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Holderness from space.

Holderness is an area of the East Riding of Yorkshire, a broad, low-lying finger of land between the North Sea and the Humber. It is the easternmost part of Yorkshire. It forms a wapentake of Yorkshire, its main towns including Withernsea, Hornsea and Hedon.

An area of rich agricultural land, Holderness was marshland until it was drained in the Middle Ages. In appearance, Holderness is said to have more in common with the Netherlands than other parts of Yorkshire. To the north and west are the Yorkshire Wolds.

The Greenwich Meridian passes through Holderness just to the east of Patrington.

Shape of the land

Holderness is low ground, without hills, close to sea level and swept by the wind. It has boundaries which are clearly defined by the rising land of the Yorkshire Wolds to the north and west, the North Sea to the east and the River Humber to the south.

Holderness is essentially farming land, with long, sandy beached providing seaside resorts. The largest town is Bridlington (in Dickering wapentake), on the coast at the very northernmost stretch of Holderness. There are no motorways in Holderness and the only A-roads, the A614 and A165 to Bridlington and the A1033 out to Withernsea. Hull, by the edge of Holderness is by contrast a major port and industrial town and through Hull run the major transport links.

The only remaining rail link is the Yorkshire Coast Line that runs between Hull in the south and Bridlington. Until the 1960s there were lines from Hull to both Hornsea and Withernsea, but these were closed as a result of the Beeching Report.


Geologically, Holderness is underlain by Cretaceous Chalk but in most places it is so deeply buried beneath glacial deposits that it has no influence on the landscape. The landscape is dominated by deposits of till, boulder clays and glacial lake clays. These were deposited during the Devensian glaciation. The glacial deposits form a more or less continuous lowland plain which has some peat filled depressions (known locally as meres) which mark the presence of former lake beds. There are other glacial landscape features such as drumlin mounds, ridges and kettle holes scattered throughout the area.

The well drained glacial deposits provide fertile soils that can support intensive arable cultivation. Fields are generally large and bounded by drainage ditches. There is very little woodland in the area and this leads to a landscape that is essentially rural but very flat and exposed. The coast is subject to rapid marine erosion.[1]


The Holderness coastline suffers the highest rate of coastal erosion in Britain: 5 feet a year on average or 2 million ton of material a year.[2] Some of this is transported by longshore drift with about 3% of material being deposited on the spit of Spurn Head in the very south of Holderness. The growth of Spurn Head is demonstrated by a series of lighthouses that have been built on the point.

It is thought that approximately 3 miles of land has been lost since the Roman era, including at least 23 towns/villages, including for example Ravenspurn.

The Holderness coastline is susceptible to erosion due to the long north-easterly fetch, allowing for powerful waves, and the softness of the geology that make up the cliffs. Holderness is also a former bay that was filled in during the last Ice Age and is now made up of chalk/glacial compounds that are easily eroded such as boulder clay.

Aldbrough, Holderness. Coastal erosion.

All the villages affected by the erosion are located on the north side of the estuary of the River Humber. The area stretches from Flamborough Head (high chalk cliffs, just north of Bridlington) down to Spurn Head (sand spit, on above map). Villages such as Ravenser, which sent representatives to the parliament of King Edward I, have totally disappeared.

The local authorities are endeavouring to prevent the effects of erosion. Hard defences in the form of a concrete sea wall and timber groynes have given some protection. It has been suggested that a large underwater reef made of tires|tyres could be built off the Holderness coast to mitigate this erosion but it would be costly to build. Other defences include sea walls, groynes, and gabions but businessmen say that if the erosion is not stopped then there will be millions of pounds of damage. However, one or more such groynes has had a detrimental effect further along the coast, in some areas resulting in erosion of up to twenty yards a year initially though over the long term erosion rates have been seen to revert to their original yearly average of closer to 6 feet a year.


The Holderness area is drained by the River Hull and its tributaries and a number of coastal streams. The valley of the River Hull is broad and shallow and in its lower reaches the river is contained within flood banks. The River Hull Tidal Surge Barrier at the mouth of the river can be used to prevent surge tides overwhelming the flood defences. Large areas of Holderness are too flat and low to drain naturally so in these areas a low level drainage system operates to collect the water. In the middle and lower reaches of the River Hull water is pumped from the low level drains into a high level system. This system consists of elevated water courses bounded by embankments. It drains by gravity into the sea.

