START: Whitby, North Yorkshire
FINISH: Robin Hood’s Bay, North Yorkshire
DISTANCE: 7.1 miles
Following the completion of the last coastal walk in Northumberland I had completed around 100 miles of the North East coastline between Whitby in Yorkshire and Amble in Northumberland. Going northwards, I was at the limit of where I could travel to a walk’s starting point, complete a walk and then travel back from the finishing point in one day without rushing. Early on in the summer of 2016 I had booked a couple of nights in a B&B during the beginning of September the village of Dunstan, a mile inland or so from the beautiful coastal settlement of Craster, about 15 miles north of Amble. My plan was to complete the next 30 miles of the Northumberland Coast Path between Amble and Bamburgh.
In the meantime, whilst I waited excitedly for September to arrive, I turned my attention to the Yorkshire coast once again to continue going southwards for a little while. Looking at the maps once again I was tempted to walk between Whitby and Scarborough, a distance of about 20 miles, and then stay overnight in Scarborough. However, if this section of the coast was anything like the rest of the Yorkshire coastline I had previously done, then it would be a very tough and exhausting 20 mile walk.
As a result I decided to split this section of the coast up, unfortunately this section of the coast is quite sparsely populated and the only logical place I could finish at was Robin Hood’s Bay – around 6 or 7 miles away from Whitby. In the end I thought I could quite easily travel to Whitby, do the short walk to Robin Hood’s Bay, and travel back home all without knackering myself. I could then do the rest of the walk into Scarborough another time and then stay overnight here before maybe continuing further southwards towards the coastal town of Filey the following day. Sounds like a plan!
So, on yet another hot summer’s day in the middle of the school holidays I found myself on yet another bus – this time the X93 from Middlesbrough – heading towards the coast. Quite naturally, as it was the summer holidays and the weather was glorious, Whitby was packed. In fact for the rest of that day I was never too far away from crowds of people even whilst I was on the walk.
Starting the walk at the swing bridge across the River Esk, I worked my way through the narrow crowded cobbled streets on the river’s eastern bank until I reached the bottom of Whitby’s famous 199 Steps. The steps, or the Church Stairs as they are officially known, date back to possibly the 12th century and were built to connect the town with St Mary’s Church. Thousands of the recently deceased were carried up these stairs to be laid to rest in the church’s graveyard. Flat sections were laid in between the steps so that pall bearers could rest for a bit, before continuing the long grinding walk upwards and onwards. The steps were originally made of painted wood before being replaced by 103 tons of stone in 1774.
Next to the steps is the Donkey Road, which was the first route up the East Cliff to the Abbey. Mainly used by pannier ponies to carry supplies to the Abbey, the road was once also used by Whitby’s lifeboat which was hauled up the road during a storm, carried along the clifftops, and then launched at Robin Hood’s Bay to attend to a shipwreck. That must have been really tiring work as even though I was carrying only myself up the steps (and I’m not that heavy) I was knackered by the time I reached the top. Goodness knows what the people dragging the boat up the road felt like! Count Dracula had the right idea, as in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, the bloodsucking vampire turned himself into a black hound shortly after arriving in Whitby and bounded up the stairs to the churchyard at the top.
Fortunately at the top you are welcomed by a grand view across Whitby and also of the stunning St. Mary’s Church along with its slightly spooky graveyard which is where Count Dracula attacked the poor Lucy Westenra, which was not a very nice thing to do. To be honest the poor sod was probably knackered from climbing the 199 steps and needed a bit of a pick-me-up. All I had was a bottle of Lucozade. Luckily for me there were no vampires about, although to be honest I was that worn out from the climb up that I wouldn’t have even cared if there was anyone wanting to drink my blood and turn me into a creature of the night. The graveyard was also used in the music video of the 1985 hit song Holding Back the Years by pop group Simply Red. Like Count Dracula, Mick Hucknall was also absent whilst I worked my way past the graveyard (perhaps Mr Hucknall had been bitten by a vampire?)
Following the footpath past the church the town’s famous Abbey is soon reached, the old crumbling stonework peeking above the wall which surrounds the site. In 657AD the Christian King Oswy summoned the Abbess of Hartlepool, St. Hilda, to found a new monastery at Whitby, which she promptly did, and the new building was called Streonshalh. The Abbey became an important and prestigious centre of religious learning under the leadership of St. Hilda, who in subsequent centuries gained a bit of a reputation for being magical. It was said that ammonite fossils found along the coast from Whitby to Saltburn were in fact snakes beheaded by St. Hilda’s magic. It was also believed that sea birds dipped their wings whilst in flight to pay homage to the Abbess and that wild geese never flew directly over the Abbey. Obviously this rule didn’t apply to seagulls as there were plenty of the noisy buggers flying overhead whilst I was there.
