START: Whitby, North Yorkshire
FINISH: Staithes, North Yorkshire
DISTANCE: 11.5 miles
APPROXIMATE WALKING TIME: 4 1/2 hours (5 hours plus if you weren’t rushing like I was)
MAPS: OS Explorer OL27
Two days after finishing my last coastal walk in Blyth, and just to confuse everybody, I decided that rather than walking further up the Northumberland coast it would instead be a good idea to head to Whitby on North Yorkshire’s coast and follow the Cleveland Way northwards to Staithes.
Setting off early from my home in Teesside I jumped on the X93 bus from Middlesbrough hoping to reach Whitby by mid-morning so I could have a bit of a look round the town and then start my walk. Unfortunately, road works on the outskirts of Whitby decided to piss on my parade on this particular day, so due to the resulting large traffic jam I didn’t get into Whitby until well into lunchtime. Cue a very short look round Whitby.
Following a quick visit round the town I headed, whilst grumbling a little, to the start point of my walk at the swing bridge over the River Esk in the centre of Whitby. I couldn’t get too angry with the lateness of the start of the walk as it was a beautiful day, the scenery was great, and more importantly it was another day away from the office.
Whitby has gone by a number of names over its long history. In pre-Roman times it was known as Sinus Fari by the Brigantes tribe who lived in the area before the Romans came along and carved them all up. In 657AD the settlement was known by the tongue-twistingly named Streonshalh when Oswiu, King of Northumbria founded a monastery and Abbey in the town. Over two hundred years later in 867AD the good old plundering Vikings came along and destroyed the monastery, but were good enough to rename the settlement Hwitebei (or Whitby, meaning ‘White Settlement’ in Norse) possibly much to the joy of local inhabitants who were tired of working out how to say Streonshalh without having a nervous breakdown. Over time Hwitebei has become the present Whitby.
In the 11th Century a Benedictine monastery was founded in the ruins of the old monastery and over the next 400 years Whitby became a place of major religious significance, being one of the earliest and most important centres of Christianity in Britain. Thanks to the efforts of King Henry VIII, the monastery was dissolved in 1540 and the settlement lost its religious significance.
Over the next hundred years or so, Whitby remained a small fishing village until the discovery of Alum during Elizabethan times raised the settlement out of the doldrums and it became an important maritime and commercial centre on the Yorkshire coast. Whitby’s industrial activities extended to shipbuilding and by the late 18th century, the village was the third largest shipbuilding port in England after London and Newcastle. A number of the Royal Navy’s important ships of the day were built in Whitby including the HMS Adventure and the HMS Resolution and HMS Bark Endeavour, the ship which was commanded by Captain James Cook on his first voyage of discovery to Australia and New Zealand from 1769 to 1771. The HMS Resolution was used by Captain Cook in his second and third voyages of discovery. James Cook had moved to Whitby from nearby Staithes in 1747 where he was taken on as a merchant navy apprentice by John and Henry Walker. Following his three year apprenticeship, he began working on trading ships in the Baltic Sea before commencing a career with the Royal Navy in 1755.
Whitby had a long association with the whaling industry dating back to 1752. For the next eighty years, the town was the capital of the whaling industry, with over 2,700 whales being brought back to Whitby. However, by the mid 19th century the whaling industry had ceased altogether and shipbuilding too was in decline. Fortunately the town was saved with the arrival of the railway in 1839 and new developments were created on the West side of the River Esk designed to entice holidaymakers to the declining port. A new bandstand, promenade and hotels were built and the tourists came in their droves, a tradition which continues to this day. The town has also been fortunate enough to retain some of its fishing industry and it is a common site to see fishing boats leaving the harbour to head out into the North Sea.
From the swing bridge I headed along Pier Road towards the West Pier. There were gorgeous smells from the multitude of chip shops and other foodie places and even though I was dying to sample some of their wares I had to press on due to the late start. Just before the start of West Pier, the road veered away past the RNLI Museum situated on the corner. I then climbed a couple of flights of stairs to reach the eastern end of West Cliff. At the top of the second flight of stairs there was an arch made out of whalebone (right), a nod to Whitby’s whaling industry.
Following signs for the Cleveland Way, which was to be my companion for the entire journey to Staithes, I continued along a path which wound its way along the clifftops. I passed a memorial to Captain Cook, and also the Whitby Pavilion. There were great views up and down the coast and I could make out the village of Sandsend a couple of miles further along the shore. The Cleveland Way went past a group of houses which must have had breath-taking views (and cost a pretty penny too).
A little further on the coastal path dipped down into a small steep-sided valley, joining up with a promenade which headed along the shoreline back to Whitby. Walking underneath a wooden bridge, the footpath continued uphill following a small country lane. After a short distance this lane reached the main road between Whitby and Sandsend which I had to follow for a mile-and-a-half until I reached Sandsend. I will admit this part wasn’t my favourite bit of the walk as there was plenty of noise from the traffic passing by. Fortunately Sandsend itself was worth the half hour of unpleasantness.
