Expansive, flat, low-lying, sometimes remote estuarine
landscape dominated by the Humber and with an ever
changing character due to tidal influences.
Dominance of sky and open views over the
estuary, mudflats and salt marshes, where flood
A predominantly reclaimed former inter-tidal
landscape of rectilinear fields with boundaries
formed by dykes, drains and embankments.
A landscape of predominantly arable farming
with some conspicuous areas of market gardening,
particularly around Hull.
Internationally important coastal mudflats
and other wetland and coastal habitats, including
the Spurn peninsula.
Urban and industrial influences especially
around Hull and on the South bank.
Humber Estuary is one of the largest river estuaries
in England and the rivers draining into it drain
about one fifth of the entire area of the country.
This estuarine landscape is bordered by the high
flood banks which contain the estuary, up to the
point where it narrows inland just west of the confluence
of the rivers Trent and Ouse. Within this area the
waters of the estuary itself provide the focal point
of the landscape. Around it there is a terrestrial
landscape of very low lying, flat farmland combined
with urban and industrial development and some notable
The waters of the Humber create a dynamic landscape
which is always changing in both appearance and
mood. This is due to the constant tidal movements,
changing coastal weather and varying activity on
the river. Low tide exposes extensive mud flats
which, on gloomy days, can appear somewhat bleak
and drab. But on brighter days the sun catches the
water and transforms the scene. Land and water,
though linked, can often appear quite separate because
views outwards to the water are often interrupted
or completely blocked by flood embankments. Today
some of the finest views of the estuary come from
the Humber Bridge which now links the north and
On the estuary shore most of the flat farmland is
an artificial creation formed by reclamation of
salt marshes from the sea, by drainage of wet alluvial
soils or by the process of warping.
This involved seasonal tidal impoundment and controlled
flooding of farmland with water rich in silt which
was thus deposited on top of the existing soils.
As a result the farmland is now fertile and well
drained and supports predominantly arable farming.
Most of the farmed landscape is open and expansive
with large regular fields, few visible field boundaries
and limited, scattered tree cover. The most substantial
area of this drained farmland is at Sunk Island
just west of Spurn Head. In other areas a greater
number of trees and more hedgerows create a slightly
more sheltered and enclosed landscape
The city of Kingston upon Hull lies at the mouth
of the River Hull on the northern bank of the estuary
and is surrounded by this estuarine farmed landscape.
The farmland has an urban fringe character in some
areas, being influenced by disused airfields, business
parks and other forms of urban land use. There are
also some areas of very industrial landscape, notably
on the south bank at Immingham where there are on-shore
oil and gas refineries.
One particularly distinctive landscape within the
estuary is the Spurn peninsula, a 5 kilometre long
sand and shingle spit which extends out between
the Humber and the North Sea at the end of the Holderness
plain. This fragile and mobile landscape is dominated
by the sea and the estuary. There are enclosed farmed
fields in the North but out along the spit and dunes
and sand and shingle beaches dominate. The wind
blown and sea washed peninsula changes shape and
position over time. War time defence structures,
a variety of buildings in brick and cobble, a lighthouse,
lifeboat station and radar tower, all add interest
to this sometimes bleak, exposed landscape.
the last Ice Age, advancing ice blocked the mouth
of the estuary and impounded waters forming Lake
Humber whose deposits created the Humberhead Levels.
Once the ice melted the waters from this lake escaped
eastwards and cut a channel through the newly deposited
layers of till. The river eventually cut a wide,
shallow valley which was later flooded as sea level
rose and the estuary was formed. Above the high
watermark there would originally have been extensive
areas of salt marsh. It is these areas which have
been substantially drained and cultivated to create
the open, farmed landscape of today. Only a few
small remnants now remain of the former marshes.
and Cultural Influences
several thousand years the Humber Estuary has provided
a route for communication and trade and has attracted
industry and settlement along its margins. Important
archaeological evidence shows that there has been
activity in the area since prehistoric times. Bronze
Age boats have been discovered on the foreshore
and there is also evidence of early settlement on
the higher, drier land just above the estuary. In
the Bronze Age it is thought that the surrounding
land was an area of extensive reed swamp edged with
a wooded fringe of lime, and oak and alder carr.
Those living in the drier settlements were able
to exploit the surrounding rivers, creeks and meres
and gradually clear woodland to allow summer grazing
of the marshes.
For many years the Humber acted as the northern
frontier of the Roman Empire and several Romano-British
settlements were established in the vicinity. The
Saxons and Danes both settled in the area and left
their mark, not least in typical placenames. The
Humber continued to have great importance for trade
and communication and so became more densely populated
and quite wealthy in the next few centuries. This
situation continued through the Medieval period
and subsequently although there were fluctuations
in the fortunes of the area as trade ebbed and flowed.
The area declined in prosperity in the 16th and
17th centuries as a result of competition for trade,
as well as improvements to inland transport systems.
Hull, however, prospered and became the principal
port and town in the area.
There is evidence, especially to the north of the
Humber, of some drainage of the marshes as long
ago as 180 AD and the local abbeys began to promote
drainage schemes in the 12th century. It was however
only after the 17th century that the processes of
coastal reclamation, drainage and enclosure came
to have such a great impact on the rural landscape.
