time, just in case.
But I still have a couple of days and on the final day before I get the train, I had prearranged to meet Will Mayes from the Geography department at the University of Hull.
Just as I turn up, he receives news that the University is possibly going to close the following day due the Covid pandemic. If that’s so, he has stuff to do, to prepare, to take away with him for work. I am about to leave when his colleague Byrony Caswell invites me into her office next door, while he prepares. She assures me he will return to meet with me. There is a wonderful sense of calm in her office as she so generously began to take me on a geological journey along parts of the Holderness Coast. She explains the formation of chalk – cociliphor, and Skipsea Till, and I frantically take notes. Byrony recommends Peter F Rawson is the man to look at.
She speaks of the movement of rocks that the force of melting ice shifted from far off places to eventually arrive in Skipsea. For me it’s like the Shifting of Place. Will returns and talks of the Scarborough till that became unstable and slippable in June 1993, causing the ground underneath the hotel to surrender to the sea taking the hotel with it.
Till, in geology, is unsorted material deposited directly by glacial ice and showing no stratification. It is often referred to as boulder clay or glacial till. I discover it is the shift of geological material that has travelled some great distance, carried by glacial movement and melt during the last ice age. Made up of clay and boulders of differing sizes. The boulders can carry marking from the force of glacial flow, helping to understand the direction from where they journeyed.
I’ve got lots to look up, think about, draw on, and prepare for next time.
Later, I contact some people I know who lived in Skipsea. Cea, who I know from Hull, she lived in there for three years and loved it. I ask her what she would have taken with her had she had to leave suddenly.
“There was an old black and white postcard – from about 1926 – I had it in a clip frame on the wall. It was of the house at Shingle Street in Suffolk where I was born – that’s another house on an East Coast beach that is under threat. Skipsea and Shingle Street can blend together in my dreams sometimes. I would take with me the picture of Shingle Street, a place very much in my heart.” Cea
The following day I’m on the train, excited, tired and thinking, while watching the view change. There’s also the virus uncertainty and unknown, an informationless void.
I got back to Brighton that day, just a few days before lockdown was announced. My plans have to change, since it doesn’t really look that likely the next visit will happen, nor the planned exhibition.
May / June
During my last site stay, in March, a perfect environment enabled me to make new and unexpected work in response to forceful winds, low tide and wide expansive beach. I also met with some of the lovely folk of Skipsea, collecting their stories, and returned home just days before lockdown. But the changed situation meant postponement of intended exhibitions in East Yorkshire, in Skipsea and Hull.
Instead, an online visual journey of work, reflecting the impermanence of the edge and shifting coastal landscapes and geology, will be created. Selected organisations and galleries have offered to host one image each on their websites for a short period, before it disappears and is briefly replaced by words, referencing its disappearance into the sea. This disappearance of image progressively disrupts the online tour, just as the coastal edge vanishes into impermanent memory, occasionally attempted to be retained in written and visual record.
I am so thankful to all the folks I met in Skipsea and Hull who shared their stories with me, to and Will Mayes and Byrony Caswell at the University of Hull for their generous time just a day before the university site had to close due to lockdown. To Laurence Hill who gave me the idea of the possibility of an online visual journey and to all selected organisations and galleries who offered to become a part of the visual journey.
Finally thanks to Edgelandia – Penned in the Margins, for offering me the commission, to Nick, Tom and Kate for all the work they do behind the scenes.