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Yorkshire's Atlantis: Rediscovering a lost medieval city

BY Paul Drury-Bradey

12th Sep 2022 Life

Yorkshire's Atlantis: Rediscovering a lost medieval city

An extraordinary quest to find England’s lost medieval city could soon be coming to an end. Could its discovery help solve some of today’s biggest challenges?

It’s not hard to see the appeal of searching for a lost city. Could there be treasure? What secrets do these almost-mythical places hold? And what was life really like in these mysterious places?

Answers might soon be found in an unassuming corner of northern England, as scientists and historians believe they are getting closer to finding Yorkshire’s “lost Atlantis”. The town of Ravenser Odd was swallowed up by the fierce waves of the North Sea in 1362. 

Its story is unlike anything else in English history. The sunken town was once rather like a little Venice—a wealthy, outward-looking place. Built on trade on East Yorkshire land, between what is now Hull and Grimsby, historians believe it was one of England’s key trading route at the very mouth of the Humber Estuary.  

And it was one of England’s most international and distinctively cosmopolitan places too. Welcoming seafaring traders from Germany, Scandinavia and beyond. An average week might’ve seen Scandinavians, pirates and merchants from Italy plying their trade. Does it sound too fanciful to be true?

Ravenser Odd

Illustration by Gareth Sleightholme

Reader’s Digest spoke to author and historian, Phil Mathison, who has dedicated many years of research to finding out more about this remarkable town.  

“Ravenser Odd is truly an amazing and inspiring place," Mathison explains. "Once people learn a little bit about it, they just want to know more and more. It fires up people’s imagination like nowhere else. I think most people like a legend, a mystery story and something that hasn't been solved. Well, here we’ve got a legend on our own doorstep. And the curious thing is that 99 per cent people living around Yorkshire haven’t even heard about it.” 

A cosmopolitan and remarkably European place

Ravenser Odd was founded as a key trading port, around 1235. It very quickly grew to a town of national importance due to fishing and merchants sailing in and out—historians believe it had many wharves, warehouse and even a prison. 

It was an outpost of the Hanseatic League, a trading alliance that was, in some ways, like an early forerunner of the EU. Phil explains, “This made it a key port for Europe. It foreshadows the importance of both the sea and Europe for this region. It made the place very outward looking. You’ve got to remember that this was a time when folks didn't travel far beyond their hamlet or village—but the people of Ravenser Odd were successfully trading with Sweden, Denmark, Estonia and beyond on an almost daily basis. It was really international and cosmopolitan, certainly compared to anywhere else in Yorkshire at the time.” 

Spurn Point

Spurn Point is an iconic and constantly moving peninsula which curves between the North Sea and the Humber Estuary

Some of the main goods traded in the town were fish and herring. But whale oil came in from Sweden, and of course wine from France was popular too!  

Although the town was home to only about 1,000 people, this still made it one of the biggest places on the East Coast at that time; the river was absolutely key to its success.  

"It foreshadows the importance of both the sea and Europe for this region"

Mathison adds, “Although this watery place might sound remote by modern standards, back then the Humber was the place to be and the best way to get around. There were few roads in existence really, and the ones that did exist were so dangerous with threats from highwaymen. Getting around by boat just made sense, and helped to make Ravenser the vital and important place it was.” 

Today, scientists believe Ravenser Odd lies at the bottom of the sea. Changes to the Humber Estuary and a type of coastal erosion led to the town’s decline and it was eventually flooded by the middle of the 14th century. A storm and flood around 1362 probably brought about its dramatic final end, leaving it completely submerged in the waters of the North Sea. 

I am not aware that the scan in May found any "distinctive stonework." In the past an echo sounder has located a ridge near the shore on the seaward side of Spurn, but high beach and seabed levels in the last year appear to have masked it.  

A new search closer to the shore this year uncovered a distinctive ridge just a few metres beneath the water's surface, but changing seabed levels are making the search difficult. Advanced sonar equipment could be deployed in the hope of finding the harbour walls of the lost town, but more funding is needed to complete the research.  

