Twenty-two people who need Hull

No man is an island, and the residents of Spurn Head are no exception, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Online
No man is an island; yet natural phenomena still threaten to make islanders of mainland men today. Of women and children, too, in the curious case of Spurn Head, a finger of shifting mud and sand twinned, until this week, with that lonely tract of land we know as Humberside. Late winter storms have conspired to create what this week almost became England's first new island in many years.

Its moment of isolation may not be quite as dramatic as the case of, say, Tristan da Cunha (pop; 300), the remote outpost of the British Empire, which threatened to disappear altogether in a torrent of lava in 1961, but came back to life again two years later (the island's population was resettled in Fareham, Hampshire, while the fate of their idyllic South Atlantic home lay in the lap of Vulcan). Even so, the fate of those who make their precarious living on Spurn Head deserved the fair hearing it got yesterday when the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, the landlord, agreed to reconnect the spit to the mainland.

The 22 who live there do not want to be marooned in the mouth of the Humber. They are no south sea islanders, but Britain's only full-time lifeboatmen and their families. They need the road that takes them, past the magnificent parish church at Patrington, to the fleshpots and supermarkets of Kingston-upon-Hull.

Spurn Head's residents, along with several thousand seabirds, occupy a strange and lonely place. Sea crashes over their narrow torso of would- be land. Sand and mud are chucked from one side of the spit to the other, so much so that the point shifts this way, that way, forwards, backwards over the cold North Sea. A man-made peninsula (a sandbank built to shield the mouth of the Humber), its existence has always been precarious. Here, between river and sea, you feel this might be the End of the World.

The British are said (they say it themselves) to have an island mentality, the blood of Drake and Nelson coursing through their veins. This is reputed to make the British both introspective and, cut off from the sensibilities of continental Europeans, overly self-confident.

Although some of us are rich, lucky or energetic enough to own holiday homes in Tuscany and Provence, we like to come home to our own safe, green island. We read stories of how we share a kinship with other island nations (the Taiwanese, Papua New Guineans?) and how, above all, we are proud to be islanders. Germans may dream of a secret retreat in the Black Forest or an eagle's nest amidst the Wagnerian peaks of the Alps, but our dreams, apparently, are those of Robinson Crusoe.

Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe has been a bestseller since its publication in 1719. Robinson Crusoe Island, far off the coast of Chile, calls like a siren to romantic English travellers still. As does the prettier Isle of Youth, off the southern coast of Cuba (Hispaniola to readers of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island). Neither lives up to the fantasy.

Nor, indeed, does Innisfree, the Sligo island from the famous poem by WB Yeats. The Irishman's poems are even today taught religiously in English schools and universities. When he wrote the lines, "I will arise and go now and go to Innisfree/And a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made/Nine beans rows shall I have there, a hive for the honey bee/And live alone on the bee-loud glade", he was appealing to our yearning for islands of the imagination. You will find the lilting lines of this escapist ditty printed on tea towels hanging from rubber sphincters stuck on kitchen walls from Kingston-upon-Hull to Kingston-upon-Thames.

Yet such romantic dreams quickly evaporate if you walk the three-mile length of Spurn Head. Here is a wild and windy place. Those who live here (more for duty than love) want the same home-fire comforts as the rest of us. No matter how romantic lake isles, island caves and sea-soaked spits may be in the uncertain waters of our imagination, the reality can be grim and lonely.

Eileach an Naoimh, a tiny island with monastic ruins on the Forth of Lorn, sounds wonderful; it loses its magic for even the most determined romantic when winter mists roll in, hail falls and the Gulf Stream fails resolutely to warm it. Not far off, the triplet islands Eigg, Rhum and Muck are remote home to poverty-stricken Highlanders.

There is hardship, too, in the Hebrides and Orkneys. Islands off the west coast of Ireland have lost their populations entirely as rural poverty and a cruel sea have battered them into moving to the mainland over the years.

Spurn Head could even disappear altogether if its sea walls are not shored up. Look at the Ordnance Survey map and you will see it stands soft by Sunk Island sands, an ominous name that may well presage the future of Spurn Head. Whole English towns, like Dunwich on the Suffolk coast, have disappeared into the sea in centuries past (this, however, did not stop that old seaport sending two wiley MPs to Westminster).

Those islands that we love to live on or to visit - Holy, Brownsea, Caldey, Eel Pie, Burgh and St Michael's Mount - are well serviced and equipped to meet the fantasies of those who want them to be a romantic escape. Such escape, however, is always temporary.

For the poet Yeats, it would certainly have been a case of a fleeting visit. If he had really ever risen and gone to Innisfree, he would have been back in Dublin within a week, bitten by mosquitoes, sodden with rain, thirsty and hungry to boot. Yeats was no island. No man is. Even Robinson Crusoe came home to England to tell his story. The lifeboatmen of Spurn Point deserve to have their road repaired and their sea walls rebuilt.