In the east and south-east of Holderness there is a complex network of drains and streams that flow south into the Humber or east into the North Sea. To mitigate the effects of high tides stopping the water flow from these outlets, several have had pumping stations constructed at their outfalls. [3]

Natural history

The Valley of the River Hull

The River Hull valley dominates the western landscape of Holderness. The river and its associated wetland habitats support a diverse range of plants and animals. The upper tributaries of the river originate on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds before entering the area of glacial and alluvial deposits of Holderness. The river bed varies in composition reflecting the underlying geology. In the upper reaches of the river water crowfoot, lesser water parsnip, mares tail and spiked water milfoil may be found in the main channel whilst the marginal vegetation is composed of branched bur-reed, common reed and reed sweetgrass.

Otters have recently recolonised the upper reaches of the river, however the water vole is now confined to a few isolated populations. Notable species of invertebrates include uncommon mayflies. There is a diverse breeding bird community including lapwing, snipe and redshank. Wildfowl such as mallard and mute swans may also be seen, along with yellow wagtail, sedge warbler, reed warbler and reed bunting.

Further south towards Beverley and Hull the river becomes tidal and saline. In the lower reaches it is enclosed by flood banks with little associated natural habitat remaining. The majority of the formerly extensive wetlands have been subject to drainage schemes and agricultural improvement. However some small remnants remain along the Hull valley between Driffield and Wansford. Plants that are typical of these habitats including a variety of reeds, rushes and sedges as well as yellow flag, valerian and meadowsweet may be found.

There are few surviving areas of woodland among the open farmland which supports golden plover and lapwing and a flora of arable weeds.

The Coast

The coast from Bridlington in the north to Spurn Point is an interesting complex of coastal processes. The soft cliffs of Holderness are subject to rapid erosion whilst the eroded material is being deposited on the Spurn Peninsula. The speed of erosion along the glacial till cliffs prohibits colonisation of anything but sparse ruderal vegetation. Coltsfoot is particularly common and sand martin colonies have become established in places.

Hornsea Mere is the largest natural lake in Yorkshire at 300 acres. It has, besides the open fresh water habitat, marginal habitats of reed swamp, species-rich fen and carr woodland. It regularly supports populations of wintering wildfowl and the reed beds provide breeding sites for reed warblers. Characteristic plants include milk parsley, greater water parsnip and lesser reedmace.

The Humber Estuary

The silt flows at the Humber Estuary

The intertidal system of the estuary of the River Humber has local seagrass beds that provide feeding and wintering areas for over 133,000 waders and wildfowl. It is rich in invertebrate communities. The estuary also provides for breeding birds, grey seals and natterjack toads.

Spurn Point at the tip of the Spurn Peninsula is made of hard glacial moraine so is less liable to erosion than areas further north on the Holderness coast. The Spurn Peninsula is a beach with dunes which moves in response to the action of the waves. The wave action removes sand from the east of the beach and deposits it on the western side. The coast is influenced mainly by wave action but in the estuary the processes are driven by the power of the tides. The incoming tidal currents carry more sediment into the estuary than the ebb tides carry out. The estuary is shallow because of this constant deposition. Isostatic recoil is, however, causing the area to sink at the rate of an inch every ten years, in addition to potential rises in sea level.[4]



There is archaeological evidence to suggest that the first settlers in Holderness arrived in the Neolithic era when the plain was still very wet and most likely consisted of a mixture of marshes, lakes, islands and woodland. As the sea level changed and the area became drier it was progressively cleared of trees and the higher drier parts were initially favoured for settlement.[5]

Middle Ages

The Domesday survey reveals that in the reign of Edward the Confessor there were 45 different freeholders having land in Holderness. The name of Holderness may be derived from the Old Norse "hold" which was the Norse equivalent of a baron; thus ‘’Holdarness’’: “Holds’ headland”.[6]

After the Norman Conquest of England, the extensive Lordship of Holderness was given by King William I of England to Drogo de la Beuvirere, a Flemish supporter. This Drogo built a castle at Skipsea before 1087, when his estates were confiscated by the king. The King then gave the estates to Odo IV, Count of Troyes, Count of Champagne, first father of the Irish family of Grace, but the land was taken from him in turn when he rebelled against the King William II in 1095. It was returned to his son Stephen of Aumale by King Henry II in 1102.[7]

The coastal trading town of Ravenser Odd, represented in the 13th-century model parliament, was lost to the sea through storm and coastal erosion. Its seaport role was taken over by the new town of Kingston upon Hull.