Searching for Yorkshire's Atlantis

Image from Dr Steve Simmons

Scientists are confident that finding Ravenser Odd beneath the Humber would be as legendary as the discovery of Pompeii, after it was buried under volcanic debris, or like uncovering Atlantis itself. 

Dr Steve Simmons, a sedimentary expert from the Energy and Environment Institute at The University of Hull, is part of the team investigating the seabed and the River Humber for clues. 

His latest state-of-the-art surveys use an advanced echo sounder to process and interpret data. It sends pulses of sound energy below the survey boat in a fan-shaped beam and listens for reflections, in a similar manner to an ultrasound scanner—but on a far larger scale. These reflections from the seabed allow Steve and his team to map the seafloor in amazing detail with an accuracy of a few centimetres. 

Listening to the locals for clues

Dr Simmons explains how the team listened to local fishermen for advice. The fishermen had pointed out water surface disturbances that might’ve been caused by the foundation of Ravenser Odd’s sea wall. The team are now combining this advice from people who make their living in the North Sea with historical accounts that might offer other clues or different ideas on the elusive town.

The story of its watery fate is not entirely unique. But Dr Simmons says, “The fact that a town of such significance can simply disappear so suddenly, and its exact location be lost to history, that captures the imagination. Around 30 villages have been lost to the sea along the Holderness coastline near Hull, but none were as significant and remain as enigmatic as Ravenser Odd.  

"The story of its watery fate is not entirely unique"

“The loss of Ravenser Odd reminds us that coastal erosion is not a new phenomenon and that people living and working along the Yorkshire coast have had to constantly live with and adapt to a retreating coastline that has resulted in the loss of  many settlements. It helps us to understand that adapting to change is nothing new, but at the same time that the threat of erosion is likely to be greater with rising sea levels and increased storm frequency.” 

Ravenser Odd was a place that grew quickly. But according to Dr Simmons' research, it had huge untapped potential too. He says, "Historical accounts of piracy suggest that daily life in the town would have been quite interesting—almost like a medieval version of the Wild West!  

Looking for Ravenser Odd

"It’s intriguing to think how Ravenser Odd could have developed into a modern town and what impact that would have had on the development of the rival ports around the north. If it had developed into a larger town that extended inland, then better transport links may have opened up what today feels like a remote area of Yorkshire.” 

The loss of Ravenser Odd wasn’t a sudden thing. Mathison believes the people of the town could see the sea levels rising and the banks of the town eroding for at least 40 years before. "There’s a lesson here," he explains. "We need to be really careful with where we build houses. Nature decides, after all. I think that’s one of the reasons this is such an important story—because it can shine a light on the coastal erosion threat faced by communities on Yorkshire’s east coast today.” 

Today, the Holderness coast is one of the most rapidly eroding coastlines in the world, with some areas retreating up to ten metres a year. 

“It is one of the reasons I love local history so much. Understanding the past helps us prepare better for what might come along in the future. How many people have a legend like this on their own doorstep?” Mathison explains.

Shaping people's character

“Yes, it’s a warning about erosion. But people living here know the landscape and our coastline is changing all the time," says Mathison. "What’s really interesting is how Ravenser Odd's story has shaped the character of people here. We’re people on the edge, and those kinds of people have always tended to be innovative. It's created a survivor character. The people of Hull, Grimsby and all around Humberside make the best of what they've got. Because they were fighting a battle that they ultimately lost.” 

"This story has shaped character here. We're people on the edge"

Future surveys will cover further areas off the Holderness coast and around the Humber. The team’s ground-penetrating radar might find basic foundations. And then it is hoped archaeological explorations could allow the town walls, warehouses and even lost homes could eventually be pinpointed under the water.  

It might not be Up Pompeii, but down the River Humber still has a few more secrets to share.  

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