START: Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Redcar & Cleveland
FINISH: Staithes, North Yorkshire
DISTANCE: 8.7 miles
APPROXIMATE WALKING TIME: 4 hours (6 hours if you stop for chips, an ice cream and a nap)
MAPS: OS Explorers 306 and OL27
From an early age, Saltburn has been one of my favourite places to visit. This beautiful seaside town has retained its Victorian charm years (it doesn’t feel as tacky as some of the nearby coastal towns), having developed as a resort thanks to the visionary efforts of Victorian entrepreneur Henry Pease.
Up until 1860 Saltburn consisted of a few small fishermen’s cottages nestled around the Ship Inn at the bottom of Huntcliff and Cat Nab – this settlement was known as Old Saltburn. The Ship Inn was the centre of the local smuggling trade in the late 18th and early 19th century, with one of its landowners, a Mr John Andrew, being known as the “King of the Smugglers”. Following the heady days of smuggling, Old Saltburn remained as a nautical community with most inhabitants of the settlement making a living as sailors and fishermen or later in the ironstone mines that started opening in the area.
In 1859 this all changed when Henry Pease, a member of the Pease family who for generations had been a pre-eminent name in the ever-expanding industrial North East, had been staying with his brother in the nearby village of Marske. One day, Henry (according to his missus, Mary) had walked along to Saltburn and on his return stated that he had seen “seated on the hillside… in a sort of prophetic vision, on the edge of a cliff before him, a town arise and the quiet unfrequented glen turned into a lovely garden”. Seeing the potential to make lots of money in the area, Henry Pease founded the Saltburn Improvement Company (SIC) in 1859 with the reasoning that the expanding population of Teesside would need an easy-to-reach holiday destination. Land was purchased from the Earl of Zetland and the SIC commissioned George Dickinson of Darlington to lay out a plan of the town. By 1861 the Stockton and Darlington Railway had built a line to Saltburn which brought thousands of holidaymakers into the burgeoning town. Over the next 20 years the main landmarks in the town were built – the Railway Station in 1861, the Zetland Hotel in 1863 (which had its own railway platform), the Pier in 1869 and the Cliff Hoist in 1870.
With the death of Henry Pease in 1881 the SIC was disbanded and no new substantial features were added to Saltburn, however the resort has been able to keep its Victorian charm to this day, which makes the town very popular with visitors.
I started this walk at Saltburn Pier which is located at the bottom of the cliff lift below the town. The pier was opened in May 1869, measuring 1,500ft (458m) long and had its own landing stage for steamer boats. The pier was a great success and attracted some 50,000 visitors in its first month of opening. Over time the length of the pier has been reduced due to storm damage and collisions with wayward ships (the Ovenbeg ploughed into the pier in 1924). As a result its present length is now 681ft (206m).
The cliff lift itself started off life as a cliff hoist. The 120ft high hoist opened in July 1870, fourteen months after the pier, and was designed to carry 20 people from the town to the beach and pier below for a halfpenny a head. The hoist and the pier were sold to new owners in 1883, who on inspecting the hoist decided it was unsafe (due to it having a nasty knack of sticking when halfway up) and demolished it to make way for the cliff lift which has been carrying passengers between the town and the beach ever since.
Walking along from the pier, I passed a lovely chip shop (trying my best to ignore it) and headed alongside the road out of Saltburn towards the Ship Inn and the scaly heights of Huntcliff Nab. The route from here on is pretty straightforward as the coastal path just follows the Cleveland Way National Trail which is well waymarked.
When you make your way down to the seafront at Saltburn one of the first things you will notice is a great vertical cliff which stands some 365ft above sea level (below). This is called Huntcliff Nab and it marks the start of a stunning section of the UK coastline featuring mile after mile of beautiful vertical cliff faces, some of which are the highest in the country (although they are a bugger to walk along especially if you’re a unfit sod like me).
