With the Great British Beach Clean taking place this month, Bethan Andrews delves into the history of our Yorkshire coastline from Saltburn to Whitby, and from Filey to Robin Hoods Bay
Yorkshire coastlines have long been synonymous with rugged beauty and a biting North Sea breeze, but there’s so much more to many of the towns dotted along the Yorkshire coast than their stormy sands. There’s a real resilient charm to the historic inhabitations, and many of the places have transformed themselves in recent years and are hip, happening, and charming. From family-friendly seaside resorts to stretches of golden sands with tiny fishing villages clinging to the cliffs, the Yorkshire Coast really does have something for everyone.
Awash with history
Showing off the rich Victorian history of the Yorkshire Coast, Saltburn has the UK’s oldest water-balanced cliff lift and the last remaining 600ft Victorian pier in the county. Moving south, Staithes was established in the 15th century as a small shellfishing village and, by the 16th century, was the largest fishing port on the east coast. It’s often linked to Captain Cook, too, who was born in nearby Marton and spent a lot of his time in the quaint port. Whitby is, of course, steeped in history, with its Dracula links and Benedictine abbey, and Scarborough, thought to be founded by the Vikings, was Britain’s first seaside resort.
With 60 miles of heritage coast, Yorkshire’s coastline has a diverse past. The northern section stretches 36 miles from Saltburn-by-the-Sea to Scalby, and this area is known as Yorkshire’s Jurassic Coast. You can find rocks dating back 150-200 million years, many of which are exposed on the sea shore and cliffs. Ammonites can be found and there have, at times, been bones from large marine reptiles and dinosaurs found, too. Another section of heritage coast is around the chalk cliffs of the Flamborough headland, north of Bridlington, where there is one of the most important colonies of nesting seabirds in Europe. When it comes to really understanding the history of the Yorkshire Coast, the Old Coastguard Station in Robin Hoods Bay is a great place to start.
For those who want to experience fossilised fun, Runswick Bay sits at the heart of the action. Voted previously as the Sunday Times Beach of the Year, it’s one of the most picturesque and quaint areas of the Yorkshire coastline, set within a sheltered bay between the cliffs. Once a popular fishing port, it’s now a family favourite for rockpooling, fossil hunting and coastal walks. It’s known as one of the main centres for fossil finding on the coast. In fact, the fossil remains of a Plesiosaurus, estimated to be 180 million years old and an Ichthyosaurus, a large predator which was similar to a dolphin in shape, were found a century ago and are now on display at The Whitby Museum.
Historically, parts of the Yorkshire Coast were also a huge cog in the wheel of the textiles industry when, in the 16th century, alum was extracted from the coastline as a fixative for dyes. According to the National Trust: “There are many sites along the Yorkshire Coast which bear evidence of the alum industry. The Ravenscar Alum Works, which are well preserved, enable visitors to visualise the processes which took place.” Speaking of textiles, Saltburn can proudly boast to being the home town of the infamous ‘Yarnbombers’ who regularly make national news with their fabulous and inspired knitted creations that mysteriously appear during the night.
Industrialisation also forms a huge part of the history of this precious part of Yorkshire, and you’ll find remnants of it and museums dedicated to it dotted all along the coastline. The Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum was founded in 1983 by a group of volunteers acutely aware that the remains of the ironstone mining industry, which had once formed the basis of Cleveland’s growth and prosperity, were rapidly being lost, forgotten or destroyed. Currently closed for expansion, a new museum is set to open later this year. The £2.3 million redevelopment project is set to bring expansion, employment and tourism to Skinningrove’s Iron Valley.
Another huge industry to thrive on the Yorkshire Coast was and still is Whitby Jet. Thesemi precious organic gemstone was formed over millions of years from the fossilised remains of the modern day Monkey Puzzle. The stone is taken directly from the cliffs of Whitby, worked on from rough form, cut, polished and set into sterling silver and gold mounts to create the world-famous Whitby Jet jewellery you see today. You can visit the Whitby Jet Heritage Centre to discover more about the history and the process, as well as what the industry looks like today.
