Toby Smith

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Department of Geography,  University of Cambridge 

Collaboration with the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit

Exhibition Open to the Public

12th March  11am – 5pm

Filmed and Produced by Toby Smith

The Yorkshire Coast has long been synonymous and exemplary of coastal erosion and processes in Britain. The soft and fragile geology, stretching south from Bridlington to Spurn Head, contrasts sharply with the resilience of cliffs and formations at Flamborough Head.   I was first introduced to this landscape during a GCSE Geography Field Trip and it has long been a personal metaphor for the fragility and temporary nature of landscape within a planet dominated by open-water.

Formation of the current Holderness landforms began during the last ice age some 50,000 years ago.  As the advancing glaciers moved southwards they carried beneath them a vast quantity of material eroded from landmasses further north. Later as the ice sheets retreated this material was deposited burying the ancient coastline below a layer of boulder clay some 20 to 50 metres thick. By the end of the ice age, about 10,000 years ago, the coastline that we recognise today had been formed although it was some 15 to 20km east of its current position.                    

Almost immediately after this ancient deposition, the North Sea began to rapidly erode this clay coastline. Accelerated by the sinking of land-levels and the rising of sea-levels recent historic data suggests the coastline is lost at a rate of over 2m per year.  The modern phenomenon of climate change, coupled with winter storm surges can see dramatic single events where land and property fall into the sea at an alarming rate. A favourite topic of national media especially when considering the changing policy and reduction in ‘investment’ in hard sea-defences. 

Despite the claims of the Daily Mail, the loss of cliff-top settlements is not unique to recent history.  Over 30 known villages have been lost on this coast since the Roman Era. Most eloquently discussed by  Thomas Sheppard (F.G.S.) in his 1912 book ‘The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast’.   

This book and in particular the map insert,  inspired me to produce a short-form video project to illustrate more poignantly the fragile nature of our coastline.  I wanted to illustrate its transience and fragility not just over geological time-scales but within our more recent history.

I obtained a peer-reviewed map of the Yorkshire Coast that accurately plots the positions of 28 villages that are now situated between 200 and 1200m into the North Sea. By overlaying this map onto Google Earth it was possible to reveal the exact latitude and longitude of the villages. These coordinates were then used to charter a small fishing boat to their exact position at sea.

Filming West towards the coast, I selected a photographic lens equal in perspective to human vision and field of view. As an artist working on environmental issues I strive to make visual the often intangible reality of climate change. I will not claim here that the 13 villages depicted in this ‘work-in-progress’ piece are lost due to human activity. However, the expanse of forbidding water between their exact position and the distant coast-line I hope can inspire an understanding of how our activities can influence and accelerate damaging natural processes.