The monastery was sacked by the Danes in 867AD and lay abandoned for over 200 years until Reinfrid the Norman (one of William the Conqueror’s officers) established a new abbey on the ruins of St. Hilda’s monastery. The new abbey soon grew in stature and importance, even more so than the original abbey, until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539 brought the Abbey to an abrupt end. The King’s Commissioners literally stripped the Abbey of its accumulated wealth by selling lead from the roof, the Abbey’s stained glass windows, and the Abbey’s bells which were lowered by rope and pulley to the ground and then pushed down to the dock where they were shipped to London by sea. According to local legend it was believed that the boat transporting the bells sank below the waves and that the bells still remain where they sank and continue to ring out at the bottom of the North Sea.
In the centuries following the Dissolution, Whitby Abbey gradually became more and more derelict with great collapses of stonework occurring in 1774 and in 1830 when a chimney sweep climbed the tower to steal a weathervane leading to the tower’s subsequent collapse. The ruined Abbey then found itself unfortunate enough to be shelled by the German Navy on the 16th December 1914. The German ships were in fact aiming for the nearby coastguard station but three shells hit the Abbey causing significant damage. On that day the German ships were also responsible for shelling the towns of Scarborough and Hartlepool (see Coastwalk #3).
The Cleveland Way heads away from the Abbey and soon works its way along the clifftops. There were great views of the Abbey receding in the distance along with the towering cliffs of Boulby on the horizon. There were plenty of people enjoying the summer sunshine and for the rest of the journey to Robin Hood’s Bay I was never alone.
About a mile or so from Whitby, the Cleveland Way passes through a caravan park at Saltwick Bay. With it being the Summer holidays, the caravan park was packed with holidaymakers and day-trippers who were descending down to the beach at Saltwick Bay in their droves. Like a sheep I followed the hordes down the path to the beach, completely ignoring the sign which said that there was access only to the beach down this way and not the Cleveland Way, which instead continues a little further through the caravan park before heading south-eastwards along the clifftops. After a little confusion, I figured out where I needed to be going, but I did stop to admire the wonderful scenery at Saltwick Bay. I certainly wasn’t going to rush this coastal walk like I had done on previous ones.
Long before the holidaymakers came in their droves to this little corner of North Yorkshire’s coast, the Bay was home to an alum quarry. Quarrying first began at Saltwick Bay in 1649 and continued intermittently until 1791. At first alum was shipped to South Shields for processing until an alum house was built on the site in 1770. Like most historic alum quarry sites which are dotted along the North Yorkshire coast, the alum quarry at Saltwick Bay is a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Long before the alum mines, and indeed humanity, were thought of, the area which would eventually become Saltwick Bay was home to a variety of prehistoric animals. As a result of alum quarrying, a large number of fossils have been found in the Bay including the petrified bones of a horse found thirty yards underground in 1762, and in 1824 an almost complete skeleton of a Steneosaurus was found in the Bay (which is now on display in Whitby Museum).
Fast forwarding to more modern times, Saltwick Bay has witnessed a number of shipwrecks, the most famous of which occurred in the early hours of the 30th of October 1914 during the First World War. The hospital ship SS Rohilla was sailing from the Firth of Forth in Scotland to Dunkerque in France to rescue wounded soldiers when it ran aground in the Bay. The captain believed he was miles away from the coast, but due to a raging storm along the coast, and lighthouses along the North East coast being switched off due to the War, he was relying on guesswork and as a result he ploughed straight in to the jagged rocks of Saltwick Nab. The ship broke into three parts – the stern being the first to sink killing most of the people on that part of the ship. The remaining survivors were left stranded on the ship for three days as the ship continued to break up.
Crowds gathered along the nearby clifftops, desperate to help by firing rockets at the ship to secure a rescue line to the stricken vessel, all to no avail. The RNLI were unable to launch their first rescue boat from Whitby until the following morning due to the raging storm. Crew members were able to rescue 35 of the 229 on board in two trips but the increasing power of the storm made any further attempts impossible. RNLI crews from neighbouring villages were launched but they faced the same difficulties as the Whitby crew. Unsurprisingly, the remaining survivors grew desperate and with the shore seemingly being within easy reach they tried to swim their way to safety. The onlookers on the beach tried to make a human chain out into the shallows to try and help those that made it to the shore, unfortunately very few did and many were never seen again.