Sandsend was originally two small communities, one known as East Row and the other known as Sandyford. Over time, probably as the two communities merged together, the place became known as Sandsend. The Vikings had a different name for the village – Thordisa – referring to a stream belonging to a Scandinavian lady called Thordis.
I passed through the East Row side of the village, following the coastal road over East Row Beck and into the main part of Sandsend. There were plenty of people milling about in the village and on Sandsend’s golden beach. I wish I could I have stayed for longer but I needed to keep going as time was pressing. I reached the east end of the village and after crossing the picturesque Sandsend Beck, the Cleveland Way headed through a car park and then up a steep flight of steps. At the top there was a wide track-way which was actually the remains of the old Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Union Railway trackbed. This line, opened in 1883, ran along the Yorkshire coast between Redcar and Whitby and was partially responsible for the development of Sandsend as a coastal resort, as thousands of passengers would disembark at Sandsend for their holidays over the next 75 years until the line’s closure in 1958. The station house at Sandsend still exists as a private residence and it could just about be seen a little further back towards the village along the track.
The Cleveland Way follows the old trackbed for the next couple of miles, all the while steadily climbing along the clifftops. In between gaps in the trees and vegetation there was fantastic views down the coast towards Sandsend and Whitby. Soon the path passed through what seems to be a moonlike landscape dotted with crumbling slap heaps and old quarries. This is the remains of Sandsend’s alum industry. Alum quarrying and processing began here in 1733 and lasted until the 1880s. Cement stone was also mined here from the collapse of the alum industry in the 1880s until the 1930s. Even though the industry has been gone for 80 years the land still hasn’t fully recovered.
Continuing past the lunar landscape, the old trackbed wound its way along the clifftops until it came to a tunnel portal. This tunnel carried the old railway line underneath the headland, although it was originally planned for the railway to go around the headland along the clifftops. Unfortunately the entrances to the tunnel at either end are blocked off so it is not possible to walk through the tunnel (anyway the tunnel is at risk of collapse so it would be pretty dangerous), instead the Cleveland Way diverts away from the old trackbed and climbs through the trees up the hill next to the tunnel.
Emerging from the trees, the footpath crosses a field until it reaches the clifftops, which it then follows for a mile-and-a-half, past the hump of Goldsborough which was once the site of a Roman signalling station during the 4th century AD, and also the northern portal of the old railway tunnel until it reaches the tiny settlement of Kettleness.
Situated on the clifftop on the eastern end of Runswick Bay, the present village of Kettleness is actually the second settlement to exist here, the first one having slid into the sea on the night of the 17th December 1829. Fortunately the inhabitants of the village had been given enough time to evacuate and none of them were in their houses when they tumbled down the clifftops into the North Sea.
Like nearby Sandsend, Kettleness also found itself the home to a large alum works which existed from 1727 to 1871, the original works being destroyed in the 1829 landslip. Nowadays, Kettleness is altogether much more quiet (and less likely to fall into the sea) although its small beach is popular with fossil hunters as it is one of the tops spots on Yorkshire’s Jurassic coast for ancient ammonites and reptile fossils. The remains of the alum industry can also be made out below the cliffs.
I stopped at Kettleness for a bite to eat and was able to enjoy great views across Runswick Bay. It was very peaceful and I could have quite easily stopped there for the rest of the day, however Staithes was calling so after a quick bite of my sandwiches and a chocolate bar I set off on my way again.
After Kettleness, the Cleveland Way continued along the clifftops for the next mile or so until it began to steeply descend down a couple of flight of steps into a steep-sided rocky valley and onto Runswick Sands. I actually thought it was a little unsafe along this section as the path basically merged into a narrow rocky channel carved out by a stream. Fortunately as it was summer the stream wasn’t running at full whack so the rocks were reasonably dry, however I could imagine that after a period of rain this path would become quite slippy and dangerous.
I continued along the golden sands of the bay towards the village of Runswick Bay, passing a number of small caves known as ‘Hob Holes’. According to legend these caves are inhabited by a mythical creature called ‘The Hob’ who is supposed to be able to cure whooping cough, which I suppose is a handy superpower to have.
Glorious Runswick Bay village sits at the eastern edge of its namesake bay, and is characteristic of the small fishing villages that dot this section of the coast. There has been a settlement here since before Roman times and has been a safe harbour in the countless centuries since then. Originally sited a little to the north of its present site, almost the entire village (barring one house) slid into the sea during one night in 1682. (obviously nearby Kettlewell was copying off Runswick Bay when that village fell into the sea over 130 years later). Fortunately some villagers were ‘waking’ a corpse (not literally waking a corpse up, I mean holding a vigil) at the time and were able to rouse the rest of the community who all managed to escape.
