Posted by: mike on Jul 6, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureLife-enhancing experiencesHumber HeritageFun Palaces

White Horse Inn, Beverley

When I was an undergraduate at Hull University in the late 1960s, what passed for debauchery was a trip on the train to Nellie’s at Beverley.

Once I’d ascertained that Nellie’s was in fact a pub – I was mindful of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945), which tells of men who went to the Bear Flag Restaurant for a sandwich – it became, and remains, a favourite.

This famous and memorable hostelry has medieval timbering but has been radically altered in and since the eighteenth century.  It belonged to St Mary’s Church (which stands at the opposite end of the street) probably from 1585, and had become an inn by 1666.

It seems to have changed little since the tenancy was taken on by a sadler, Francis Collinson, in 1887.  Mr Collinson bought the inn in 1927, and after his death it was run by his son, William, and after his death by three of William's sisters, Nellie (after whom it is now popularly known), Ada and Dorothy, who maintained the ancient tradition of opening their private kitchen to drinkers during the evening, serving from a table beside the hand pumps and washing up with hot water from the coal-fired range.

After the three sisters died in rapid succession during 1975-6 the White Horse was sold to Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster:  under this new ownership the nineteenth-century fittings and gas lighting are lovingly preserved, but not the brick wall that served as the original gents’ lavatory.

There is a grandiose unofficial website at  It has a link to the masterly site of Beverley’s chimney-sweep,, which is classic example of internet style and enterprise.  Take a look, even if you don’t have a chimney, aren’t getting married and don’t live in Beverley.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 4, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureHumber HeritageBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

45 North Bar Without, Beverley

45 North Bar Without, Beverley (detail)

Just outside Beverley’s North Bar stands a riotously decorated black-and-white revival house 4-6 North Bar Without, loaded with dormers and turrets, statues, mottoes and coats of arms, and two endearing carved caricatures of Gladstone and Disraeli, dating c1890.

This is the work of the Beverley carver James Edward Elwell, whose fine carvings can be found in churches, public buildings and houses across the East Riding.

In Beverley he executed, among much else, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Gothic organ screen in the Minster (1878-80) and John Oldrid Scott’s reredos at St Mary’s Parish Church (1880-1).

He also provided carvings at his own house at 43 North Bar Without (Oak House) (Smith & Brodrick 1880) and the house next door, 45 North Bar Without, which he designed himself (1894).

He died in 1926 aged  ninety:  his work, much of it for the architects Temple Moore and F S Brodrick, dates from the 1880s to around 1910.

His son was Frederick William Elwell (1870-1958), a painter with a national reputation who chose to live most of his life in Beverley with his artist wife Mary Dawson, née Bishop, (1874-1952).

His portrait-subjects included King George V, whose lying-in-state he also painted, and the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, and he painted numerous civic leaders in Hull and the East Riding.  He is now most celebrated for his genre-paintings of local life, including several of the kitchen-staff at the Beverley Arms Hotel, such as ‘Preparations’ and ‘Three Maids’ (both c1940-45), which are displayed on weather-proof panels around the streets of Beverley.

By this means Beverley is embellished by the talents of both father and son.

Posted by: mike on Jul 2, 2013

Category:Sacred placesHumber Heritage

St Mary's Church, Beverley

Though Beverley is famous first for its magnificent minster [see Room at the top in Beverley Minster] its parish church of St Mary is well worth visiting, not least for its carvings.

After the tower collapsed into the nave during Divine Service on April 29th 1520, killing many of the inhabitants, the generous donations that paid for its rebuilding were commemorated in the north arcade of the nave:  the merchant John Crossley and his wife gave “two pillars and a half” and the “good Wyffes of Beverley...gave two pillars – God reward them”.

Most enjoyable of all, the “Maynstrells” gave the easternmost pier, on which five of them, including their robed and badged president, appear.