Even though I have visited Saltburn countless times since I was a wee lad, I had never walked up Huntcliff Nab, (even though I had marvelled at its almightiness every time I went) – that is until one gloriously hot day in August 2013.
Standing at the bottom of the Huntcliff Nab, I started to wonder why I had decided to pick one of the hottest days of that year to do a walk which, quite frankly, is not the most level of rambles. I seriously toyed with the idea of just heading back along the beach and spending the rest of the day sunbathing and wolfing down on some chips or an ice cream…or both (though not at the same time, that’s just being greedy). After having a serious talk with myself about the reason why I was here, I started to climb the steps that take you up the 300ft plus vertical hell of Huntcliff Nab. Ok I’m over exaggerating a little but after several minutes of huffing and puffing up the cliff in the unnatural heat (well unnatural for Teesside anyway) I was starting to doubt my sanity and could clearly hear the fish and chip shop calling me back to enjoy it’s greasy wares. Luckily for me I kept going because the view from the top is just fantastic (and this was just the start of the great views).
Continuing along the cliff tops I passed a sign which talked about the history of Huntcliff Nab. In the 4th century AD the Nab was the site of one of a number of Roman signalling stations situated along the Yorkshire coast. These were built as watchtowers to protect against the threat of Anglo-Saxon raiders from across the sea. When the Romans left Britain in 410AD (probably because they got sick of it raining all the time) the defence of Huntcliff was left to a group of Romanised Britons who were eventually overrun and brutally murdered by the Saxon invaders. Their bodies were dumped down a well and were finally discovered over 1500 years later in 1923 when the skeletons of fourteen men, women and children were found during an excavation. The site of the Roman signalling station has now long gone. The pesky murdering Saxons settled in the area, named their settlement after a local stream “Sealt Burna” (meaning a salty stream) and spent the rest of their days presumably waiting for the fish and chip shop to open.
The coastal path soon becomes wedged in between the cliff tops and the railway line so I had to concentrate on where I was going otherwise I could have ended up unnecessarily plummeting 300 foot down into the North Sea which would have spoilt my day a bit.
Rounding the promontory of Warsett Hill, I came across an old ugly concrete building. On closer inspection this turned out to be an old Guibal fan house for the long gone Huntcliff Ironstone Mine. This fan rotated at a speed of about 50rpm drawing air through the mine allowing miners to work in the shafts deep underground. The fan was powered by a steam engine which drew the foul air up through the shaft and out a chimney into the open air. When the fan was in operation fresh air could be drawn into the mine through the drift entrances and could then be controlled by a series of shutters, usually operated by young boys. The fan house at Warsett Hill remains one of the best examples of its type in the country.
The Huntcliff Ironstone Mine was in operation from 1872 to 1906 and apart from the fan house and a couple of smaller crumbling buildings, the rest of the site has fallen into the sea, being another victim of the constant erosion from the waves.
After the fan house the path continues along the cliff top for another mile or so before it begins to descend down a flight of steps into Skinningrove beach (or Cattersty Sands to give it its proper title). I personally think this is a little hidden gem in Teesside. Usually people tend to flock to the beaches at Redcar and Saltburn but they forget about the lovely beach that exists at Skinningrove. It sits in a natural amphitheatre with Warsett Hill at one end and Hummersea Cliffs at the other with the old jetty and Skinningrove splitting the beach in the middle. There were a few people dotted about along the beach, either walking their dogs or playing with their young families, but it was quiet enough that I could enjoy my sandwiches and chocolate bar in peace without people being too much of an annoyance.
Continuing along the beach I came across Skinningrove jetty which was built in the 1880’s to serve the ironworks above the village. The jetty has since fallen into disuse as the mines closed and the steelworks reduced their output, although there is funding being sought to restore it to its former glory. Past the jetty I walked into the village of Skinningrove and it was at this point where I stopped my walk on that hot August day, electing not to continue the walk further because the weather was too stifling.
Skinningrove itself is a nice little village which admittedly has fallen on hard times in recent decades. Nestled in a step valley, the village has a rich mining and industrial heritage, although sadly this has largely declined much to the detriment of the local area.
