A famous battle? Here?
As you approach the site of one of the most celebrated battles of the American War of Independence, you’ll pass a huge wooden bird. It’s almost as tall as you are, and it has a furious expression, like it’s about to Harryhausen into life and headbutt you over the cliff’s edge. In fact this isn’t quite as stupid as it first sounds – you’re entering the nesting territory of one of the UK’s Special Areas of Conservation, where cute sea-birds turn into razor-beaked, hate-propelled javelins aimed at your head…
Take The Hint, says the wooden guardian silently.
It’s weird to step off the clay of the Holderness coast. This is a soft part of the British Isles, but suddenly you’ll find the ground hard, the path crunching with chalk fragments. This headland is northern England’s only chalk sea cliff, and to the north and the south of it, the coastline is scooped out by some of the fastest rates of erosion in Europe. Nothing endures because nothing has had time to dry: the glacial tills and boulder clays that make the surface of East Yorkshire were laid down just 20,000 year ago. That’s nothing. That barely registers on normal geological timescales. A wiper-blade of glacial ice sweeps up to the pole, leaving a smear of dirt in its wake…onto which we’ve crammed all our local history.
Now I’m seeing what’s underneath, and it’s so old it has basically been here forever.
Down here on the beach, you hear everything at least twice. The sound clatters off the chalk wall, echoing and multiplying and making the world sound badly produced. But it’s also nearer. The Holderness coast is flat, and sounds travel a long way round here, never quite dying away to nothing – and you only hear that when they’re blocked, absorbed, gone. Down here, there’s the sea on one side and there’s what you did a split-second ago on the other, and that’s it. That’s all you’re aware of. You just stepped off the modern world, and now you’re standing looking up at layers of rock that used to be alive a hundred million years ago.
You continue to stand and stare, because, how else do you respond to all that?
Let’s imagine you’re standing here on a September night 235 years ago, looking out to sea.
The cliff behind you booms with distant cannon-fire, as America fights for its independence a couple of miles offshore.
What’s happening out there is heroic, exciting and faintly ridiculous. Thirteen British colonies in North America, 3400 miles away, have decided they’ve had enough of licking Great Britain’s boots, and they’ve declared independence. That’s not the ridiculous bit, of course. What’s ridiculous is that an American Continental Navy squadron is fighting the British here, off the coast of Yorkshire. Formerly anchored in France, it’s been sailing up and down the coast of Britain, attempting to cut British naval supply lines and generally spoiling for a fight.
At Flamborough Head, it finds a prey worthy of attention: a southbound convey of 40 British ships, protected by the 40-gun Serapis and the 20-gun Countess of Scarborough. What follows, what’s taking place amidst all those thunderous flashes you’re watching right now, is one of the most extraordinarily fierce battles in naval history, as the American captain John Paul Jones turns his battered 40-gun East Indiaman Bonhomme Richard towards an enemy that outguns him almost two to one.
As legend has it, the battle only turns when Jones rams his fatally shot-up ship into the side of Serapis, and one of his seamen has the quick wit to lug a bucket of grenades to the ship’s side so he could toss them into holes or hatches in the British ship’s hull. One lands in the lower deck’s gunpowder stores. The rear half of Serapis blasts apart, killing the bulk of its gun-crew and putting the entire lower gundeck out of action. Shortly after, the British captain is striking his colours.
Follow the whole incredible story here.
You’re further out now. Seaweed and limpets underfoot: you’re going to go over at some point and it’ll hurt, so you stop and watch the jet-skis zipping around the ancient battleground, watch the wind turbines down the coast turn and turn and turn, feel the sun get low enough for the cold wind to cut into your fleece, and suddenly you’ve seen and felt enough and your brain is full…
And then it’s time to clamber up the cliff, out of history, back to where you can remember who you are again.
Directions For Getting To Flamborough Head
Go up the east coast of Yorkshire north of Hull, and keep going until it stops bulging outwards. You can’t miss it – there’s a bloody great big wooden bird thing in the way, and lots of chalk (the rock, not the tiny white sticks your teacher used to throw at you for not listening in class). The village of Flamborough is sleepy and tiny, so if you want to stock up on proper lunch-supplies and maybe a hard-hat to protect yourself from homicidal sea-birds, go to Bridlington. You’d like it there. It’s grand.
If you find these instructions inadequate, then (1) well, to hell with you, and (2) you’ll probably find this guide from the Guardian much more helpful.