Indeed, St Mary’s church and Beverley Minster between them contain a quite unparalleled collection of medieval carvings of musicians and their instruments – pipes and tabors, viols, rebecs, bombardes, shawms, citterns, hautboys, bagpipes, twin horns and nakers – no doubt because the town was the headquarters of the Northern Guild of Minstrels.

St Mary’s has other notable carvings including the Beverley Imp (arguably more frightening than the one at Lincoln) and a so-called Pilgrim Rabbit which is supposed to be the inspiration for the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

Posted by: mike on Jun 30, 2013

Category:Humber Heritage

Beverley Old Friary

It’s a pity that the George and Dragon pub on Highgate in Beverley was renamed the “Monks’ Walk” because while medieval Beverley may have been black with vicars, crawling with canons and full of friars, the monks remained firmly in their monasteries.

The Dominican friars, who came to Beverley by 1210, were based at what is now called the Old Friary.  The site of its church was intersected by the railway line in 1846, but the surviving building contains religious wall-paintings which date from shortly before or soon after the Reformation.

When the factory buildings surrounding it were cleared in the 1980s, the Old Friary was converted into a Youth Hostel:

The result is a beautifully tactful extension, which is clearly modern and entirely appropriate.

Posted by: mike on Apr 7, 2013

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Cleethorpes Pier

Some time ago I wrote a Facebook entry about my local butcher’s disappointment when he visited Cleethorpes for the first time in decades.  The place wasn’t what it used to be, he said, fifty years ago.

Shortly afterwards, my friend Marion remarked how much the children at her grandson’s primary school had enjoyed a day in Cleethorpes.

Apparently the school is in a fairly deprived area, and some of the kids had never actually been to the seaside.  It proved impossible to get them off the beach:  the sand and the sea were all they wanted.

That’s the magic of the seaside, yet Cleethorpes is entirely a commercial creation, the unlikely joint enterprise of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, who had built the line out to Grimsby to exploit the fish docks, and the dons of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, who owned 56% of the land enclosed by an Act of 1842 that specifically allocated to them 2½ acres of coastline.

The railway to Cleethorpes was opened in 1863:  in August that year 40,000 Primitive Methodists attended a tea meeting, three-quarters of them arriving by train.

By 1892 the railway company owned the entire foreshore between Grimsby and Cleethorpes.  George Dow, the railway historian, declared that Cleethorpes was one of the best investments the MS&L possessed.

Like most British seaside resorts, Cleethorpes is indeed a shadow of its former self, though you can by a quirk of railway geography get a train there direct from Manchester Airport.

Cleethorpes’ most successful sons are the actor, Patrick Wymark (1926-1970), and Rod Temperton (born 1947), member of the band Heatwave and writer of – among much else – the title track of Michael Jackson’s album, Thriller (1984).

Posted by: mike on Mar 24, 2011

Category:Transports of delightHumber Heritage

New Holland Pier (1981)

New Holland Pier Station (1981)

When I was an undergraduate at Hull University in the late 1960s, one of our innocent pleasures was to catch the Humber ferry from Hull Corporation Pier to ride across to New Holland and back.  The boats in those days were still, literally, paddle-steamers, Wingfield Castle and Tattershall Castle (both 1934) and Lincoln Castle (1940) [see Paddle-steamer for sale].  The bar was customarily open once the vessel had left dry land.

The only time I ever set foot on New Holland Pier was a week before the ferry-service ended in 1981.  Here there was a rail service south to Grimsby to join the main railway network.  The New Holland ferry started out in the early nineteenth century as a legally dubious operation, named after Holland's Gin.  Its latter-day function was as an extension of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (later the Great Central Railway and latterly the LNER and, of course, British Railways).  It was eventually superseded by the opening of the Humber Bridge.

The informative and well-illustrated Disused Stations website [] tells me that the New Holland Pier and its rail-connection still survive as a grain and animal-feed terminal.  Passenger rail services continue between Cleethorpes and Barton-on-Humber.