The name Skinningrove is first recorded in 1273 as “Scinergreve” which derives from an Old Norse name of “Skinnari” meaning tanner. This could mean that the earliest occupants of the village may have specialized in leather tanning (or they may have liked to hit the nearest tanning salons to top up their tans).
The village changed little from the 13th to the early 19th century with the main jobs for the villagers being primarily fishing, agriculture and sandstone quarrying. Later on this including alum quarrying, smuggling (like in Saltburn) and by the early 1800s ironstone gathering on the beach from exposed ironstone nodules on the cliffs which had eroded into the sea. In 1846 John Walker Ord described the village as “charming and picturesque”. However, in 1848 this was all to change when the Roseby Brothers, followed by Bolckow & Vaughn and Pease and Partners, opened the Loftus drift mines on the eastern side of the valley and began to ship ironstone to the ironworks in Middlesbrough and County Durham.
In 1865 the railway reached Skinningrove and the first blast furnaces were opened in 1874 in the neighbouring new settlement of Carlin How, high above the western side of the village. Construction of a new jetty swiftly followed in the 1880’s which allowed larger ships to transport heavier cargoes by sea.
Skinningrove village itself underwent a huge and rapid transformation with rows and rows of terraced housing being built along with schools, chapels and a hospital to accommodate the hundreds of workers newly arrived from East Anglia, Cornwall and London. Mining in the village continued until 1958 and iron and steel manufacturing continued until the 1970s. However all good things must come to the end, and with the closure of the mines and contraction of the steelworks (although they are still going on a limited scale in Carlin How) the village was hit by significant economic, social and environmental problems in the latter half of the 20th century, the rumblings of which are still felt to this day.
In 1983 the remaining mine buildings of Loftus Mine were converted into the Cleveland Ironstone Museum which is the only one of its type in the country. It is also well worth a visit!
It wasn’t until May 2014 when I returned to Skinningrove, having already completed the same walk I’ve just described from Saltburn along the cliff tops. The weather, whilst glorious, was nowhere near as hot as the first time I completed it, therefore I was able to walk much further this time with Staithes being my main target.
From Skinningrove village the Cleveland Way crosses the rust-coloured iron-stained Kilton Beck before passing a group of tumble-down fishermen sheds. The path then climbs a well-worn set of steps up Hummersea Cliff (this was a bit of a bugger to climb, although I’m glad I didn’t do it in the extreme heat of August 2013) before continuing along the cliff-tops at a fairly level rate for the next mile or so until you reach a mini-crossroads with signs pointing either down to Hummersea Beach, back inland towards Loftus, or to continue along the Cleveland Way. Rather luckily a bench has been provided so that you can ponder your decision as all options are very tempting (and you also get a cracking view up the coast from here too). After a few minutes deliberation and a chance to down a few mouthfuls of water and chocolate I decided to continue on to Staithes. I may end up coming back here to go down to Hummersea Beach as I’ve never been down there before.
After another half a mile or so the path pulls a little away from the cliff-tops and heads through a farm before climbing steeply again up Boulby Cliff. Standing at 203m (666ft) Boulby Cliff is the highest on the east coast of England. The cliffs were mined extensively for alum (a substance used to improve the permanency and strength of colour when dyeing cloth). The remains of the mines and quarries can be seen dotted below the path amongst the cliffs. The Boulby alum works were one of the most productive and long-lived in the area and were started in the 1650s by the Conyers family of Boulby Manor. The works thrived and were expanded in 1784. Eventually advances in the alum industry elsewhere were having major effects on production in the region and the works were eventually closed in 1871.
