WHITBY to REDCAR
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In the 1900’s - “Along the three miles of sand running northwards from Whitby at the foot of low alluvial cliffs, I have seen some of the finest sea-pictures on this part of the coast. But although I have seen beautiful effects at all times of the day, those that I remember more than any others are the early mornings, when the sun was still low in the heavens, when, standing on that fine stretch of yellow sand, one seemed to breathe an atmosphere so pure, and to gaze at a sky so transparent, that some of those undefined longings for surroundings that have never been realized were instinctively uppermost in the mind. It is, I imagine, that vague recognition of perfection which has its effect on even superficial minds when impressed with beautiful scenery, for to what other cause can be attributed the remark one hears, that such scenes 'make one feel good'?
Heavy waves, overlapping one another in their fruitless bombardment of the smooth shelving sand, are filling the air with a ceaseless thunder. The sun, shining from a sky of burnished gold, throws into silhouette the twin lighthouses at the entrance to Whitby Harbour, and turns the foaming wave-tops into a dazzling white, accentuated by the long shadows of early day. Away to the north-west is Sandsend Ness, a bold headland full of purple and blue shadows, and straight out to sea, across the white-capped waves, are two tramp steamers, making, no doubt, for South Shields or some port where a cargo of coal can be picked up. They are plunging heavily, and every moment their bows seem to go down too far to recover.
The two little becks finding their outlet at East Row and Sandsend are lovely to-day; but their beauty must have been much more apparent before the North-Eastern Railway put their black lattice girder bridges across the mouth of each valley. But now that familiarity with these bridges, which are of the same pattern across every wooded ravine up the coast-line to Redcar, has blunted my impressions, I can think of the picturesqueness of East Row without remembering the railway. It was in this glen, where Lord Normanby's lovely woods make a background for the pretty tiled cottages, the mill, and the old stone bridge, which make up East Row,1 that the Saxons chose a home for their god Thor. Here they built some rude form of temple, afterwards, it seems, converted into a hermitage. This was how the spot obtained the name Thordisa, a name it retained down to 1620, when the requirements of workmen from the newly-started alum-works at Sandsend led to building operations by the side of the stream. The cottages which arose became known afterwards as East Row.
Go where you will in Yorkshire, you will find no more fascinating woodland scenery than that of the gorges of Mulgrave. From the broken walls and towers of the old Norman castle the views over the ravines on either hand—for the castle stands on a lofty promontory in a sea of foliage—are entrancing; and after seeing the astoundingly brilliant colours with which autumn paints these trees, there is a tendency to find the ordinary woodland commonplace. The narrowest and deepest gorge is hundreds of feet deep in the shale. East Row Beck drops into this canon in the form of a water-fall at the upper end, and then almost disappears among the enormous rocks strewn along its circumscribed course. The humid, hot-house atmosphere down here encourages the growth of many of the rarer mosses, which entirely cover all but the newly-fallen rocks.
We can leave the woods by a path leading near Lord Normanby's modern castle, and come out on to the road close to Lythe Church, where a great view of sea and land is spread out towards the south. The long curving line of white marks the limits of the tide as far as the entrance to Whitby Harbour. The abbey stands out in its loneliness as of yore, and beyond it are the black-looking, precipitous cliffs ending at Saltwick Nab. Lythe Church, standing in its wind-swept graveyard full of blackened tombstones, need not keep us, for, although its much-modernized exterior is simple and ancient-looking, the interior is devoid of any interest.
The walk along the rocky shore to Kettleness is dangerous unless the tide is carefully watched, and the road inland through Lythe village is not particularly interesting, so that one is tempted to use the railway, which cuts right through the intervening high ground by means of two tunnels. The first one is a mile long, and somewhere near the centre has a passage out to the cliffs, so that even if both ends of the tunnel collapsed there would be a way of escape. But this is small comfort when travelling from Kettleness, for the down gradient towards Sandsend is very steep, and in the darkness of the tunnel the train gets up a tremendous speed, bursting into the open just where a precipitous drop into the sea could be most easily accomplished.
The station at Kettleness is on the top of the huge cliffs, and to reach the shore one must climb down a zigzag path. It is a broad and solid pathway until half-way down, where it assumes the character of a goat-track, being a mere treading down of the loose shale of which the enormous cliff is formed. The sliding down of the crumbling rock constantly carries away the path, but a little spade-work soon makes the track firm again. This portion of the cliff has something of a history, for one night in 1829 the inhabitants of many of the cottages originally forming the village of Kettleness were warned of impending danger by subterranean noises. Fearing a subsidence of the cliff, they betook themselves to a small schooner lying in the bay. This wise move had not long been accomplished, when a huge section of the ground occupied by the cottages slid down the great cliff and the next morning there was little to be seen but a sloping mound of lias shale at the foot of the precipice. The villagers recovered some of their property by digging, and some pieces of broken crockery from one of the cottages are still to be seen on the shore near the ferryman's hut, where the path joins the shore.
