Clifftop walks above a chain of old fishing harbours
Red-grey crags climb to high cliffs at Boulby, then slope down to a rocky shoreline. Walkers can follow the Cleveland Way right along the coast, over cliffs and along the foreshore. The cliffs are breached by valleys that shelter fishing villages such as Staithes and Runswick, while on the broader valley of the River Esk lies the ancient port of Whitby. There, Captain Cook’s statue overlooks a scene that has changed little since his day.
The village of Skinningrove lies beside a stream at the foot of a valley, where gaunt cliffs rise from a sandy bay. Skinningrove was built to house the men who worked the iron mines at the head of the valley. Though the mines have closed, steel works have taken their place and the stream is permanently stained with the rusty colour of iron ore waste. Though Skinningrove is hardly a holiday centre, the sandy beach on each side of the quay and the spectacular cliff scenery would be the envy of many resorts.
Cut into the flat rocks of Hummersea Scar is a man-made channel that once formed a harbour in this inhospitable spot. The harbour, and the scars of mine workings on the cliffside, are relics of Britain’s first chemical industry, the mining and purification of alum, that took place along the north Yorkshire coast between 1600 and 1870. Alum, a blueish stone, was used extensively in dyeing wool, tanning leather and sizing paper. In the days of James I, alum was a Royal monopoly, but this ended with the death of Charles I. The industry ceased when a way was found of making alum from coal shales treated with sulphuric acid.
To see the old mines, take the steep road up the hillside east of Skinningrove and, on the level ground above the village, turn left to Hummersea Farm, where cars may be parked with the farmer’s permission. A track leads up to the headland, past a cottage, and the alum mines are near the highest point on the.
At their highest point, Boulby cliffs stand 666 ft above the sea, making them the highest cliffs on England’s east coast. As such they are something of a disappointment, for they lack the drama of cliffs like Bempton in Humberside or Beachy Head in East Sussex that descend vertically to the shore. Boulby cliffs drop in stages; but from the summit footpath the effect is still exhilarating and the view magnificent. At the eastern end of the hillside a large potash mine disfigures an otherwise wild stretch of countryside.
Little houses cluster on the steep sides of a gorge that opens out like a funnel into the harbour at Staithes, which remains much as James Cook would have known it in 1744. As a lad of 16, Cook was apprentice to William Sanderson, a haberdasher at Staithes, but after 18 months the man who was to become one of the world’s greatest explorers followed the example of many villagers and went to sea – as a servant aboard a Whitby ship.
The harbour is smaller than in Cook’s day, but a fleet of fishing cobles is anchored in the shelter of the stream at the western end. From the harbour climb steep narrow alleys with quaint names such as Gun Gutter and Dog Loup, which is little over 18 in. wide.
The sandy bed of the harbour is revealed at low tide, creating a pleasant beach which is protected from the waves by the harbour piers. The only car park is at the top of the hill near the entrance to the village.
The road ends a t a row of houses perched on a high clifftop, and several hundred feet below is the dilapidated harbour of Port Mulgrave. It is a long steep climb down the cliff path to the harbour, where a few small fishing boats are moored.
At first it seems strange that anyone should build a harbour in such an inaccessible place. A tunnel near the foot of the cliff provides the explanation, for it leads a mile inland to the old ironstone mines at Dale-house, south of Staithes. Until the mine closed in the 1920s, the iron ore was carried through the tunnel by a narrow-gauge railway and tipped into the holds of coasters in Port Mulgrave for shipment to the furnaces at Jarrow.
CAPTAIN COOK COUNTRY
The explorer James Cook was born in 1728 in the village of Marton, 2 miles south of Middlesbrough. The cottage where he was born is no longer there, but the site is marked by a granite vase in Stewart Park and near by is a Birthplace Museum. At Great Ayton, where Cook went to school, part of the school-house is now a Cook museum.
It was while working at Staithes that Cook first felt the urge to go to sea, but it is with Whitby that he is most closely associated. He was apprenticed to a Whitby shipowner, John Walker, and the house in which he lodged at this time -in Grape Lane – still stands; it is due to open as another Cook museum. All the ships used by Cook were built at the Fishburn shipyard in Whitby. A life-size statue of the explorer was erected on Whitby’s West Cliff in 1912.
A crescent of sand stretches south-east from the village of Runswick, which consists of a collection of cottages set apparently at random at the foot of the cliffs. Narrow alleyways weave between the cottages, revealing pretty gardens separated by stone walls. In 1682 an earlier village of Runswick slipped into the sea.
A long row of fishing boats is parked above the shore, with a tractor to haul them down the ramp. There is a sailing club-at the southern end of the bay, and light dinghies can be launched from the sands.
This isolated community of red-brick houses on the clifftop still has several relics of the now disused coastal railway line. The redbrick Victorian station stands incongruously in a field. A footpath follows the railway track from Staithes until it plunges into a long tunnel to the east of the hamlet; at this point walkers should stay on the surface and follow the Cleveland Way along the cliffs. At Overdale Wyke, 1 mile north of Sandsend, this footpath passes the remains of large alum workings in the cliff face. These mines opened in 1615 and were worked until 1867.