On the second day of the disaster a motorised rescue boat (the Henry Vernon) was launched from Tynemouth, however due to the bad weather it didn’t reach Saltwick Bay until the following day. Fortunately the crew of the Henry Vernon were able to rescue the remaining 50 survivors, the last of whom was the ship’s captain who, according to legend, was carrying the ship’s cat under his arm. Of the 229 on board the SS Rohilla 144 were saved including the very fortunate Mary Roberts of Liverpool, who had also survived the sinking of the Titanic two years previously. The disaster marked a turning point for the RNLI who heavily promoted the use of motorized rescue boats as the Henry Vernon was pivotal in reaching survivors.
WHITBY FOG SIGNAL & WHITBY LIGHTHOUSE
Following Saltwick Bay, the Cleveland Way continues along the clifftops. About half-a-mile further along from the Bay, the path passes a large single-storied white building nestled on the clifftops with what looks like a double edged horn-blower on its roof. This is the former Whitby Fog Signal, now known as Hornblower Lodge. Beginning operation on January 4th 1902, the Fog Signal was designed to warn ships of the potential dangers of smashing into the cliffs below in thick fog. The Fog Signal was decommissioned in 1988 and converted into holiday accommodation.
A little further along the clifftops is a lighthouse, which was first lit on the 1st October 1858. Originally it was one of a pair of lighthouses, with the other lighthouse (known as Whitby South) being built on the site of the Fog Signal – this was deactivated following a more efficient light being installed in the present-day lighthouse (or Whitby North). Whitby Lighthouse was automated in 1992 and the former lighthouse keepers’ cottages were converted into holiday accommodation.
It really was a fantastic walk, and I seemed to be following a large number of walkers who were enjoying the walk as much as me. Some had stopped to peer over the edge of the cliffs to look at the hundreds of seabirds that were nesting in the cliffs below. Others were trying to find somewhere to sit down and have their lunch, with one group of people taking up an entire twenty metre stretch of stonewall to much on their sandwiches.
I decided to keep going, and following the lighthouse the coastal footpath climbed upwards onto Widdy Head. It was at this point that my breath was taken away as the view down the coast was unbelievable. A little further on there was a stone wall crossing the path with a gate in the middle to allow walkers to continue on their way unhindered. I decided to stop for lunch here, so I sat on top of the wall and ate my sandwiches whilst enjoying the jaw-dropping views (see below). One walker who was passing by commented on my good choice for a picnic spot and I wholeheartedly agreed with him.
I could have stayed sitting on that wall forever staring out to the sea, however I was keen to see what further delights the walk had in store for me so I kept going. The path continued for another mile along the clifftops before descending steeply into the wooded Maw Wyke Hole. It was nice and cool in Maw Wyke Hole, and I spent a couple of minutes here out of the sun just to cool down.
NESS POINT & ROCKET POST FIELD
After Maw Wyke Hole, the Cleveland Way continues along the clifftops for another mile, occasionally descending and ascending through small steep-sided valleys, before reaching Ness Point. This is where you get the first glimpse of Robin Hood’s Bay (the actual bay rather than the village) with good views of Ravenscar on the other side of the bay. Ness Point was once a notorious place for sailors and fishermen as many boats found themselves victim to the treacherous jagged rocks at the base of the cliffs. Such was the notoriety of Ness Point that the villagers of Robin Hood’s Bay ran their own voluntary lifeboat service until the RNLI set up their own station in 1881. Over the station’s 50 years of operation a total of 91 people were saved.
Between Ness Point and Robin Hood’s Bay Village, the Cleveland Way passes through a field called Rocket Post Field. In the middle of the field is a tall pole which kind of looks like an old telegraph pole but is in fact a replica of a ‘rocket post’. Rocket posts used to be common along this section of the North Yorkshire coastline and were used by the coastguard to practice rescues using a ‘breeches buoy’ (more about that below).
Rockets allowed life saving equipment to reach stranded ships offshore and bring people back safely. To do this a rocket was fired at the ship with a rope line attached to it which created a link between the ship and land. Once the rope line was secure, a ‘breeches buoy’ was then tugged along to the ship. This was essentially a circular cork lifebuoy with a pair of canvas shorts (the ‘breeches’) hanging underneath which allowed stranded sailors to be hauled to the shore one at a time. This practice was used to try and rescue the survivors of the SS Rohilla mentioned earlier.