There is also an intriguing parliamentary service that runs three times a week between Cleethorpes and Sheffield via Gainsborough Central.  Parliamentary trains were originally a bottom-of-the-range penny-a-mile compulsory service intended by the so-called "Gladstone Act" of 1845 to guarantee cheap travel and encourage mobility of labour.  They were satirised by W S Gilbert in The Mikado:

The idiot who, in railway carriages,
Scribbles on window-panes
We only suffer
To ride on a buffer
On Parliamentary trains.

Nowadays they are a device which allows railway operators to pretend to provide a service over lines that they no longer wish to operate without going through the cumbersome procedure of legal abandonment.

By modern standards, this parliamentary service is actually quite good:  parliamentary trains in other parts of Britain run once a week, often in one direction only.  Details, some of which may be out of date, can be found at

An article in the Birmingham Press (February 4th 2011) illustrates the reasons for maintaining – at some expense – stations and routes that have little current practical purpose:

Posted by: mike on Nov 24, 2010

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Hull Tower Cinema

Tower Cinema, Hull (1999)

Earlier articles in this blog have featured auditoria across the north of England that have been neglected to varying degrees by owners who would like to see them flattened – in Bradford (see Hug the Odeon), Manchester (see Hug another Odeon) and Derby (see Bringing the house down).

The November/December 2010 edition of the Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin featured a cinema building with a more optimistic future – the former Tower Cinema, Hull.

The Tower opened on July 1st 1914, designed by the Hull architect, Horace Percival Binks.  Originally it seated 1,200 – 850 in the stalls and 350 in the balcony – and had a café serving "Morning Coffee, Luncheons, and High-Class Teas".  Latterly, it was reseated to 523 in the stalls and 230 in the circle.

Its history is entirely conventional – sound in 1929, Cinemascope in the 1950s, closed in 1978.  Since then it has functioned as a night club, and is once again up for sale.

Its appeal, however, lies in the ornate exterior, a riot of cream and green faience, with domes (recently reinstated), obelisks, a belvedere with Ionic columns dripping with swags, topped by a bare-breasted female figure that no-one seems able to identify.

Despite Sir Nikolaus Pevsner's dismissive 1972 comment "undeniably debased in the extreme, but the young have begun to like this sort of thing", it was listed Grade II.  (Pevsner's comment on the sister cinema across the road, the Regent of 1910, is "built in seven weeks and it shows".)

Images in the Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin indicate that the decorative interior with its domed ceiling and gilded plasterwork is practically intact.  Indeed, David Salmon's detailed history of the cinema at suggests that the plasterwork, woodwork and stained glass were cleaned by a team of volunteers in 1981.

The Cinema Theatre Association Newsletter for September/October 2012 reported that, after a failed attempt to restore it as a cinema, new owners have reopened the Tower as Tokyo nightclub with a commitment "to make the most of the beautiful building.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Posted by: mike on Aug 31, 2010

Category:Sacred placesHumber Heritage

Thornton Abbey Gatehouse

It's natural to assume that our best historic buildings always were the best – that Chatsworth and Blenheim are among the finest English country houses, that Fountains, Rievaulx, Lindisfarne and Tintern are among the finest medieval abbeys.

That may be so, but not necessarily, because it's hard to credit other great buildings that have vanished long ago and can now be judged only from contemporary illustrations or archaeological remains.

Thornton Abbey, in the very far north of Lincolnshire, is one such.  Its fourteenth-century gatehouse is huge – the biggest of all surviving monastic gatehouses in England – and particularly splendid, built of brick at an unusually early date.  It's approached by a long barbican and was clearly designed to keep out unwelcome visitors.  Above the vaulted gateway are two substantial chambers, one above the other, and a warren of corridors and chambers, some of which would have been lavatories.  The roofline is shorn of its battlements, but the front still contains a number of lifesized statues.

