The darkness hugs my face…
The sky flashes.
It’s 11pm and I’m twenty minutes out of Hornsea on the south road, treading tarmac in the dark until the grass and trees ghost into life around me and I have to scramble up the verge to avoid the incoming car, squinting to preserve my night vision until it’s gone. Wheels hiss, recede; the sea booms nearby.
East Yorkshire is being nibbled out of existence. Two million years ago the North Sea lapped against the chalk cliffs of the Yorkshire Wolds (now 25 miles inland) and everything east of Beverley and Driffield was a shallow bay, increasingly clotted with sediment. Then the ice came and went, depositing thick layers of boulder clay, and Holderness inched above the waves.
In prehistoric times it was marshland dotted with lakes, one of which survives as the largest freshwater lake in Yorkshire. By the Domesday Survey of 1086 the richly fertile alluvial soil had dried and was supporting farmers & attracting landowners – but longshore drift was already tearing the coastline away. Drop boulder clay in water and it acquires the consistency of sun-warmed chocolate. Today, Holderness suffers the worst rate of coastal erosion in Europe, losing 2 million tonnes of its bulk a year, scooped out of the shoreline stretching between Grimsby and the resilient chalk promontory of Flamborough Head.
I’m walking down Rolston Road towards the village of Mappleton, currently little more than a distant prickle of light and a faint smell of manure (there’s a farm on its outskirts that’s famous for being very…farmy). Just before the road curls into the main street there’s a patch of common ground on the left, a short track to some railings at the cliff’s edge. I remember propping my bike against those railings, walking another 20 feet and craning my head over the edge, careful to avoid getting clay on my school shoes. Now the railings are the ones leaning over the cliff. They’re lucky: elsewhere, Mappleton is losing up to 2 metres a year.
It’s very dark, and I can see perfectly.
The sky flashes again. (Oh, no. Please don’t rain. Please?) I look out to sea – and the nearby clifftop winks at me. A pulse of white light dances across it – once, twice, thrice. I turn, and watch a finger of pale light strobe across the orange clouds hanging over Hull. I realise I’m watching the 1KW beam of Flamborough lighthouse shine a quarter the width of England. Damn, those things are powerful.
In Mappleton I turn onto a back-road, heading inland, and a deeper, more intimate darkness surrounds me.
Ever since reading this, I’ve been rethinking the dark. Some of the best walks of my life – in Orkney, in Berlin – were at night, and I’ve come to appreciate how it feels, how I can fully open my eyes and ears without overwhelming or hurting them, and how “darkness” is really a canvas of deep, dense colours to strengthen the eye. There is also something deliciously appealing about the glitter of distant lights – something that makes me want to keep walking, never stop walking.
Tonight I discover a new thing about darkness, and it’s this: it’s scary with the lights on. I’m walking back into Hornsea, down the abandoned railway lines that now form the start of the Trans Pennine Trail, and I’m warm and pink and happy after trotting briskly for over two hours. I can see just fine, thanks to fully sensitive night vision – but like the geek I am, I pull my phone out to check my e-mail and forget to thumb the brightness down. And now I can’t see a damn thing. It’s immediately alarming. But that’s ok – I have technology! I dial up my smartphone’s flashlight app, and the path lights up ahead of me, casting gnarled inky shadows on either side. I turn in a circle to check there’s nothing creeping up on me, face forwards and start walking…
…and nervously turn in a circle again.
And a little later, again.
The act of putting my flashlight on has rendered everything in menacing Blair Witch tones of hidden danger. I swing the light around because I want to make sure nothing nasty is out there, but I’ve seen this movie, I’ve played this video game – any second now, I’m going to shine the light onto something horribly that’s right behind me and, before I can move, it’s going to pounce and chew my face off. At every step there’s movement at the corner of my eyes, as shadows yaw and telescope in all directions, and by the time I’m walking past the local graveyard I’m ready to break into a sprint and there’s no way I’m going to switch this light off…
Darkness can indeed be welcoming and friendly.
You just need to give it a chance.
“Coastal Erosion And The Lost Towns Of Holderness” – Gordon Ostler.