While we’re on the topic of brilliant museums, culture is something that is thriving on the north coast. Whitby, of course, set the area off and put it on the cultural map of Britain through its links to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with the Gothic abbey providing inspiration for the famous tale. In Whitby, you can visit the abbey itself, pay a trip to the Dracula Experience or head to The Whitby Museum for an insight into Victorian life on the coast.
One of the most iconic places to uncover the stories of the dinosaurs is The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough. Known for its fascinating collection of fossils, you’ll be able to come face to face with some of the many creatures that once roamed the Yorkshire Coast. For stories of everyday life on the Yorkshire coastline, explore rural life at Ryedale Folk Museum or discover the history of life by the sea at the Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre.
To learn more about the area’s local naval history, visit the RNLI Lifeboat Station in Runswick Bay, which was in use until the seventies. Here, you’ll find some spectacular views across the bay and it’s the perfect place for a picnic, too. For a bit of further culture and history, explore the quaint Methodist chapel which was impressively built in 1829 by the hardworking women of the village.
Food for thought
You can’t talk about the Yorkshire Coast without discussing some of the incredible independent and brilliant eateries that have had people flocking to try the fare from the North Sea. More than simply fish and chips, many of the restaurants are brilliant at supporting a sustainable and local approach to food.
The Star Inn The Harbour at Whitby is a prime example of a place doing just this. Andrew Pern, whose name is synonymous with his Michelin-starred pub, The Star Inn at Harome, long wished to open a restaurant in his hometown and to celebrate the ingredients he grew up surrounded by. Fast forward to today and he’s got himself another award-winning restaurant that celebrates local coastal ingredients. A bit around the bay and Raithwaite Sandsend is all about showcasing the finest local produce, with seasonal, sustainable dishes and perennial favourites that highlight the very best of the Yorkshire Coast. Downcliffe House Hotel in Filey Bay provides the perfect fish supper, all supplied locally from fishmongers such as HG Lovitt, so you know everything is sea-fresh.
In Saltburn, Shanti Vegetarian Cafe has brought vegan and vegetarian food to the seaside town, while Signals is a trendy spot, serving brunch, lunch, home-baked cakes and pastries using locally-sourced ingredients. They make their own coffee, and on weekend evenings there are cocktails, specially selected wines, local music and good vibes. For something else hip and happening, the Moon and the Sixpence, which sits right on the harbourside in Whitby, is a sophisticated place to while away an evening.
With so much going for the coastline, it’s easy to forget that one of the simplest reasons people just can’t keep away is due to the raw and rugged beauty of the landscape. In Runswick Bay, for example, it’s the charming higgledy piggledy red-roofed cottages that climb their way up the cliff that have made such a name for the area.
And some of the best beaches along the coastline? Saltwick Bay is a hidden treasure, often overshadowed by Whitby, which has a shipwreck to explore, millions of fossils and incredible rockpools. Cayton Bay has a wide, sweeping sandy beach and is a perfect spot for family trips and all-day set-ups, similar to Filey Bay, which is also brilliant for being a beach that stretches for miles. The lovely fishing village of Sandsend has a picturesque beach, with a stream that runs into the sea making for a perfect spot for people with young children to play. North Landing is something very special, with sparkling waters, thriving birdlife and chalk rock formations jutting out the sea, and it’s a pretty wonderful place for snorkelling, swimming and kayaking or paddleboarding.
What’s On in September
Tour of Britain Redcar to Helmsley 7 September
Welcome some of the world’s top cyclists in an unforgiving uphill route in the Tour of Britain, which is returning to the county for the first time in 13 years for stage 4 of the route.
The Yorkshire Fossil Festival 16-18 September
The Yorkshire Fossil Festival returns to Scarborough at The Rotunda Museum and Stephen Joseph Theatre this September, with a weekend of activities and events for all the family, for both enthusiasts and professionals.
Filey Kite Festival 17-18 September
Throughout the day you will see some of the world’s largest kites, including the record-breaking teddy bear Oscar, along with assorted animals and other fabulous creations.
Scarborough Jazz Festival 23-25 September
The 19th Scarborough Jazz Festival will be taking place at Scarborough Spa and is not one to miss.
Whitby Fish and Ships Festival 24-25 September
Explore everything that’s special about the Yorkshire Coast’s magnificent maritime culture and food, from the building of its boats to its multi award-winning fish restaurants.