Passing by the remains of the alum mines, the path begins to descend into the tiny village of Boulby, which is more a collection of scattered buildings than an actual village . The name Boulby is descended from the Old Scandinavian “Bollebi” which means “Bolli’s Farm” suggesting that the original settlement of Boulby was Viking in nature. Looking inland you will see the smoking chimney and grey industrial buildings of Boulby Potash mine which continues the long industrial heritage of this section of the coast. Opened in 1973, the mine produces around 55% of the UK’s potash output and is the second deepest mine of any kind in Europe at 1400m (5600ft) deep. The mine has an extensive network of roads extending under the North Sea totalling 620 miles in length.
Passing through Boulby the Cleveland Way heads across fields and then back along the cliff tops, (being diverted in one place where the inevitable erosive action of the waves has caused a section of the cliff to collapse into the sea) before descending down a lane into the hamlet of Cowbar, and then finally crossing Roxby Beck into Staithes village itself.
Staithes village is one of the jewels of the Yorkshire coastline. Nestled around a harbour and the two high cliffs of Cowbar Nab and Penny Nab, this fantastic village is steeped in history and it was a nice place to end this stretch of the Coastwalk which I finished off with an ice cream.
Staithes (from an old Viking word meaning “landing place”) was one of the largest fishing ports in North Eastern England employing just under 300 men in its heyday. Indeed at the beginning of the 20th century 80 full-time fishing boats launched from the village. The distinctive locally built flat-bottomed and high-bowed boats known as “cobles” (flat-bottomed to allow them to launch from and land upon the characteristic shallow, sandy beaches in the area and high-bowed to allow them to sail in the dangerous North Sea) were launched from Staithes harbour to catch the fish which was then transported by train three times a week from Staithes railway station to the rest of the country. The arrival of steam trawlers sparked the end of the traditional fishing industry in Staithes as the harbour wasn’t capable of handling these type of boats. The fishing industry hasn’t completely gone from Staithes. In the 21st century there are still a few part-time fishermen who launch their coble boats from the harbour, continuing the centuries-old tradition.
The village also benefited from the local geology. The coastal area from Scarborough to Saltburn is composed of Jurassic shale and limestone which produced valuable materials including alum shale (used in the alum industry), jet and potash. These materials were mined extensively in and around Staithes which brought some prosperity to the village along with the fishing industry.
One of the famous residents of Staithes unsurprisingly has a great maritime link. Captain James Cook (then just ordinary old James Cook) moved to Staithes from his parents farm in Great Ayton in 1745 as a 16 year old where he was an apprentice in the shop of haberdasher and grocer, William Sanderson. During his apprenticeship in Staithes, historians have speculated that the lure of the sea was just too much and after 18 months of realising that the life of a shopkeeper was not for him, young James travelled to nearby Whitby where he was introduced to friends of Mr Sanderson’s, John and Henry Walker. The Walkers were prominent local ship-owners in the coal trade and James Cook began his maritime career as an apprentice in their company, serving for several years on coal ships which sailed between Newcastle and London, before making his way up the career ladder to becoming a Captain.
Staithes was also home to a group of 20-30 artists known unsurprisingly as the “Staithes group” who were inspired by French impressionists such as Monet and Renoir. The group existed for about 15 years between 1894 and 1909 and will have been attracted to the area by the dramatic scenery which must have made an impression on the impressionists (do you see what I did there?)
http://www.saltburnbysea.com/index.htm – very useful website which goes into great detail about the history of Saltburn and Huntcliffe.
HUNTCLIFFE GUIBAL FAN HOUSE
http://skinhist.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/heritage-trail.pdf – Skinningrove heritage trail leaflet
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulby – Boulby village and Boulby Cliffs
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1018336 – Boulby alum mines
http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/boulby-alum-works-surface-and-underground-april-2015.t95586 – fantastic pictures of inside the alum mines
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boulby_Mine – Boulby mine
http://www.staithes-town.info/ – Staithes history
http://www.welcometostaithes.co.uk/index.php/history/ – Staithes history
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coble – Coble boats
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cook#Early_life_and_family – Captain Cook and his life in Staithes
http://www.brockfieldhall.co.uk/staithes_group_pictures_brief_history.htm – Staithes group artists