Stretching from the west pier of Whitby harbour, 2 ½ miles of uninterrupted sands come to an end at Sandsend. There only a narrow pavement separates the road from the sea-wall, and at high spring tides the waves break violently against the wall, sending arches of spray over the road. Colourful boulders are scattered on the shore at the foot of the car park, north-west of the village, and diligent searchers occasionally find pieces of Whitby jet among them. Volunteer lifeguards patrol on Sundays in summer. Great care must be taken not to be cut off by the tide.
Near by, the stream of Mickleby Beck meets the sea, its valley lined by honey-coloured stone houses with pretty cottage gardens. There is a second stream, East Row Beck, a few hundred yards to the east, and near by is the yard of one of the few remaining coble builders in the north-east. A footpath beside each stream leads into the beautiful Mulgrave Woods, whose owner allows walkers to roam the paths on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays, except in May. The romantic ruins of Mulgrave Castle, l>/2 miles into the woods, are girdled with ivy and overgrown with trees. Among the tumbled stones is the curious relic of a medieval stone lavatory seat.
Endowed with an incomparable setting on the steep banks of the estuary of the River
Esk, Whitby is a jewel among towns, its harbour and streets of ancient buildings imbued with a rich history, yet bustling with modern life. The jagged ruins of Whitby
Abbey surmount the East Cliff and provide an impressive landmark for miles along the coast. On the opposite clifftop, to the west, WHITBY DELICACY Herrings smoked over an oak the statue of Captain Cook surveys the fire produce the distinctive colour and flavour of harbour, which was the birthplace of three the familiar kipper. ships, Endeavour, Resolution and Adventure, that carried him around the world on his three great voyages of exploration. The two sides of the town are linked by a swing bridge. Built in 1909 it has a 70 ft centre span. Just below the Cook monument is an arch made from the jawbone of a whale – a reminder of Whitby’s history as a whaling port. Between 1753 and 1833 some 2,761 whales were brought back to Whitby, and their blubber was boiled on the quayside to make oil. As early as 1825 the streets of Whitby were lit by a gas made from whale oil. Whitby’s most famous whaling captain was William Scoresby, the inventor of the ‘crows nest’, who accounted for 533 whales in his career.
Scoresby’s journals are among the varied items on display in Whitby Museum, which is set among the floral gardens of Pannett Park. Mementoes of Captain Cook and his journeys jostle with flint arrowheads, Roman inscriptions, fossils found on the Whitby shore, stuffed birds, oriental antiquities and even the wizened hand of a murderer; severed at the wrist after his execution, this was used as a charm by burglars and it was believed to have the power of sending victims into a deep slumber. Whitby Museum also has examples of jewellery intricately carved from the jet found on the local shore.
Whitby jet is fossilised wood which has been subjected to chemical action in stagnant water and then flattened by enormous pressure. It was used in the manufacture of ornaments in the Bronze Age and by the Romans, and in medieval times was considered a potent charm against witchcraft. In Victorian times jet-working flourished in Whitby, after Queen Victoria introduced jet jewellery into court circles as a mark of mourning for Prince Albert. It declined, however, after 1870 with the introduction of ‘French jet’ – black glass – and the import of jet from Spain, where children wore jet beads to ward off the evil eye.
Whitby has another connection with the occult: the author Bram Stoker set scenes of his novel Dracula on the 199 steps that lead up through the old town to the graveyard and church of St Mary on the East Cliff beside the abbey. This church has a unique wooden interior, crafted by 18th-century shipbuilders, with box pews, galleries and a towering three-storey pulpit.
The holiday activities of Whitby include bathing from safe sandy beaches, sailing from the marina in the harbour, sea and river fishing, or merely enjoying the taste of fresh fish at the restaurants by the quayside. There is a Lifeboat Museum in Pier Road which contains the last rowing lifeboat in the country. An angling festival is held in July and a three-day regatta in August.
A VILLAGE SHELTERED FROM THE STORMY BLAST
Bluff headlands protect Staithes like a hand cupped around a flame, bringing a backwater stillness to the creek where brightly painted cobles lie at rest and, beyond the bridge, the greysione lifeboat station stands at the head of its ramp. Between the jumble of tall houses and snug cottages runs a web of alleys, some tittle more than 18 in. wide.
Cradled between the rocky promontories of Saltwick Nab and Black Nab is the small stretch of sand in Saltwick Bay. Steps lead down to the beach from the cliffside, the vast hollows of which are the remains of alum workings. Good fossils, including ammonites, are sometimes found on the shore, but fossil hunters should beware of being cut off by the tide when exploring the rocks at the edges of the bay.
Above the bay is the Whitby High Light and fog signal station. The light is 240 ft above sea level and has a range of 22 miles. The foghorn, known locally as ‘The Hawsker Bull’, can be heard 10 miles awav.
The moorland village is notable for its handsome stone-built farms. On the road from High Hawsker to Robin Hood’s Bay a curious brick structure with a stone roof encloses an ancient spring. A notice in local dialect recalls that this was the well used by the Abbess St Hilda and the nuns of Whitby Abbey: ‘Lang centuries aback,
This wor t’awd Abba well,
St Hilda, veiled i’black,
Supped frey it, an no lack.’