This was the frontispiece of a powerful and influential institution.  When Thornton Abbey was dissolved in 1539 it was worth £591 0s 2¾d.

Yet when you walk through the gateway, there is little but fields to see.  The abbey church, of which only the foundations now remain, was 282 feet long.  All that remains is a section of the cloister and domestic range, with two splendid bays of the octagonal chapter house.  That tells us that this place was as impressive as the greatest surviving abbey ruins in England.

The church and most of the other structures had gone by the early seventeenth century, demolished by Sir Vincent Skinner, who "built a most stately house out of the same, on the west side of the abbey plot within the moat, which hall, when it was finished, fell quite down to the bare ground without any visible cause".

Serves him right.

Thornton Abbey is an English Heritage property and is regularly open:  Unusually, it has its own railway station with a regular two-hourly service from Cleethorpes:

Posted by: mike on Aug 20, 2010

Category:Humber Heritage

Kilnsea acoustic mirror

Holderness is a fascinating part of Yorkshire, full of oddities that belong to its remoteness, and are consequently little known.

Among the First World War fortifications that protected eastern England from the German threat is a curious lump of concrete in a field north-west of the Godwin Battery on the coast at Kilnsea on the way to Spurn Point.  This enigmatic piece of concrete is an acoustic mirror, a rare survival of an aircraft-detection system that was used between 1916 and the 1930s to warn of approaching enemy airships and aircraft.

Based on an experimental sixteen-foot reflector cut into a chalk cliff near Maidstone in July 1915, the concrete acoustic mirrors were a concave segment of a sphere with a trumpet-shaped sound-collector pivoted at the focal point.  Listeners used rubber tubes, like a stethoscope, to pick up the noise of approaching engines across the sea, and panned the collector across the mirror to locate the direction.  A range of up to twenty miles was claimed for this system, giving several minutes' advantage over optical or aural observations.  The system became less effective as aircraft speeds increased during the 1920s and was superseded by the development of radar from 1932 onwards.

The best-known of these acoustic installations is the extensive 1928 group of two concave mirrors, 20 and 30 feet in diameter, and a 200-foot concave wall at Denge near Dungeness on the south coast of Kent.

Two places where you can experience this principle practically are at the Jodrell Bank Telescope, in Cheshire [] and the Whispering Gallery in St Paul's Cathedral, London [ and]. Something similar is experienced in the Oyster Bar of Grand Central Terminal, New York City – a fact that was a trade secret of New York journalists for many years.

Details of the Denge installation can be found at the very useful website along with details of other similar locations, indicating whether there are any remains and whether they are accessible to the public.  Other relevant websites include and

The detailed history of the sound mirrors and their operation is Richard N Scarth, Echoes from the Sky (Hythe Civic Society nd).

The Denge site is only accessible on public guided tours by the Romney Marsh Countryside Project:

The Kilnsea acoustic mirror stands on private land:  when visiting, please respect this by keeping to the nearest public footpath.

Posted by: mike on Jul 24, 2010

Category:Humber HeritageCemeteries, Sewerage & Sanitation

Hull King William III gentlemen's lavatory

Queen Mary's advice to her eldest son was (reputedly) – "Take every opportunity to take the weight off your feet and to relieve yourself."

It's widely known in Hull that if you seek relief in the city centre it's a good idea to head for a royal statue.

There are two, and they're very fine indeed – one beneath the fine Scheemakers statue of King William III (1734) on the Market Place and the other beneath the H C Fehr's 1903 monument to Queen Victoria in Queen Victoria Square.

Both are listed Grade II.  The King William III gents was designed by the City Engineer, W H Lucas, at a time when such creations were a matter of pride.  It has fittings by Finch & Co of Lambeth dating from c1900, including marble-and-glass cisterns, faience Ionic columns and original doors with leaded lights.  The Queen Victoria lavatories are later than the statue, dating from c1925 when the Ferens Art Gallery was under construction:  again the gents has its original earthenware fittings.