This sandy beach, lapped by the blue waves of Runswick Bay, is one of the finest and most spectacular spots to be found on the rocky coast-line of Yorkshire. You look northwards across the sunlit sea to the rocky heights hiding Port Mulgrave and Staithes, and on the further side of the bay you see tiny Runswick's red roofs, one above the other, on the face of the cliff. Here it is always cool and pleasant in the hottest weather, and from the broad shadows cast by the precipices above one can revel in the sunny land- and sea-scapes without that fishy odour so unavoidable in the villages. When the sun is beginning to climb down the sky in the direction of Hinderwell, and everything is bathed in a glorious golden light, the ferryman will row you across the bay to Runswick, but a scramble over the rocks on the beach will be repaid by a closer view of the now half-filled-up Hob Hole. The fisherfolk believed this cave to be the home of a kindly-disposed fairy or hob, who seems to have been one of the slow-dying inhabitants of the world of mythology implicitly believed in by the Saxons. And these beliefs died so hard in these lonely Yorkshire villages that until recent times a mother would carry her child suffering from whooping-cough along the beach to the mouth of the cave. There she would call in a loud voice, 'Hob-hole Hob! my bairn's getten t'kink cough. Tak't off, tak't off.'
The same form of disaster which destroyed Kettleness village caused the complete ruin of Runswick in 1666, for one night, when some of the fisherfolk were holding a wake over a corpse, they had unmistakable warnings of an approaching landslip. The alarm was given, and the villagers, hurriedly leaving their cottages, saw the whole place slide downwards, and become a mass of ruins. No lives were lost, but, as only one house remained standing, the poor fishermen were only saved from destitution by the sums of money collected for their relief.
Scarcely two miles from Hinderwell is the fishing-hamlet of Staithes, wedged into the side of a deep and exceedingly picturesque beck.
The steep road leading past the station drops down into the village, giving a glimpse of the beck crossed by its ramshackle wooden foot-bridge—the view one has been prepared for by guide-books and picture postcards. Lower down you enter the village street. Here the smell of fish comes out to greet you, and one would forgive the place this overflowing welcome if one were not so shocked at the dismal aspect of the houses on either side of the way. Many are of comparatively recent origin, others are quite new, and a few—a very few—are old; but none have any architectural pretensions or any claims to picturesqueness, and only a few have the neat and respectable look one is accustomed to expect after seeing Robin Hood's Bay.
I hurried down on to the little fish-wharf—a wooden structure facing the sea—hoping to find something more cheering in the view of the little bay, with its bold cliffs, and the busy scene where the cobbles were drawn up on the shingle. Here my spirits revived, and I began to find excuses for the painters. The little wharf, in a bad state of repair, like most things in the place, was occupied by groups of stalwart fisherfolk, men and women.
The men were for the most part watching their womenfolk at work. They were also to an astonishing extent mere spectators in the arduous work of hauling the cobbles one by one on to the steep bank of shingle. A tackle hooked to one of the baulks of timber forming the staith was being hauled at by five women and two men! Two others were in a listless fashion leaning their shoulders against the boat itself. With the last 'Heave-ho!' at the shortened tackle the women laid hold of the nets, and with casual male assistance laid them out on the shingle, removed any fragments of fish, and generally prepared them for stowing in the boat again.
A change has come over the inhabitants of Staithes since 1846, when Mr. Ord describes the fishermen as 'exceedingly civil and courteous to strangers, and altogether free from that low, grasping knavery peculiar to the larger class of fishing-towns.' Without wishing to be unreasonably hard on Staithes, I am inclined to believe that this character is infinitely better than these folk deserve, and even when Mr. Ord wrote of the place I have reason to doubt the civility shown by them to strangers. It is, according to some who have known Staithes for a long long while, less than fifty years ago that the fisherfolk were hostile to a stranger on very small provocation, and only the entirely inoffensive could expect to sojourn in the village without being a target for stones.
No doubt many of the superstitions of Staithes people have languished or died out in recent years, and among these may be included a particularly primitive custom when the catches of fish had been unusually small. Bad luck of this sort could only be the work of some evil influence, and to break the spell a sheep's heart had to be procured, into which many pins were stuck. The heart was then burnt in a bonfire on the beach, in the presence of the fishermen, who danced round the flames.
