logo - The Countryside Agency    
title - Countryside Character Initiative
subtitle - Yorkshire and the Humber

Key Characteristics

• 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 embankments allow.

• 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.

Landscape Character

The 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 natural habitats.

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 south banks.

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.

Physical Influences

During 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.

Historical and Cultural Influences

For 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 embankments.

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 Britain’s 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.

Buildings and Settlement

The 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.

Land Cover

Outside 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.

The Changing Countryside

• 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.

Shaping the future

• 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 bank.

• Scope to increase woodland cover exists, especially round the industrial and urban areas.

Selected References
Gillespies (1996), Humberside Landscape Assessment and Guidelines, Humberside County Council

Moss, M (1996) Humber Estuary Management Strategy - Landscape Topic Paper, Unpublished Countryside Commission Paper.

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 Books.

Wright, G (1976), The East Riding, BT Batsford Ltd, London.

Previous Page Top


The Countryside Agency