There's an account of the local pride in these magnificent facilities, told by the people who care for them, at

The Hull historian, Paul Gibson, includes in his website a lengthy account of the history of Hull's public lavatories:

Posted by: mike on Jul 22, 2010

Category:Sacred placesHumber Heritage

Beverley Minster crossing from above

Photo:  Harriet Cheshire

One of the highlights of the Humber Heritage (September 17th-20th 2010) tour will be a roof-tour of Beverley Minster, one of the most beautiful churches in England.  The Minster came into being as a shrine of St John of Beverley, who was canonised in 1037, and rose from two disasters within a generation, the Great Fire of Beverley in 1188 and the collapse of the central tower around 1213.

You can stand outside the church and see exactly how it grew over the centuries:  the east end and transepts are mid-thirteenth century;  most of the nave is mid-fourteenth century but construction was interrupted by the Black Death in 1349 and the west front and towers date mainly from the fifteenth century.

It's called a minster because, though never a monastery or a cathedral, it was run by a college of clergymen up to the time of the Reformation.  In Henry VIII's reign it became simply a huge parish church, partly maintained by funds provided by Henry's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.

By the early eighteenth century maintenance had fallen back so much that the gable of the north transept leaned four feet outwards from the perpendicular.  That the church is still standing is to the credit of the architect William Thornton (c1670-1721) who, in 1719, built a huge timber scaffold against the leaning wall and screwed it back into the fabric of the building.

To appreciate the scale of the building, and to recognise the strength of Thornton's work, it's worth taking the roof tour, which involves a steep stair-climb but isn't vertiginous, to look through the great rose window, to see how each wing of the building has distinctive roof-architecture, and to see close up the largest architectural treadwheel in England.

Thornton was understandably nervous about the stability of the central crossing, which had been a cause for concern for centuries, and which Nicholas Hawksmoor surmounted with a dome, now demolished.  From inside it's clear that the stubby central tower is built of eighteenth-century brick, and incorporates a giant treadwheel that acted as a crane to bring materials to roof level.

It still works, and lifts the central boss from the crossing vault, providing a vertiginous and securely fenced view down on to the floor below.

It's one of the most memorable experiences for miles around:

Posted by: mike on Jul 11, 2010

Category:Humber Heritage

Wilderspin National School, Barton-on-Humber

Samuel Wilderspin (1791-1866) was the pioneer of education for children as young as two.  He recognised that the years 2-7 were a vital period of child development, and advocated systematic schooling that was active, varied and enjoyable.  He opposed the regimented monitorial system of Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), in which the younger pupils were taught by older pupils, who in the modern parlance "cascaded" information from the schoolmaster.

Wilderspin developed a classroom-design with a stepped gallery, so that pupils could be taught directly by their teacher, as well as a flat floor with posts around which monitorial groups could gather.

He further encouraged the development of the playground – "the uncovered classroom" – with equipment for structured, active play:  he regarded play as part of learning and development, rather than something children did when they were not learning.

His principles were extended to older age-groups and spread beyond the United Kingdom.

By the time Samuel Wilderspin, with his wife and daughter, came to live in Barton-on-Humber he was already a "household name in his own lifetime", and he became involved in establishing and designing a National School which opened in 1845.  The brick, neo-Tudor buildings have survived, as has the extensive playground for boys, girls and infants.

There was a period of neglect after the children moved to a modern building in 1978.  This rare survival has restored as a small and evocative museum of childhood and education [].

Reminiscences, for visitors of any age, are powerful within these walls because, as the ladies on reception point out, schooldays are an experience that almost everyone shares in common, regardless of their background and upbringing.

For teachers, who may wonder how four hundred pupils were crammed into these spaces, there's a reminder that innovation is not new, and a memorial to a man who believed that education must, first and foremost, be enjoyable.

Posted by: mike on Jul 9, 2010

Category:Sacred placesHumber Heritage

St Peter's Church, Barton-on-Humber

Barton-on-Humber is not Hull.