In happy contrast to these heathenish practices was the resolution entered into and signed by the fishermen of Staithes, in August, 1835, binding themselves 'on no account whatever' to follow their calling on Sundays, 'nor to go out without boats or cobbles to sea, either on the Saturday or Sunday evenings.' They also agreed to forfeit ten shillings for every offence against the resolution, and the fund accumulated in this way, and by other means, was administered for the benefit of aged couples and widows and orphans.
The men of Staithes are known up and down the east coast of Great Britain as some of the very finest types of fishermen. Their cobbles, which vary in size and colour, are uniform in design and the brilliance of their paint. Brick red, emerald green, pungent blue and white, are the most favoured colours, but orange, pink, yellow, and many others, are to be seen.
Looking northwards there is a grand piece of coast scenery. The masses of Boulby Cliffs, rising 660 feet from the sea, are the highest on the Yorkshire coast. The waves break all round the rocky scaur, and fill the air with their thunder, while the strong wind blows the spray into beards which stream backwards from the incoming crests.
The upper course of Staithes Beck consists of two streams, flowing through deep, richly-wooded ravines. They follow parallel courses very close to one another for three or four miles, but their sources extend from Lealholm Moor to Wapley Moor. Kilton Beck runs through another lovely valley densely clothed in trees, and full of the richest woodland scenery. It becomes more open in the neighbourhood of Loftus, and from thence to the sea at Skinningrove the valley is green and open to the heavens. Loftus is on the borders of the Cleveland mining district, and it is for this reason that the town has grown to a considerable size. But although the miners' new cottages are unpicturesque, and the church only dates from 1811, the situation is pretty, owing to the profusion of trees among the houses, has railway-sidings and branch-lines running down to it, and on the hill above the cottages stands a cluster of blast-furnaces. In daylight they are merely ugly, but at night, with tongues of flame, they speak of the potency of labour. I can still see that strange silhouette of steel cylinders and connecting girders against a blue-black sky, with silent masses of flame leaping into the heavens.
It was long before iron-ore was smelted here, before even the old alum-works had been started, that Skinningrove attained to some sort of fame through a wonderful visit, as strange as any of those recounted by Mr. Wells. It was in the year 1535—for the event is most carefully recorded in a manuscript of the period—that some fishermen of Skinningrove caught a Sea Man. This was such an astounding fact to record that the writer of the old manuscript explains that 'old men that would be loath to have their credyt crackt by a tale of a stale date, report confidently that ... a sea-man was taken by the fishers.' They took him up to an old disused house, and kept him there for many weeks, feeding him on raw fish, because he persistently refused the other sorts of food offered him. To the people who flocked from far and near to visit him he was very courteous, and he seems to have been particularly pleased with any 'fayre maydes' who visited him, for he would gaze at them with a very earnest countenance, 'as if his phlegmaticke breaste had been touched with a sparke of love.'
The lofty coast-line we have followed all the way from Sandsend terminates abruptly at Huntcliff Nab, the great promontory which is familiar to visitors to Saltburn. Low alluvial cliffs take the place of the rocky precipices, and the coast becomes flatter and flatter as you approach Redcar and the marshy country at the mouth of the Tees. The original Saltburn, consisting of a row of quaint fishermen's cottages, still stands entirely alone, facing the sea on the Huntcliff side of the beck, and from the wide, smooth sands there is little of modern Saltburn to be seen besides the pier. For the rectangular streets and blocks of houses have been wisely placed some distance from the edge of the grassy cliffs, leaving the sea-front quite unspoiled.
The elaborately-laid-out gardens on the steep banks of Skelton Beck are the pride and joy of Saltburn, for they offer a pleasant contrast to the bare slopes on the Huntcliff side and the flat country towards Kirkleatham. But in this seemingly harmless retreat there used to be heard horrible groanings, and I have no evidence to satisfy me that they have altogether ceased. For in this matter-of-fact age such a story would not be listened to, and thus those who hear the sounds may be afraid to speak of them. The groanings were heard, they say, 'when all wyndes are whiste and the rea restes unmoved as a standing poole.' At times they were so loud as to be heard at least six miles inland, and the fishermen feared to put out to sea, believing that the ocean was 'as a greedy Beaste raginge for Hunger, desyers to be satisfyed with men's carcases.'
In 1842 Redcar was a mere village, though more apparent on the map than Saltburn; but, like its neighbour, it has grown into a great watering-place, having developed two piers, a long esplanade, and other features, which I am glad to leave to those for whom they were made, and betake myself to the more romantic spots so plentiful in this broad county.
More to follow ....