Large estates in Holderness were held by the Bishop of Durham and the Archbishop of York. Other large landowners in the area included the abbeys of Meaux and Thornton and the priories of Swine, Nunkeeling and Bridlington. This land was confiscated and became crown property when Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries in the 16th century.

Early modern period

The Aumale lordship had also passed to the crown and was obtained along with some former monastic lands by the Constable family of Burton Constable in the 16th century. Other large estates created from former monastic holdings were sold by the crown to private landowners in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Piecemeal attempts were made to improve the poor drainage of the area and with the formation of drainage boards in the later 18th century flooding began to be controlled. The remaining wastes were added to farm land and the meres, fluctuating lakes, disappeared.

19th and 20th centuries

The opening of a railway from Hull accelerated the growth of Hornsea as a coastal resort and seaside suburb of Hull. Many of the other settlements grew and changed their character from agricultural villages to become dormitory settlements of Hull, Beverley, Bridlington and Driffield. Sales of large landed estates have reduced many of the large agricultural holdings that were in private ownership but some still remain and some have been used to create large farming agri-businesses which manage considerable areas with few farms. The rail link to Hornsea closed in 1965.[8]


The three small towns of Hedon, Hornsea and Withernsea offer a range of facilities and the larger local centres of Bridlington and Beverley are regularly used by Holderness people. Hull is the largest commercial centre which is regularly used and it provides employment for a significant proportion of the population.

Agriculture is the traditional employment of the area and there is a substantial area of horticultural development on the flat fertile land in the south-west. Animal husbandry, particularly pig rearing, is a major part of the agricultural scene. In 2001 agriculture employed 4.5% of the working population.[9]

Industrial activity ranges from small workshop units in Hornsea and Withernsea to the Easington and Dimlington gas terminals on the east coast. These terminals process gas from the North Sea gas fields. The British Petroleum chemical works at Saltend uses condensates from the gas refining process and is a major employer in the area.

Tourism makes a significant contribution to the economy of Hornsea and Withernsea with Hornsea Pottery and Freeport attracting around a million visitors each year.


  • "The Adventure of the Priory School", a Sherlock Holmes mystery by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, takes place mostly in Holderness, and one of the main characters is the Duke of Holderness, who resides in the area at the fictional Holderness Hall.
  • The Summoner's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • South Riding by Winifred Holtby.
  • "Spurn Head," part three of Will Self's Walking to Hollywood, in which the rapid erosion of the Holderness Coast is used as a metaphor for the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

Outside links


  1. English Nature (November 1977). "The Plain of Holderness Natural Area Profile" (PDF). http://www.english-nature.org.uk/Science/natural/profiles%5CnaProfile20.pdf. Retrieved 2007-09-16. 
  2. "Holderness Coast United Kingdom" (PDF). EUROSION Case Study. http://copranet.projects.eucc-d.de/files/000164_EUROSION_Holderness_coast.pdf. Retrieved 2007-07-24. 
  3. Hull and Coastal Streams Flood Management Plan. January 2007. UK Environment Agency.
  4. English Nature. "The Humber Estuary Natural Area Profile" (PDF). http://www.english-nature.org.uk/Science/natural/profiles%5CnaProfile21.pdf. Retrieved 2007-09-16. 
  5. "Joint Character Areas. Holderness" (PDF). JNCC. http://www.countryside.gov.uk/Images/JCA40_tcm2-21139.pdf. Retrieved 2008-01-19. 
  6. Hey, David (2004). A History of Yorkshire. Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing Ltd. ISBN 1-85936-122-6. 
  7. Dalton, Paul (1994). Conquest, Anarchy and Lordship. Yorkshire 1066–1154. Cambridge: CUP. ISBN 0 521 45098 5. 
  8. A History of the County of York East Riding: Volume 7: Holderness Wapentake, Middle and North Divisions (2002), pp. 1-4. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=16124. Date accessed: 30 March 2007.
  9. Office of National Statistics. Neighbourhood Statistics.
Yorkshire rose.svg
Wapentakes of Yorkshire

East Riding: Buckrose • Dickering • Harthill • Holderness • Howdenshire • Ouse and Derwent • North Riding: Allertonshire • Birdforth • Bulmer • East Gilling • Hallikeld • Hang East • Hang West • Langbaurgh • Pickering Lythe • Ryedale • West Gilling • Whitby Strand • West Riding: Agbrigg and Morley (Agbrigg, Morley) • Ainsty • Barkston Ash • Claro • Osgoldcross • Skyrack • Staincliffe and Ewcross (Staincliffe, Ewcross) • Staincross • Strafforth and Tickhill