Withernsea: a town where people have embraced precariousness as a way of life
Withernsea is a small resort town in Holderness, a region that stretches for 61 kilometres of the East Yorkshire coast. It casts its reach from the storybook chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head down to the Spurn Point nature reserve where you can find an abundance of brown tail moth caterpillars and, sometimes, a bloated dolphin corpse.
People don’t think much of Withernsea, if they ever think of it at all. Like most seaside towns in the UK it’s a little rundown, though its existence is further complicated by the fact that the Holderness coast is built on boulder clay and is disappearing into the sea at a rate of 10 ft a year.
Not many people seem to care about this, partly because it has been happening to Holderness for generations. You can find maps showing the many towns that have been consumed by the sea over the centuries. One day, if nothing is done about it, Withernsea will join them. This matters to me, not just because my family moved there 30 years ago but also because I believe there is something special about Withernsea.
I made this claim to Arts Council England, who granted me funding to produce a book of essays about the place and the people who live there. And so I set about interviewing the locals and I discovered Angela, who chooses to live a perilous existence in a chalet which teeters on a crumbling cliff edge. By the time I met up with her, I’d spoken to UFO truthers and a man who believes that a horse-sized baboon from another dimension is terrorising a puffin sanctuary. But Angela was by far the most compelling character. That she stayed put while the homes around her tumbled into the waters, choosing to sleep with her headboard against the sea-facing wall, was of greater interest to me than aliens.
“I like to think that no one in the world sleeps with their head closer to the sea than I do,” she tells me, a light in her eyes that you only get from knowing that each bedtime might be your last.
This, to me, is typically Withernsea: a town where people seem to have embraced precariousness as a way of life. Everyone knows the tales of vanished places and can repeat stories of how, during storms, you can hear the bells of long-lost churches out at sea as if they’d slipped intact, congregation and all, beneath the waves. Whether consciously or not, it feels like the knowledge of Withernsea’s impermanence energises people into eccentric forms of action. And this is why it perfectly suits the poet Dean Wilson, who moved there in 2018.
“I’ve written 330 poems since I came here,” he says, explaining that he’s never been so productive. Wilson’s work is by turns funny and touched with longing, delivered in his faltering, idiosyncratic bark. I saw him perform last year, and we arranged to meet at Shores Diner. “I started writing at 16 and published my first book at 51. I’m 54 now, I could be dead tomorrow. I can’t wait around.”
Wilson is compact and stocky with close-cropped salt and pepper hair and a bushy horseshoe moustache, giving him the appealing look of a sad and slightly tired teddy bear. But he’d delivered these words brightly, not squeamish about mortality, though it was the death from cancer of his long-term partner Kev that brought him to the town. Over lemon and elderflower cake he explains that, before Kev’s terminal diagnosis, they’d been looking to buy a place together somewhere along the Yorkshire coast.
“We were watching This is England on the telly and he said, ‘I’ve had enough of this’, then died.” Wilson presses a knife into his cake, cutting off a small, glistening wedge. “One minute he was alive, the next they were putting him in a body bag.”
When Kev learned he was dying, he’d set about securing his partner’s future, willing him enough money to settle down. “He said ‘Dean, buy yourself a place in With.’ So, here I am.”
Wilson bought a small terrace, a stone’s throw from the town’s curiously inland lighthouse where he now volunteers, slotting in so neatly alongside the town’s existing cast of eccentrics that it feels like Withernsea had been reserving him a Wilson-shaped space. Despite its small population, the town is home to a mature burlesque troupe (whose eldest member is my 70-year-old mother), a pirate-run café and two David Bowie impersonators, one of whom is willing to double as Billy Idol if the booking requires both Rebel Rebel and Rebel Yell. It’s hard to imagine Wilson living anywhere else.
“I feel safe here,” he tells me as we leave the diner and take our conversation to the beach, where he does most of his writing. Wilson writes his poems as he walks, a habit he acquired while working as a postman.
While his poetry has a following, Wilson is currently best known for his activity on Twitter where, each day, he posts a photo of the pebbles he finds on his walks, hashtagging it #PebbleOfTheDay This has struck a chord with people who fill his replies with thoughtful comments, poems, pebble photos and artwork. BBC Look North recently featured Wilson’s walks, perhaps because his experience is so peculiar (Twitter, in my opinion, being a heartless landscape where innocence and good intentions generally go to die). But finding positivity in unexpected places is one of his gifts.
As we head further up the beach, chatting and hunting for pebbles, we reach a point where erosion has disturbed an old landfill site, causing shards of vintage glassware and pottery to spill onto the sands. He reacts to these as if he’d discovered buried treasure. “You’re not a pebble,” he says, admiring a chip of 1950s crockery. “But I like you.”
When the tide starts to come in and we turn back to avoid it, Wilson stoops to pick up a pebble then hands it to me. It’s a small piece of sandstone, worn into the shape of a heart.
“Here,” he says. “Take this, for love.”
It’s a small thing, but it typifies what’s inspiring about both Wilson and the people of Withernsea. It’s about what it means to live in an increasingly lost town and, rather than dwelling on negatives, allowing yourself to focus on the joy of what can be found.
Words and images by Adam Farrer, The Real Story
Adam Farrer is currently working on his first book, Cold Fish Soup, a memoir in essays about life and death on East Yorkshire’s Holderness coast.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.