Since then the entire village has been rebuilt and now huddles on the side of a steep cliff, with more newer houses built on flatter land above the older part of the village. For many years the village owed its existence to fishing and smuggling (a very important pastime on the Yorkshire coast) and also salvaging from the doomed ships who frequently used to smash themselves unintentionally on the rocky shores. Since the decline of the fishing industry, Runswick Bay has become a popular destination for holidaymakers who find the scenery and the beach very pleasant indeed.
From the beach the Cleveland Way climbs for a little bit up the new road that was cut during the 1960s to connect the village with Runswick Bank Top. About a third of the way my route took a turn to the right along the old road that used to wind its way down from the clifftop into the village. Nowadays it is little more than a narrow footpath which the Cleveland Way follows to the top of the cliff. It was very steep and I was sweating and panting like a mad man when I got to the top. Fortunately there was a bench conveniently situated at the top so I was able to rest for a bit and able to pull myself from the brink of death (ok I’m exaggerating a little bit). The view down into Runswick Bay was absolutely gorgeous which perked my spirits up a bit more. Unfortunately I had to keep pressing on so I continued a little further into Runswick Bank Top before signs for the Cleveland Way directed me along a narrow track next to a large field until I reached the clifftops once again.
The coastal footpath hugged the clifftops for the next couple of miles. Once again there were fantastic views up and down the coast and both the sea and sky were a gorgeous blue colour with barely a cloud in the sky. Indeed it was hard to tell where the sea ended and the sky began (probably on closer inspection I would be able to work out which was which but that would involve getting very wet).
After a little while I was overlooking a small cove which had a tiny hamlet nestled on the cliff tops above. This was Port Mulgrave (originally known as Rosedale Wyke).
Crumbling away at the bottom of the cove at Port Mulgrave is the remains of a harbour built in the 1850s by Sir Charles Palmer. The harbour was put in place to transport ironstone dug up from Palmer’s mine at Rosedale Wyke where it could be shipped by sea to blast furnaces in Jarrow on Tyneside. To avoid confusion with the Rosedale iron mines in the centre of the North Yorkshire Moors, Palmer renamed his mine Port Mulgrave after the Earl of Mulgrave who was a prominent local landowner.
As the ironstone reserves began to decline at Port Mulgrave, Sir Charles opened another mine further inland at Grinkle. The ore was transported by a narrow gauge railway which ran over three viaducts and through two tunnels to get to the harbour at Port Mulgrave. During the First World War the mine at Grinkle was connected to the Whitby to Middlesbrough Railway and Port Mulgrave was abandoned. Over the next two decades, the remains of the harbour’s buildings and machinery were sold for scrap or were accidentally burnt down. At the start of the Second World War, the pier wall was blown up by the Royal Engineers to stop the harbour from being used by the Germans in an invasion. All that is left of the once busy harbour is the remains of the destroyed pier and the blocked up entrance to the mine 50 feet up the cliff face.
Unfortunately, as was the case with the rest of this walk, I didn’t have time to go down and view the remains of the harbour myself, but I will go back one day and have a good look around. Instead I continued to follow the Cleveland Way which worked its way past the old mine officials’houses and around the western edge of the cove towards Staithes.
The rest of the journey into Staithes was absolutely stunning with glorious views up the coast towards the towering cliffs of Boulby, the highest on the eastern coast of England. After a mile or so the path descended downhill and came away from the clifftops before heading in-between a group of fields brim-full of wheat and barley swaying in the gentle summer breeze. The Cleveland Way passed by a farm and began to head even further downhill into a steep sided small valley.
Soon the outskirts of Staithes were reached and I walked along Church Street until I reached the harbour front at the end of the walk. It was a lot quieter on this day then when I last visited the previous year so I sat got an ice cream and sat down on a bench overlooking the harbour and planned my next coastal walk (which just to confuse everyone again was back up in Northumberland).
Unfortunately time was pressing once again and I had to climb back up through the village to the main road where I got the bus home. This part of the coast between Whitby and Staithes is one of my favourite sections I have walked so far and I am fortunate that it is quite close to where I live so I will re-visit again one day and take my time exploring the wonders it has to offer.
http://www.localhistories.org/whitby.html – A brief history of Whitby
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitby – A more detailed history of Whitby
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Cook#Start_of_Royal_Navy_career – Information about Captain Cook’s life in Whitby.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitby,_Redcar_and_Middlesbrough_Union_Railway – History of the Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Union Railway
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1018139 – History of Sandsend’s alum quarries.
http://www.yorkshiremoors.co.uk/gazetteer/kettleness.html – History of Kettleness
http://www.hidden-teesside.co.uk/2008/05/11/kettleness-alum-works/ – History of Kettleness alum works.
https://ukfossils.co.uk/2004/03/18/Kettleness/ – Kettleness fossils
http://www.chrisscottwilson.co.uk/runswick-bay/4551457861 – History of Runswick Bay
https://portmulgrave.wikispaces.com/ – History of Port Mulgrave