−−− BY LINZI DAVIES −−−
With staycations being a highly popular, and probably sensible option for the summer this year, visitors will be flocking to our stunning Yorkshire Coast for days out, weekends away and family holidays. The Yorkshire Coast certainly has everything you would need for a holiday – beaches, clifftop walks, shops, restaurants and of course the amusements and rides to keep the kids happy! There is something for everyone – including the history buffs too with castles and abbeys to visit.
In this month’s feature we look at one little town on our coastline which is often overlooked for the larger choices of Scarborough, Bridlington, and Whitby, but with its rockpools, natural rugged beauty and colourful history, Robin Hood’s Bay is not to be missed!
Bronze Age burial grounds known as Robin Hood’s Butts around a mile south of the village provide evidence that there were people in the area 3000 years ago. Roman soldiers built a stone signal tower in the 4th century AD at Ravenscar 1500 years later, but the first to probably settle in the area permanently would have been Saxon peasants followed by the Vikings. The ample fish combined with the rich soil in the area helped the Norsemen settle and survive with a combination of fishing and farming, although they settled slightly inland to avoid unnecessary detection by other raiders.
By the Norman conquest, the area was known as the Manor of Fyling, and William the Conqueror gave the land to his relative Hugh of Chester. Later it passed to the Percy family who donated it to Whitby Abbey.
The first written reference to Robin Hood’s Bay is in a letter to Edward III from Louis, Count of Flanders between 1322-1346 in which he is pleading for the return of his ship taken by the people of England to ‘Robin Oode Bay’ – could this be the first reference to piracy in the area? The name suggests a link to the infamous Robin of Sherwood but there are no stories in folklore about him ever visiting the area. Legends of ancient forest spirits named Robin Hood and Robin Goodfellow all over the country are more likely to be the root of the name, with this particular village name stemming from a more local natural feature.
By the mid 1500’s the villagers obviously felt more secure from piracy because the cliff settlement had grown larger than inland, proving to be more convenient to be near the boats. It was a large settlement for the time with around 50 cottages. This was during the same period as the dissolution of the monasteries, and when the land passed from the Abbey to the King, he sold it to the Earl of Warwick. The first Lords of the Manor were the Cholmleys and then the Stricklands. During the 16th century, Robin Hood’s Bay appears on Dutch sea charts whilst Whitby does not – suggesting that this small fishing village was more important at that time.
The one thing that Robin Hood’s Bay is notorious for is its history of smuggling. Said to be the busiest smuggling community of the 18th century on the Yorkshire Coast, the natural isolation of the town combined with the protection of marshy moorland on three sides was highly advantageous to the well-organised groups running the smuggling ring.
Whilst a huge risk to anyone who was caught, smuggling must have paid far better than fishing! The fishermen smuggling at sea were supported by those on land willing to transport and finance the contraband – with people from all walks of life likely to have been involved, including farmers, the clergy and gentry. Hiding places such as trapdoors and hidden cupboards in the tumbledown cottages, narrow alleyways, and secret passages all helped to move vast quantities of gin, brandy, tea, tobacco, French lace and more from the moorings at the bottom of the village, to the top without being seen. The wives were all eager to help too and were even said to have poured boiling water on the excise men from upstairs windows!
Smuggling was a profitable enterprise during the late 1700’s as Britain’s part in the American War of Independence as well as other battles raging across the Empire caused the government to hike taxes – after all, war is an expensive business. In September of 1799, inhabitants of the Yorkshire Coast would have witnessed the Battle of Flamborough Head when Navy vessels escorting a convoy of merchant ships clashed with an American continental navy squadron. Despite witnessing war first-hand, many ordinary citizens did not have the means or the inclination to pay the higher taxes, so black-market trade naturally flourished.
Although a whole village enterprise, the smuggling would have been organised by a select few families with whom the rest would not mess around with. The pubs in the bay would have been at the centre of the operations and the Mariner’s Tavern was the heart of smuggling in the village – a place where the sole Customs Officer posted to the bay dared not go. The Fisherman’s Arms was also involved, and one evening Revenue Officers raided the pub, aided by local militia. They seized 200 casks of gin and brandy, 150 sacks of tea and a small number of blunderbusses and ammunition. Local legend tells it that the Customs men set to guard the contraband overnight, sampled too much of it and fell into a drunk sleep – which allowed the smugglers to take back the bulk of their goods unseen and unheard!
For the smugglers, it wasn’t just the customs and excise men they had to fear at this time. War brought with it the Press Gangs who targeted ‘eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 55 years’ to man the warships. Although fishermen were supposed to be exempt, in reality they were ‘pressed’ as much as anyone else. Once impressed into the navy, it was highly unlikely you would ever return home, so the Press Gangs were feared and hated in equal measure. Village women would beat a drum to warn the men that the Press Gangs had arrived. It was not unusual for them to be attacked and beaten off.
Whilst smugglers and press gangs would have come and gone, the one mainstay of the bay was fishing and seafaring. Fishing here reached its peak in the mid-19th century and fishermen used cobles (a flat bottomed, high bowed traditional fishing boat) for line fishing in the winter and larger boats for herring fishing. The fish was loaded into panniers and walked or rode over the moorland to Pickering or York to sell. It was also during the 19th century in which the picturesque village began to draw tourists and a guidebook from 1847 stated, ‘no place of human abode can be conceived of more wild in its appearance.’
