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North Yorkshire

June 2, 2013

Beside the Butterfly Palm on my late-father’s desk, a bunch of notes lie beneath a pure white stone, a stone shaped by the North Sea but not quite smooth, a stone with a soft, almost powdery feel.  My new paperweight is a lump of chalk from Selwicks Bay at Flamborough Head.  The notes, in my crabbed hand, are from a short break on the North Yorkshire coast taken with my wife Stella at the beginning of May, in a rented caravan near Filey.

The first two days were lovely, with blue skies and wildflowers bright in the sun; the remaining two cool and cloudy with occasional showers.  The caravan was a luxury model with en suite and central heating, but we were out and about every day enjoying the sights on this, our first proper visit to the area…



We wished we’d brought cardigans at least, because it was early evening now and cooler here at the tip of this chalk headland jutting eight miles into the North Sea, with sheer white cliffs 400 feet high.

We’d just passed the octagonal Chalk Tower built in 1673 by Sir John Clayton, with the permission of King Charles II, the oldest surviving lighthouse in England.  It was designed for fires to be lit on top though it’s doubtful any ever were.

Before us, rising 87 feet and dazzlingly white in the late sun, was the present working lighthouse built in 1806 (without benefit of scaffolding!) by John Matson of Bridlington.  The last keepers left when the lighthouse became fully automated in 1996, and its rotating lamp has a range of 24 nautical miles to warn mariners of the perilous coast.

There was an air of enchantment about the clifftop somehow, with stunning views seaward, the gentle wash of the ebb tide below, the cries of nesting seabirds rising in glorious discord.  The cliff ledges are home to many thousands of seabirds – not only the abundant kittiwakes and herring gulls but also guillemots, razorbills and puffins, shags, cormorants, fulmars… and a rare colony of gannets.  This is one of the most important seabird nesting sites in the country.

We went down the steps, myself all the way to the beach.  It was amazing to think this rearing chalk wall was formed of tiny sea creatures millions of years ago, in dinosaur times.  Greenish-brown at the tide line, white above, the craggy cliff-face was riven with fine fissures, and some of the rocks up there didn’t look too safe!  I could see why the Code of Conduct urged the wearing of hard hats.

It was a pebbly, rocky beach with limpet-encrusted boulders, bladderwrack everywhere, rock pools, and a chalk platform dipping into the water’s edge.  I had to take care to avoid slipping on the wet rocks. 

To the south side of the bay was a tall stack, a chalk column left standing on its own through sea-erosion.  Of course there were arches and caves too, though I didn’t get to see them.  I only wished I had more time.

We wandered clifftop paths between gorse and scrub for a while, enjoying the salty sea air and scent of wildflowers, before heading back to the car, no longer chilly now.


An exciting piece of history I’d found was the Battle of Flamborough Head.

Fought in the North Sea, off Flamborough Head, on 23rd September 1779, this was one of the most celebrated naval actions of the American War of Independence, with John Paul Jones, the American Continental Navy Captain, being remembered to this day.

With a Franco-American squadron of fighting ships, Jones had been active in British waters for a month or so, raiding merchant vessels.  Then the great Baltic convoy was spotted, approaching from he north.  The convoy, escorted by two Royal Navy frigates under the command of Captain Richard Pearson, was bringing vital supplies for British Dockyards. 

Jones, aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, moved to intercept.  And Pearson, aboard HMS Serapis, having ordered the convoy inshore, moved to block him.

Jones, who’d been sailing falsely under the British ensign, now hoisted the Stars and Stripes in its place and fired a broadside, to which Pearson replied in kind.

Trading broadsides at close quarters, a furious battle was fought between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis under a nearly-full moon, watched by a large crowd on Flamborough Head, who were no doubt hoping “Paul Jones the Pirate” would get his comeuppance.

A fluke of the wind and waves caused the two warships to collide, enabling Jones’ men to make fast the Serapis with grappling irons.  British cannons continued to blast the Bonhomme Richard’s lower deck to matchwood, and Pearson called over to Jones asking whether he wished to surrender.  Jones’ reply has gone down in history: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

The end came after one of Jones’ men, armed with a basket of grenades, managed to drop one down Serapis’ main hatch, resulting in explosions and flash-fires that wiped out the lower gun deck, killing around twenty British seamen. 

Captain Pearson called for “quarters” and his two ships, Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, were secured by an American boarding party.  The Bonhomme Richard was so badly damaged it sank somewhere off Filey a couple of days later, having been abandoned by Jones, who took over Serapis as his command ship.