Dutch engineers were involved here, as in the Humberhead
Levels, and they carried out extensive drainage
improvements by cutting new drainage channels, enlarging
watercourses, constructing flood protection berms
and installing sophisticated sluice and pumping
systems. The practice of warping was also introduced
by the Dutch in the 18th century and the addition
of tidal silts substantially increased the fertility
of the soils. Warping drains still remain, although
the practice has long ceased. They are still quite
visible in the landscape because of their high flood
Drainage improvements and changing farming practices
continued during the 18th century and early 19th
centuries and most of the drained land was enclosed
then. Parliamentary enclosure produced the regular,
geometric fields enclosed by hedges as well as dykes,
and also introduced some of the same type of brick
built isolated farms found to the north in Holderness.
In this century Hull has continued to be an important
port and the estuary has assumed greater commercial
importance in providing a gateway into Europe. As
a result there has been substantial industrial development
on the foreshore, primarily on the south bank. This
has resulted in a large amount of important but
visually quite intrusive development including oil
refineries, cargo handling facilities and power
stations. Saltend to the north of the Humber and
Immingham to the south are particularly notable
and the latter has special significance as Britains
early 20th century new port. Communication has also
continued to be of great importance and construction
of new road links and the bridge crossing has provided
significant modern additions to the landscape. In
common with other estuaries in this country and
indeed in Europe, the Humber estuary today blends
the rural, agricultural scene with modern industrial
installations, all knitted together by the ever
present tidal waters. The two communities on the
opposite banks of the estuary are quite different
culturally and even the building of the Humber Bridge
to link them has not altered this.
City of Hull and the modern structures of the Humber
Bridge and the various industrial installations
are the most obvious examples of building and settlement
in the Humber Estuary. Other smaller scale building
has generally not occurred because so much of the
area is low lying and prone to flooding. Settlement
has therefore traditionally been restricted to drier
land at a slightly higher altitude and villages
and hamlets lie mainly in adjacent areas like Holderness.
Where more traditional buildings do occur they are
built of soft red brick and red pantiles, continuing
the pattern found in the Yorkshire vales to the
north. They also sometimes include cobbles nearer
to the coast, echoing the pattern in Holderness.
The bricks would traditionally have been those produced
locally in the area as Hull was, with nearby Beverley,
and the Barton Clay Pits the home of the early English
brick making industry. The coastal nature of the
landscape is signalled by the appearance of some
lighthouses, concrete sea defences and the coastal
buildings on the Spurn peninsula. Crossing the estuary
the patterns of buildings and settlement owe more
to the influences and traditions of Lincolnshire.
the built up area of Hull and the developed areas
along the shores of the estuary, the predominant
land cover is arable farm land. Some grassland remains
and is grazed by cattle. There are a few relict
areas of salt marsh and reedbeds along the tidal
channels which cross the drained marshes and there
is also some remaining marshy grassland. The water
filled Barton clay pits, which once supplied the
brick-making industry and now lie disused below
the Humber Bridge, contain open water, reedbeds
and other wetland vegetation and are of considerable
value for birds. In the estuary itself mudflats
cover extensive areas and are exposed at low water.
They are of international importance because of
their role in providing feeding areas for birds.
Woodland cover is relatively sparse but there are
a few blocks of medium sized, regularly shaped deciduous
woodland, which are particularly prominent in the
flat, open and uniform farmed landscape.
This is a landscape which has evolved continuously
over the centuries in response to changing environmental
and farming conditions, and this dynamic situation
continues. The main pressures for change today come
from the demand for industrial development in this
highly strategic location in relation to European
trade. The resulting development has had a particular
impact on the south bank of the estuary but there
are significant development pressures around the
major settlements and along major transport corridors.
Because the landscape is so open and exposed it
is quite difficult to conceal new building and structures
and they inevitably can be visible over long distances.
Much agricultural improvement has taken place
and in the last forty years intensification has
led to loss of many trees, hedgerows and woodland
which might once have existed. More recently, changes
have resulted from farm diversification and fragmentation.
The intensive nature of the agriculture raises some
concerns about water quality and the possible effects
of effluent in causing pollution of both surface
and ground water.
Change also results from natural coastal
and estuarine processes and there is considerable
interest in the way that these processes may develop
in the future. It is an extremely complex process
but there is some concern that rates of silt deposition
in the estuary may be reducing so that the levels
of mudflats and salt marshes will not be renewed,
with potentially significant consequences if sea
levels should continue to rise. The result could
be increased flood risk for land around the estuary.
The need for an integrated and co-ordinated approach
to management of the estuary and an associated strategy
is widely recognized. Issues to be considered might
include the development of new flood defence strategies
in the face of changing sea levels, as well as the
many complex development issues. There may, through
this or other more modest mechanisms, be scope to
recreate some inter-tidal habitats and other types
of habitat which have virtually disappeared because
of drainage and agricultural intensification. The
Spurn peninsula offers scope to demonstrate best
practice in coastal management.
Habitat recreation could help to enrich what
has become a somewhat impoverished landscape with
only minor remnants of its former wetland character.
Examples of reedbed management exist on the south
Scope to increase woodland cover exists,
especially round the industrial and urban areas.
(1996), Humberside Landscape Assessment and Guidelines,
Humberside County Council
Moss, M (1996) Humber Estuary Management Strategy
- Landscape Topic Paper, Unpublished Countryside
National Rivers Authority (1994) Humber Estuary
Catchment Management Plan. National Rivers Authority.
Pevsner, N (1972), The Buildings of England: Yorkshire
- York and The East Riding, Penguin Books.
Pevsner, N and Neave, D (1995) The Buildings of
England: Yorkshire: York and The East Riding. Penguin
Wright, G (1976), The East Riding, BT Batsford Ltd,