If King Edward I had not taken over the port of Wyke, where the River Hull drains into the northern shore of the Humber, in 1293 and turned it into Kingston-upon-Hull, Barton might be better known.

Nevertheless, the haven on the south bank of the Humber prospered gently through the centuries on the strength of its rich agricultural hinterland, alongside its downstream neighbour Grimsby, the great fishing port.  Maritime industries such as shipbuilding and rope-making continued well into the twentieth century, alongside other industries based on local products, such as brick-making and malting.

Following the excellent Barton-on-Humber Civic Society Town Guide reveals an attractive mix of prosperous eighteenth-century housing and dignified nineteenth-century public buildings.

But the real evidence of this town's considerable antiquity is that, like Hull, it has two parish churches close together.  Indeed, until the early 1970s, both served the same parish.

St Mary's, which remains the parish church, has fabric dating back to Norman times.  St Peter's, however, has a tower that is unmistakably Saxon in style – with enormously thick walls and narrow internal arches, and exterior walls decorated with stripwork and triangular-headed windows – though its builders were more likely of Viking descent.  Two-thirds of the original church still stands, with a slightly later upper stage to the tower and a spacious medieval church repeatedly extended over the centuries.

Thomas Rickman (1776-1841), the architect who originated the terms 'Norman', 'Early English' and 'Decorated' to describe phases of gothic architecture, determined the chronological sequence of late Saxon and early Norman architecture on the principle of "structural stratification" visible in the tower of St Peter's:  simply, the lower walls must be older than the upper stages, so if the top of the tower is recognisably Norman, the base must be earlier.

Since St Peter's was deconsecrated it has been thoroughly investigated by English Heritage archaeologists, and now houses a fascinating exhibition of based on the examination of some 2,800 skeletons, most of which now rest in an ossuary on site while some, with intact coffins and grave goods, are shown as part of an unparalleled chronological account of the lives and deaths of Barton's inhabitants entitled 'Buried Lives'.

Details of opening-times at St Peter's Church, Barton-on-Humber, can be found at

In addition to their updated Town Guide (2009), price £3.00, the Barton Civic Society offers a series of free downloadable walks at

Posted by: mike on Jul 2, 2010

Category:Transports of delightHumber Heritage

PS Lincoln Castle (1988)

PS Lincoln Castle at Hessle (1988)

Two of the three of the pre-war paddle-steamers built for the London & North Eastern Railway's Humber ferry have survived:  the fate of the third, Lincoln Castle, is a particularly sad story.

The first two, Wingfield Castle and Tattershall Castle (both built in 1934), each have safe harbours.  Wingfield Castle is moored at Jackson Dock as part of the Museum of Hartlepool [];  Tattershall Castle, though structurally altered, continues to earn her living as a pub-restaurant moored on the Thames Embankment in central London.

Lincoln Castle, however, has had a more chequered career.  Intended as a development of the two 1934 vessels, she was built by A & J Inglis on the Clyde in 1940.  The Heritage Trail website [] tells of the difficulty of moving her from the Clyde to the Humber under the twin threats of bombardment and U-boat operations to begin work in 1941.

The last coal-fired paddle-steamer in regular public service, Lincoln Castle was withdrawn from service in 1978 when the boilers were no longer safe.  She was beached at Hessle in the shadow of the Humber Bridge where she served as a pub from 1981 to 1987.  Then she was towed across the river to Immingham, refitted and taken, not without difficulty, to Grimsby's Alexandra Dock where she opened as a pub-restaurant in 1989 alongside the Fishing Heritage Centre building and the trawler Ross Tiger [see and].

The Lincoln Castle pub closed in 2006 for renovations and because of concerns about the condition of the hull she was beached in a corner of the dock.  In 2010 she was put up for sale, with the threat that without a buyer she would have to be broken up.  Between them, private sponsors, the North East Lincolnshire Council and the Paddle Steamer Preservation Society [] were unable to find a practical solution to the difficulty of preserving a significant example of British maritime history that needed a great deal of expensive work simply to keep her afloat.