Although he lost his ships, Captain Pearson had succeeded in his mission as the convoy made it safely to port.  He was later knighted by King George III.



Returning to the caravan after a long day out, we diverted to have a look at the intriguingly named village of Robin Hood’s Bay, five miles south of Whitby.  We parked in the clifftop car park, the old fishing and smuggling village clinging to the steep slope below, red tiled roofs above red tiled roofs all the way down to the bay. 

The great thing about walking down Bay Bank/New Road was that sense of stepping back in time, the narrow alleyways off either side having changed little over the centuries.  The not-so-great thing was knowing we’d have to climb all the way up again later!

Stone-built but with splashes of whitewash for relief, close-packed with houses, little shops and cafes here and there plus a pub or two, Robin Hood’s Bay was a most characterful and picturesque village, and we loved it.

Wandering the maze of alleyways, I could understand how, under the very noses of the excise men, those smugglers of old were able to spirit away contraband to avoid duty: brandy and geneva (gin), tea, tobacco and so on.  It’s said there were secret underground passages too…

In the 18th century, practically everyone from fisherfolk to clergy was involved in the illicit trade, with fierce battles between smugglers and excise men taking place both on land and at sea.  Fishing was the main legitimate trade but the coming of railways in the early 19th century changed all that.  Tourism became the main industry and remains so today.

In the late-18th and early-19th centuries, Navy press gangs would descend seeking to forcibly recruit seamen, but their mission would not be easily accomplished.  The village women would beat a drum to warn their menfolk, and even beat off the much hated and feared press gangs with pans and rolling pins!

We crossed King’s Beck and continued to The Dock.  The beach was just below, so I popped down the old cobbled slipway, known as Wayfoot, to have a look.  The tide was receding leaving rock pools containing hermit crabs, winkles and other sea creatures.  If I’d had more time, been suitably equipped and absolutely sure of not getting cut off by the treacherous tide, It would have been fun to do a spot of fossil hunting on those rocky scars.  I might even have found a dinosaur’s footprint!

From The Dock, we headed uphill on King Street, and I was delighted to find Sandal House with a blue plaque outside announcing that the author Leo Walmsley lived there from 1894 to 1913.  This was where he grew up from the age of two.

Serving in the Royal Air Corps during World War I, Walmsley won the Military Cross for bravery and was mentioned in despatches four times.  He became most famous for his trilogy written in the 1930s portraying life in a small fishing village called Bramblewick, clearly based on Robin Hood’s Bay, which he loved dearly.

Somehow I doubt the climb up Bay Bank would have had young Leo puffing and panting as it did Stella and I.

As for how Robin Hood’s Bay got its name, that’s anyone’s guess because there doesn’t seem to be a scrap of evidence that the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest ever showed his nose here.



The other places we visited were Scarborough, Whitby, Eden Camp (the modern history theme museum) and Goathland (“Aidensfield” in the popular TV Heartbeat series).  Each was wonderful in its own way.

Never have we had fish and chips so delicious as those we enjoyed overlooking the River Esk in Whitby.  Never will we forget the sights, sounds and smells of World War II as experienced at Eden Camp.  And never will I forget my half of lager in the “Aidensfield Arms” (Goathland Hotel), expecting Oscar Blaketon and Gina to appear behind the bar at any moment!

Aye, we must go again some day.  And ride again the North Yorkshire Moors Railway for the sheer romance of it, with a chuffing, chugging, whistle-blowing, smoke-puffing loco out in front, as in our young days.

Aye, a brilliant break it was, with the pattering of gulls’ feet on our caravan roof when we woke each morning, as remembered from those happy days when Stella and I had our own “van” at Talacre.




Copyright © Paul Beech 2013

  1. Angela permalink

    What a wonderful holiday you had. Have you ever thought of writing history books for children? Your description of events time gone by are so interesting with vivid scenes painted. Would capture the imagination of the young ones. I love the thought of the yorkshire women armed with rolling pins!!

  2. Dear Angela, I’m thrilled you like the piece; I enjoyed writing it. North Yorkshire was totally captivating, we loved it, and I had fun finding out about times past.

    The alleyways at Robin Hood’s Bay were so narrow I could touch both sides at once with arms spread. Pity the excise men here, drenched in boiling water poured from bedroom windows by smugglers’ wives!

    History books for children? Now there’s an idea! Thanks for the suggestion.

    Paul xx

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