[Although Spurn Lighthouse would have been visible from Kilnsea there is no evidence Tolkien travelled down the peninsula to the point. What follows must remain highly speculative unless any further evidence comes to light].
From Kilnsea Tolkien would have been able to see Spurn Lighthouse three miles to the south. Spurn is such a unique geographical feature that if Tolkien was as close as Kilnsea, it would be very surprising if he had not visited the peninsula if he was given the opportunity. As a signalling officer his duties may have caused him to take the special military train from Kilnsea to Spurn, as it is pretty certain that in a time of war purely sight-seeing trips were prohibited. At the present time there is no documentary evidence that Tolkien actually travelled any further south than Kilnsea, but there are some similarities between Holderness’ darkest lighthouse and aspects of two dark towers in Tolkien’s fiction. The present Spurn lighthouse, which is the one Tolkien could see from Kilnsea was constructed in 1895. It is 128 feet high, so is just one foot higher than Withernsea’s, but its light had an identical range of 17 miles. However, as with Withernsea it is extremely likely that in wartime Spurn’s light would have been doused apart from specific occasions of guiding out particularly important vessels. Unlike Withernsea’s completely white appearance, it is believed that Spurn Lighthouse was always painted black around the base, and again directly under the light, with a contrasting, and therefore distinctive, broad white middle section. Some coloured postcards of Spurn exist which depict the lighthouse as red and white, but it is believed that the colourist wasn’t actually familiar with the location. In addition to the standard white light from the top of the building, Spurn, rather unusually, also had the ability of showing other lights. One of these lights, which was RED, shone at a height of 60 feet and with a range of 13 miles over some dangerous shoals to the south-east. This light would only have been visible to those out at sea, and possibly by people directly under the lighthouse on the few feet of shore to the south-east of the lighthouse. A contemporary newspaper report makes it clear that for his Watchman’s Badge a boy Scout among many other attributes “must know: the beacons, storm signals, coastguard stations, steam tugs, lifeboats, and rocket apparatus, the nearest telegraph offices, telephones, and addresses...and the mercantile code of signals.” So, although it is not stipulated in the Imperial Army’s Official Signalling book, Tolkien, as a signaller in the only too real arena of a country on a war footing may have witnessed, or at least been aware of, the various lights emanating from a dark tower on the edge of the German Ocean!
If one ascended the lighthouse in 1917 or 1918 one could see through one of the windows the foundations of the former Smeaton lighthouse, which was painted completely black with its surrounding surviving outbuildings bounded in by a circular wall. A photograph from later in the twentieth-century illustrates this scene perfectly, and the circular structure and outbuildings survived Smeaton’s black lighthouse by many years, although the ‘ghost’ of the dark tower of the lighthouse may be discerned in the photo. This is reminiscent of the situation of another dark tower of Tolkien’s imagination: “One who passed in...beheld a plain, a great circle, somewhat hollowed out like a vast shallow bowl: a mile it measured from rim to rim. Once it had been green and filled with avenues, and groves of fruitful trees...But no green thing grew there in the latter days of Saruman. The roads were paved with stone-flags, dark and hard...Many houses there were, chambers, halls, and passages, cut and tunnelled back into the walls upon their inner side, so that all the open circle was overlooked by countless windows and dark doors...Shafts were driven deep into the ground...The shafts...by many slopes and spiral stairs to caverns far under; there Saruman had treasuries, store-houses, armouries, smithies, and great furnaces.” Spurn Point has never been filled with green avenues of trees, but before the lighthouses were built the area would have held the prickly green shrubs of Sea Buckthorn, which in the Autumn are covered in their bright orange fruits. The circular wall is common to Spurn and Tolkien, and the circular area was paved with stone flags, and as you can see the windows and doors did open out towards the site of the tower, but the scale was enormously transfigured in Tolkien’s fiction. Until this spring I was unaware of yet another similarity: the subterranean passages. On a guided walk in April 2015 I learnt that a few metres to the north of the present lighthouse there are a series of underground tunnels and rooms.
One thing worth mentioning is that whenever a claim has been made for towers which may have influenced Tolkien they always stop at two: the childhood Edgbaston ones and the recent claim on Channel 5 about Colchester castle and the White Tower of the Tower of London are examples which immediately spring to mind. However, as Tolkien’s letters show even he was unsure just which two towers the title referred to and there are many more than two mentioned during the course of The Lord of the Rings: Orthanc, Barad-dûr, Minas Tirith, Minas Morgul, Cirith Ungol, the two towers of the Teeth at the Black Gate, and of course the white Elven Towers to the west of the Shire. Similarly, there are more than two towers Tolkien will have seen during the course of his period in the relatively open landscape of East Yorkshire. We know he had to pass the Black Mill at Waxholme, and he couldn’t ignore the white spire of Withernsea Lighthouse, and he must have seen Spurn Lighthouse and Rimswell’s Water Tower, and even the hospital at Godwin Battery had two observation towers on either side of it, but there is another so close to Roos, that it would be very surprising if he didn’t see it on his walks in the area: Admiral Storr’s 64 feet high brick Tower at Hilston. When he was hospitalised at Kilnsea he would also have been able to see the unusual tower across the Humber at Grimsby Docks. It should be remembered that Tolkien wrote about towers long before The Lord of the Rings, and as he worked on projects like The Book of Lost Tales in the immediate aftermath of his time in Holderness, it is just as likely that some of them may have been in the leaf-mould of his mind when he was conjuring up images of towers in his fiction.
Spurn Point is the southernmost extremity of East Yorkshire, and arriving there marks the end of this journey following Tolkien’s physical association with the area. Although Tolkien ‘endured’ two holidays from the University of Leeds in the 1920s at the more northerly resort of Filey and a visit to Whitby in 1945, they are the only known further visits to the Yorkshire coast. I hope I have shown that the 18 months Tolkien spent in Holderness in the latter stages of WW1 and the early period of his marriage continued to reverberate in his imaginative fiction in the ensuing decades. If not, I trust I have made this neglected corner of Yorkshire a little better known to Tolkien enthusiasts than it was before, and that its importance as an inspiration to Tolkien may be more significant than hitherto supposed.
My thanks to Marcel Aubron-Bülles, Jerry Aurand, Jan Crowther, Chris Delworth-Kerr, Barbara English, Linda Flowers, John Garth, Andy Gibson, Andy Mason, Irina Metzler, Dave Mitchell, Phil Mathison, Charles Noad, Harm Schelhaas and Tony Simpson, who I was able to consult on various aspects of my research while I was writing these articles.