“But I don’t want to know anything about the neighbourhood of Wildernsea.” Sea, Sand and Spectres in Lady Audley’s Secret
This comment by Robert Audley to the landlord of Withernsea’s Victoria Hotel and his description of the town as “a shabby seaport” wouldn’t impress its residents and the thousands of visitors who still remember Withernsea as a popular, accessible and very affordable seaside resort. Poor Withernsea – battered for centuries by crashing waves and then by a crashing bore who obviously preferred London’s smog to clean sea air. If he had cared to listen instead of worrying about his chop and pint of sherry the landlord could have told him some interesting facts. Withernsea (Wildernsea) is mentioned in the Domesday Book as Widfornessei and Witfornes but its history goes much further back with evidence that the area had human settlements in the Mesolithic period or Middle Stone Age and objects and burial mounds from the Bronze Age have also been found. Withernsea is also rich in fossils so I’m very surprised that Robert didn’t feel instantly at home!
Considering his running battles with Lady Audley, he might also have been interested in hearing about Fort Paull which is only a few miles away. The first of the four forts to be built on this site was commissioned during the reign of Henry VIII to protect the Humber’s ports. Ironically, the second fort commissioned by Charles I during the Civil War was an attempt to cut off supplies to Kingston-Upon-Hull. The site was then home to a third fort designed to repel any Napoleonic threat. Given that Robert is obsessed by a murder he thinks has been committed he might also have heard about the mystery of Drogo de Beuvriere who built Skipsea Castle. This Fleming was given the title of tenant in chief of Holderness by William the Conqueror as a reward for his support at the Battle of Hastings and he also married a kinswoman of William. She died mysteriously, some believe poisoned by Drogo, who then fled to Flanders, but not before an unsuspecting William gave him money for his passage!
Robert took a train to Withernsea on the Hull to Holderness railway line which was promoted by a Hull man, Anthony Bannister, who held the office of Lord Mayor of Hull twice and also became an alderman of the city. Thanks to his foresight the railway created faster links between the port of Hull, Withernsea and villages along the line. The line opened in 1854 but fell under Dr Beeching’s axe in 1964. Fortunately for Braddon and other authors, the Victorian railway network could be used to great advantage in so many novels. The Victoria Hotel where Robert stayed could be the impressive three storey Queen’s Hotel which changed names a number of times before being taken over by Hull Royal Infirmary in 1893 for use as a hospital/sanatorium. It’s of interest that the hotel reflects the class boundaries in the novel because it has a small side door which was the usual entrance for the “humbler classes of residents.” Many of these would have come from Hull but they didn’t have the pleasure of strolling along the pier until 1877 when the construction was completed. Here Braddon exercised a little artistic license because Lady Audley’s Secret was first serialised in 1861-62 and yet Robert views the “long stone pier” on which George Talboys met Helen Maldon. Braddon probably thought that every popular coastal resort should have a pier and so she built one, much as she’d probably have constructed a railway line if Bannister hadn’t beaten her to it! Braddon’s pier lives on in her book but the real pier suffered severe storm damage, even during its construction, and the battered remains were removed in 1903.
Robert could also have learned about the gradual erosion of the Holderness coast and the loss of over 30 villages to the North Sea, including Old Withernsea, which was lost in the fifteenth century. Would he have been shocked to hear that the Holderness Coast had lost an estimated three and a half miles since the Romans invaded Britain? No doubt the landlord would also have enjoyed telling him ghostly stories about the thirteenth century Church of St Mary the Virgin which lies one mile out at the bottom of the sea. He might even have mentioned the great storm of 1816 during which bodies and bones from Owthorne’s church graveyard were washed up onto the beach. While at the hotel Robert has a nightmare in which Lady Audley is a mermaid luring his uncle to destruction and he sees Audley Court uprooted from Essex and threatened by the North Sea. Had he listened to the landlord’s history of the area his nightmare might have included the sound of the submerged church bells tolling out a death knell for Audley Court and the vision of bones and bodies on the shore. He might even have seen the ghost of Drogo’s wife wandering along the beach in pursuit of justice. Enough I think to deter Robert from ever returning to Withernsea and leaving its attractions to visitors who did like to be beside the seaside!