In 1839, a lifeboat was delivered for Robin Hood’s Bay, built by a local boat-building family the Gales. The 28ft length boat which cost £100 had a short active career. An account by Robert E Monk tells of a disaster on 3rd February 1843, “A collier brig named the William and Ann sailed from Shields for London. She ran into a gale of exceptional violence and sprang a leak. Next day she tried to find shelter near Robin Hood’s Bay, but by this time it was snowing heavily, and the wind was blowing almost a hurricane from the NE. A tremendous sea threw the vessel onto her broadside, and drove her ashore near the entrance of the bay close to Coling Scar. The crew took to the rigging for safety. Lt Lingard R.N, the Coastguard Officer at Robin Hood’s Bay, had a magnificent record for saving life at sea. He launched the lifeboat with a crew of coastguards and fishermen. Despite the huge seas which were running, he brought the lifeboat alongside the Ann, and started to take off her crew. One account says that all of them were in the lifeboat, which was just commencing the return journey, when an enormous wave capsized her. Another says that while the boat was still alongside the wreck, rolling violently, several of the Ann’s crew jumped as a heavy sea struck her and their combined weight was sufficient to send her right over.”
The account continues, “Four men were trapped under the boat…. Eleven managed to cling to here, presumably using the looped ropes which the Gale-built boats always had around the gunwales. These fifteen men were carried in by the waves and survived, but the remaining ten, sailors, lifeboatmen and coastguards were lost despite a gallant attempt by the brig Ayton to save them…Six coastguards, including Lt Lingard, and six others were lost in this disaster. In a small, closely knit community, such losses were keenly felt.”
The local men decided after this that the bay was not suitable for lifeboat work. A plaque in the village records when, in January 1881, a brig named ‘Visiter’ ran aground during a violent storm. Because the bay did not have its own lifeboat, the one from Whitby had to be pulled 6 miles overland by 18 horses with 200 men clearing the 7f deep snowdrifts along the way. Men had to demolish garden walls and uproot bushes to fit the lifeboat carriage through the narrow and awkward bends of the village down to the sea. The boat was launched 2hrs after leaving Whitby and all the crew on the Visiter were rescued on the second attempt.
As fishing slowly declined during the 1800’s, tourism gained momentum and today it remains one of the main sources of income for the bay.
Robin Hood’s Bay Today
Robin Hood’s Bay has retained its rustic and picturesque charm from years gone by and is a beautiful place to visit. It is a vibrant community with a wide range of cafes, pubs and restaurants in which to grab a bite to eat, small shops to amble around and of course the beach and rock pools. Part of what makes Robin Hood’s Bay a unique coastal town to visit is the fact that tourist cars are not allowed down to the front. You have to park up at the top of the cliff and then walk down the very steep road into the town – and back up again, so it is not for the faint-hearted! On foot though is definitely the best way to take in the charm of the place and explore the narrow, twisting cobbled streets at a leisurely pace without the hustle and bustle of traffic jams.
A paradise for those who love the outdoors, there are plenty of opportunities for walking, cycling and horse-riding in the local area, and children can spend hours investigating the rock pools for crabs and other small creatures! There is an abundance of diverse wildlife from over 230 species of fish to thousands of sea birds. You can often spot Minke Whales, Bottle-nosed Dolphins and Harbour Porpoises offshore too along with Seal colonies which makes it all the more magical.
Along with the stunning natural environment of Robin Hood’s Bay, there is also a long tradition of art and music which continues today. You can find live music most nights and the town is home to lots of artists who all find inspiration in the surrounding beauty.
For those wanting to further explore the history in the area, the Robin Hood’s Bay and Fylingdales Museum is situated in a small cottage which was once converted into a Coroner’s Room and Mortuary by Rev R.J Cooper when he purchased it on a lease in 1891. The museum is run entirely by volunteers and has displays about fishing, shipping and of course smuggling! For more information on the museum, visit www.museum.rhbay.co.uk
Whether you choose to visit just for the day, or stay in one of the local inns, B&B’s or camp sites, Robin Hood’s Bay is truly a gem of the Yorkshire Coast and well worth the trip!
Robin Hood’s Bay is also a favourite location for fossil hunters. Professionals and amateurs alike love to hunt among the cliffs to see what they can find, and the Yorkshire Coast is probably the second most popular choice in the whole of the UK for fossil hunting. Common finds in the area include ammonites and bivalves which are often tucked away inside the crevices of the craggy cliff face. The rockpools and beach itself can also turn up a good fossil, particularly if the tide has just gone out leaving the treasures unearthed for you.
As well as ammonites, you could find fossilised plants, and even reptile remains if you are really lucky! You have to know where to look though – the middle of the bay is made up of mainly boulder clay but either side proves more productive.
While fossil hunting is exciting, it is important to remember to be careful, particularly if you have children with you. You need to be aware of tide times so that you don’t get cut off from land, and while the cliffs hide all manner of finds, it is not a good idea to stand at the bottom of them for long periods as coastal erosion means that rock falls are common. You also need to respect nature and the natural environment. Please only remove fossils that are already loose, don’t start trying to hammer and chisel things out of the rocks as you may damage a historically important fossil, or cause further rock falls and damage to the area.
If you visit this stunning fishing town, it is well worth keeping a keen eye as you amble along the beach – you never know what you may find!