The future of the Lincoln Castle rested on a knife-edge:,, and

In the end it was dismantled, and some of the parts rescued for possible reconstruction:

Images of the Lincoln Castle and her sister ships can be found at

Posted by: mike on Jun 2, 2010

Category:Humber Heritage

Photo:  Richard Miles

Spurn Point is a unique, astonishing place – a sandspit stretching 3½ miles into the Humber estuary, for much of its length hardly a hundred yards wide.  The access road is uncertain, because the spit is literally on the move, gradually repositioning itself to the west as the sea coast erodes and sediment builds up in the calmer waters of the estuary.

The entire peninsula is a nature reserve, administered by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust [] with free admission for pedestrians and a small charge for cars.  It's a delicate environment, and dogs are strictly prohibited.

The last pub in Yorkshire is the Crown & Anchor, Kilnsea, which has a superb setting and has had a variable reputation over the years.  (The reviews are patchy, but the last time I visited we were well looked after.)

Up the lane on the sea coast are the shattered remains of the Goodwin Battery, a First World War installation which was finally abandoned in 1957.

Some distance north, standing back from the coast, is a sound-mirror, an acoustic precursor of radar, designed to focus the sound of advancing aeroplanes before they became visible over the horizon.  [See Sound effects.]  (A practical demonstration of this ingenious technology can be found at the Jodrell Bank Telescope in Cheshire.)

The road down to the Point repeatedly crosses railway lines, often to the puzzlement of modern visitors.  The Spurn Railway was laid by the Army in 1915 to carry supplies from the pier at the end of the peninsula up to the Goodwin Battery.  It was never connected to the main railway system, which approached no nearer than Patrington.  As well as steam locomotives, the line operated petrol railcars and a railed racing car, as well as sail power, there being no shortage of wind. The line was scrapped in 1952-3.  []

Spurn Point is the base of the only fully-manned RNLI station in the British Isles.  Because of its remoteness and its strategic importance the Humber Lifeboat has a long history dating back to 1810 and a proud record of lives saved.  Two of its coxswains retired with outstanding records of service:  as well as their RNLI awards, Robert Cross was awarded the George Medal and Brian Bevan the MBE.  Details of the station can be found at

Last time I took a group to Spurn the Coxswain, Dave Steenvorden, and his crew showed us round and told tales of the estuary over tea and biscuits, until suddenly Dave clapped his mobile to his ear, declared "It's a shout!", and the crew disappeared down the jetty and sped off in their lifeboat.

Nothing I could say would persuade my group of Nottingham University students that I hadn't set it all up.

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2010

Category:Humber Heritage

Withernsea Pier

The life of Kay Kendall, the Withernsea-born film actress, was brief and poignant.  Shortly after she began an affair with Rex Harrison, she was diagnosed with leukaemia.  As was often the custom in the 1950s, the diagnosis was concealed from her – she apparently thought she had an iron deficiency – and Harrison divorced his second wife, Lilli Palmer, in order to marry Kay and take care of her.  The agreement was supposedly that Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer would get back together after Kay's death, which occurred in 1959, but by that time Lilli had found another lover.

This story sheds an interesting light on Rex Harrison, who is often portrayed as an unpleasant character.  Sheridan Morley told a story of his father, the actor Robert Morley, bumping into Rex Harrison in the Burlington Arcade the day after Morley's appearance on This Is Your Life.  Harrison congratulated his brother actor with the remark, "So brave,– and not a programme I would ever dare have done, not with all my divorces and the suicides.  But for you, Robert, life has been so different:  one wife, one family, one house and, if I may say so, one performance."