Rockets were used to rescue the steamship Heatherfield in January 1936 which became stranded off Robin Hood’s Bay at low tide. Even though some of the people on board had swam to safety, the majority of the passengers were brought to shore by the breeches buoy. The last one to leave was the ship’s captain who also brought the ship’s canary in a cage along with him. (Couldn’t he have just released the canary and allowed it to fly to shore?)
ROBIN HOOD’S BAY
From Rocket Post Field it is a short hop to the top end of Robin Hood Bay’s village. The village has a similar layout to other settlements along this part of the coast. Like Staithes and Runswick Bay, the oldest part of the settlement is nestled at the bottom of the cliff close to the shore, with the more newer houses situated on the clifftops where there is more room. I walked through the top part of the village first, following Station Road which soon became New Road. This road wound its way down into the historic heart of Robin Hood’s Bay.
Robin Hood’s Bay is a village with lots of character. Narrow streets and tumbledown cottages make the village an attractive place to visit and even though the tourists do visit in large numbers, especially during the holidays, it has still been able to retain its charm. For centuries Robin Hood’s Bay was a fishing village and had been since the area was successfully colonised by Viking raiders. By the 16th century the village had become quite an important fishing port, more so than Whitby and Scarborough. In 1780 the village suffered misfortune when part of King Street, then the main road into Robin Hood’s Bay, fell into the sea along with 22 cottages. This seems to be a familiar theme along the North Yorkshire coast as nearby Kettleness and Runswick Bay have suffered similar disasters.
Smuggling too was a popular past time for the villagers of Robin Hood’s Bay and during the 18th century the village was believed to be the busiest smuggling community on the Yorkshire coast. Everybody got involved, from the fishermen to the clergy and the local gentry. As long as there was a chance of money being made everybody wanted a piece. It was rumoured that all the houses were connected by secret underground tunnels and that smuggled contraband could be moved from the bottom of the village to the top without leaving the houses. Battles between the smugglers and the excise men were fierce and it was known for the women of the village to pour boiling water over the excise men from upper floor windows.
Naturally all good things come to an end and both the smuggling and fish trade began to decline, especially with the coming of the railway to Robin Hood’s Bay in 1885 (it eventually closed in the 1960s). A new type of visitor came to the village – the tourist – and slowly over the next few decades the settlement changed from a traditional fishing village to one more suited for holidaymakers. New houses were built near the railway station where there was more available land to house the new guests.
Fortunately, the village has retained some of its original character thanks to the preservation of its historic cottages. As I worked my way through the narrows streets it was good to see that such preservation has taken place as once the decline of the fishing trade occurred in the mid 19th century to early 20th century, Robin Hood’s Bay could have easily become a forgotten village crumbling away on the Yorkshire coast.
Eventually I ran out of road, as it ends on a slipway which runs into the sea at the bottom of the village. The tide was in and the waves were lapping on the cobbled stones so I watched this peaceful scene for a few minutes whilst I finished off the ice cream that I had brought from a café further up the village. It was a great end to a fantastic walk, and I was already looking forward to completing the rest of the journey to Scarborough at a later date, however the golden beaches of Northumberland were calling me which I couldn’t wait to do and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
http://www.chrisscottwilson.co.uk/st-marys-199-steps/4558444216 – information about the 199 Steps and Whitby Abbey.
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/jul/28/draculas-birthplace-how-whitby-is-celebrating-the-counts-anniversary – Guardian article about Count Dracula and Whitby.
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1017779 – History of Saltwick Bay alum quarry
Benton, M.J.; Taylor, M.A (February 1984). “Marine Reptiles from the Upper Lias (Lower Toarcian, Lower Jurassic) of the Yorkshire Coast” (PDF). University of Bristol. – About fossil finds at Saltwick Bay.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-york-north-yorkshire-29807414 – BBC article about the SS Rohilla
http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/analysis/a-blast-from-the-past-1-2509932 – History of the Whitby Fog Signal
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitby_Lighthouse – History of Whitby Lighthouse
https://tothehills.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/20090828_rocket-post-robin-hoods-bay-cliff-tops/ – History of Rocket Post Field
http://www.bayfair.co.uk/history.html – History of Robin Hood’s Bay
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood%27s_Bay – History of Robin Hood’s Bay
http://www.robin-hoods-bay.co.uk/robin-hoods-bay/history – History of Robin Hood’s Bay