A great way to get to the Point

For my mum’s birthday in late January, I booked us on to a Spurn Safari, writes Sam Hawcroft

SHE’D been going on about the Unimog for ages.

The Unimog is an all-terrain vehicle that takes visitors across the “washover” area at Spurn Point, where there is no longer any road after the tidal surge in 2013. Unimog this, Unimog that. She really, really wanted to go on the Unimog!

Spurn Point, for those unlucky enough not to be familiar with this wonderful part of East Yorkshire, England, is a narrow tidal “spit” of land forming the mouth of the Humber estuary as it opens into the North Sea.

It is now a nature reserve run by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and hosts numerous species of flora and fauna. It also has a rich military history and its landscape has changed dramatically over the centuries, shaped by both the uncompromising forces of nature and the whims of man.

Our plans to go on the Spurn Safari – a Unimog tour to the end of the three-mile peninsula – in January 2022 were thwarted by the winter storms that caused even more havoc on the already fragile reserve, and all tours were put back until the following March.

However, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the day we eventually went, March 18, was one of the most beautiful days we could have wished for. It felt like spring had suddenly sprung after months of interminable cold, wet and greyness. I found myself singing one of my favourite Beatles songs.

“It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter… It feels like years since it’s been here… Here comes the sun…”

At the Spurn Discovery Centre, which is open daily and has a very good café, gift shop and toilet facilities, we were greeted by a friendly volunteer at the information stand. He told us where the tour would depart from and, at last, 50 yards or so down the road, we arrived at the fabled Unimog.

Mum (Julia) and I on the Unimog

The vehicle was bigger than I thought it would be (even though I’d seen it before – it’s overtaken me a few times when I’ve been walking on the beach in the past). And it was clear from the off that our tour leader, Rob, was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about Spurn, telling us what wildlife we might be able to expect if we were lucky to spot it, as well as all manner of fascinating nuggets of history and information about the reserve.

Me and Mum outside Spurn Lighthouseon

It took about 20 minutes (I think!) to arrive at our next stop, Spurn Lighthouse, after a bit of a bumpy ride in parts, and a stiff breeze blowing in from the open sides of the Unimog. But once outside, the sun was unexpectedly warm. Rob told us that the lighthouse was closed, and only staffed at weekends.

However, before we could get too downcast, he produced a key and let us all in.

He advised our party of about 15 people to stagger our ascent (stagger being the operative word, in our case) so we weren’t all reaching the top together. We hung about a bit at the bottom, looking at the displays and historic artefacts, and headed up gradually. On one level there was a short film running on a loop all about Spurn and the work of the YWT.

We finally reached the top, which afforded brilliant views of the Point and the surrounding area. It was a first for me – but my mum’s third time.

Looking roughly south towards the end of the Point from the top of the lighthouse
Looking north towards the Discovery Centre

There used to be a circular compound of houses on the site of the current lighthouse’s immediate predecessor, Smeaton’s Lighthouse, and the then Kingston upon Hull College of Education used it as a geography field study centre in the 1970s. My mum spent two weeks of the 1972 summer term there helping to spruce up the buildings.

The compound where Smeaton’s lighthouse (completed in 1776) once stood.
PHOTOGRAPH BY the book, The People Along the Sand, by Jan Crowther

Sadly, these houses have long been lost to the elements. In 1988, I remember Mum taking me and my brother to where they once stood, and you could vaguely make out the shape of the foundations in the sand – but not even they are visible any more.

After our time in the lighthouse, we returned to the Unimog for a few more minutes until we arrived at the cluster of homes used by the lifeboat crew, where we were able to pay a welcome visit to some basic toilet facilities.

Rob told us that the people who run the Humber Lifeboat Station stay on the point one week off, and one week on – and it’s the only lifeboat station in the UK that is staffed full-time by a professional RNLI crew, such are the dangerous waters and remoteness from the mainland. Indeed, the history of the lifeboat people at Spurn would be another article in itself; the station was first established in 1810 and hundreds of lives have been saved since then.

The RNLI crew's homes

I’d not been down this end of the Point in years. It does require a fair walk to get down there now (at least a six-mile round trip from the Discovery Centre) and I’d never quite made it all the way on foot. We were taken on a short guided walk – first through a field that Rob told us would be thronged with wild flowers come May, then past the former Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) centre (now based in Grimsby, but 24/7 radar surveillance continues), and on to the Second World War gun emplacements.

The former ABP Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) centre
The Second World War gun emplacement at the end of the Point

Rob explained that Spurn was a highly strategic spot during both the first and second world wars, before showing us the remains of some army barracks. While he covered quite a bit of Spurn’s wartime history, he pointed out that the YWT also ran dedicated military safaris that cover this in much more detail.

All too soon the three hours were almost up, and we were back on the Unimog. We briefly spotted a deer dashing into some undergrowth on the way, but it was, as Rob told us, a relatively “quiet” time for wildlife, being somewhat in-between bird migration seasons.

This was by far the most “peopley” thing I’d ever done at Spurn. I’ve always liked to go there to experience the rawness of nature alone with my thoughts. Even on the busiest days, you don’t have to go far to get away from the madding crowd.

It’s a place where there’s nothing and everything all at once, and it’s held a special place in my heart for many years. It was initially a bit weird to be sharing this with strangers, but it was so informative and enlightening that I soon didn’t mind it.

I highly recommend the safari to anyone with an interest in Spurn and in nature in general; it really was a wonderful experience, and worth every penny (at the time of writing, tickets are £22 for adults, and £10 for children aged four and above, with proceeds going to support the highly important work of the YWT). In fact, I was a bit disappointed when there was no spontaneous round of applause for Rob at the end, as I was ready to give him a big “whoop!”

The wildlife trust hosts numerous guided events throughout the year for families with young children as well as nature and history enthusiasts. As ever, though, be aware that they are always at the mercy of the weather at Spurn, the impact of which is visible almost everywhere. The great chunks of the old tarmac road, looking like they were picked up and dropped by a giant, are testament to the immense power of the sea.

As Rob said, no two days are the same at Spurn – and we will certainly remember our safari day for a lifetime.

Further reading: The People Along the Sand: The Spurn Peninsula & Kilnsea, a History 1800-2000, by Jan Crowther

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Sam Hawcroft

Sam Hawcroft is a journalist and editor of more than 20 years. She has worked for the Hull Daily Mail and the Press Association (including stints on Teletext News, the PA newswire and the Daily Telegraph), and now owns her own publishing and editorial services company, Hawk Editorial. She publishes the monthly magazine H&E naturist, is the contributing editor for BusinessWorks Hull and East Yorkshire, and edits the weekly Holderness Gazette. She also reports on Hull City for The Hull Story. When she can find the time, she sings in local folk band Fiddlers Elbow and occasionally performs solo as Sam Martyn.