There was a similar encounter between John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave, shortly after Redgrave's belated knighthood in 1959.  Gielgud would have known a thing or two about Redgrave's private tastes, because he breezily greeted him, "Ah, Sir Michael Redgrave, I'll be bound!"

There's also a wonderful street-scene involving Noël Coward.  Being gay and wealthy, Coward was in great demand among his straight actor colleagues as godfather to their children:  he gave good presents and customarily took the young ones out for tea on their birthdays.

David Niven's story is that as Noël and Niven's young daughter walked towards Harrods on her birthday they encountered two dogs copulating on the pavement.  The little girl asked, "Uncle Noël, what are the doggies doing?" to which Noël replied in the blink of an eye, "Well, my dear. The front little doggy has gone blind, and his friend is pushing him all the way to St Dunstan's."

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2010

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Withernsea Pier Head

I've always had a soft spot for Withernsea.  It really shouldn't exist.

Most of the two villages of Withernsea and Owthorne had disappeared into the sea by the nineteenth century, when Anthony Bannister, a Hull fish-merchant and ship-owner with capital to spare, promoted the Hull & Holderness Railway and – to provide somewhere for visitors to stay when they got off the train – built what became the Queen's Hotel at the Withernsea terminus in 1854-5.  The railway was unsuccessful because it had only one track and was taken over by a larger company in 1862.

In 1870 Bannister tried again to generate income by founding the Withernsea Pier, Promenade, Gas & General Improvement Co.  The pier was completed in 1877, the year before Bannister died, but in 1882 the Pier Company went bankrupt.

The pier was damaged by storms and collisions in 1880, 1882, 1890 and 1893.  In 1903 the owners gave up and demolished what was left, leaving the twin castellated towers that remain as an ornament to the promenade.  It's now commemorated by a memorably original seat for weary passers-by.

The geology at Withernsea is so unstable that the lighthouse was built several hundred yards inland, where the bedrock could support a tall enough structure.  Its light guided shipping from 1894 to 1976.  Now it's a charming little museum with an excellent cup of tea [].

It contains a tribute to the actress Kay Kendall, who was born in Withernsea.  Her famous trumpet-playing scene in Genevieve (1953) was dubbed by the jazz trumpeter Kenny Baker:  at the time the film was made neither of them apparently realised that the other came from Withernsea, perhaps because of the five years' difference in their ages.

It's not a very big place.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool's Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire's Seaside Heritage, please click here.

Posted by: mike on May 29, 2010

Category:Humber HeritageFun Palaces

Cleethorpes Empire Theatre

The Empire Theatre, Cleethorpes is virtually invisible.  When I checked out the resort to run a visit there I discovered textbook references to its existence but it took a great deal of finding. The building stands on the sea front and attracts visitors as an amusement arcade.  It doesn't have the obvious decorative faience façade of a Frank Matcham variety theatre, and indeed the only exterior clue to its origin is round the back, where a very tall doorway in the back wall is clearly the scene dock.

When I contacted the owner, Rosie Armitage, she was more than ready to give me access and to allow me to bring groups to see the remains of the interior.  What was the stalls is now unrecognisable, but at balcony level – amidst the paraphernalia of Lazer Quest – the proscenium arch and plasterwork remain largely intact, though painted matt black and only visible under working lights.

It's a spooky time-warp experience to find a late-1890s interior, as it were frozen in time and virtually forgotten.

The place has its share of theatrical stories:  Sidney Carlton, the lessee in 1899, was "known as much for his frequent court appearances as for his management of the theatre", and left town abruptly in August of that year;  a subsequent proprietor, James Carter-White, a chemist who was also a local councillor and a Freemason, established Cleethorpes' first independent Masonic lodge in the upper rooms;  the most illustrious performer to appear at the Empire was Charles Coburn, "the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo".  The place was still playing to full houses as late as the 1950s, but abruptly closed after Jimmy James & Co played there in 1960, and has been an amusement arcade now for nearly as long as it was a theatre.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

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