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A bit of Yorkshire that’s falling into the sea

Nervous drivers look away. It’s early August but we’re approaching the Yorkshire coast in driving rain and a soupy sea mist. Lightning strikes the East Riding and inches of water bring the traffic to a second gear crawl on the M62. The coast road rises and falls sharply across the Moors, so much so that I keep expecting to see a bus grounded on the crest of a hill or a humpbacked bridge.

Fishermen's cottages at Robin Hood Bay

Fishermen's cottages at Robin Hood Bay

The descent into Robin Hood’s Bay comes as a surprise. A cobbled roundabout has signs warning of a dead end and a one-in-three gradient. It’s so steep here it brings to mind Edinburgh’s Old Town where houses built into the slope have four storeys at the front and many more at the back. We creep down the bank, testing the brakes, hoping no one is coming the other way. We get as far as the village shop and snap on the handbrake. One family, grabbing duvets and dog baskets from a Volvo estate has brought Robin Hood’s Bay to a standstill. I try to reverse, but a Volkswagen Golf with Dutch plates is already inches from my bumper, with a chain of cars behind. There’s nothing to do but wait. Twenty minutes later I execute a three point turn, narrowly avoiding the polished cobbles of the slipway and Dollies sweet shop.

The fishermen’s cottages were built cheek-by-jowl into the steep cliffs so you’d struggle to get a bicycle between them, let alone a car. This means there’s little in the way of parking and nothing close to the cottages. So every Saturday families in North Face raincoats, Hills hats and Crocs troop through the village weighed down with fishing rods, wine racks, beach towels and dinghies.

Despite its diminutive size, Robin Hood’s Bay draws visitors from across the world. During our week’s stay I’ve heard Spanish, Italian, German and Japanese being spoken, and accents ranging as far afield as South Africa, Australia and Canada in the café and grocer’s store. Perhaps it’s the name – no one really knows why it’s called Robin Hood’s Bay, by the way – but I suspect it’s really the irresistible Whisky Galore-type smuggling stories. The village dates back to the Dark Ages, but many of the stone cottages – built in the local honey-coloured sandstone – were built in the 17th century. We’re staying in Auburn Cottage which proudly bears the date 1652 above the door. It’s incredible to think Charles I had been executed just three years before friends and family popped round with a yucca plant for the Auburn Cottage housewarming.

The Robin Hood’s Bay Museum is run by volunteers and admission is free, but a donation helps to keep the stories alive. It details the village’s constant fight against the elements, as well as its notoriety for smuggling, in models, drawings, documents and photographs. The fight against the elements captures my imagination.

Wainwright's BarIt’s estimated that Robin Hood’s Bay has lost 200 houses to the sea in the last 200 years. In the 1780s 22 cottages toppled over the cliff and there is an account from the Daily Express in 1946 of a Mrs Florence Skelton who was having a cup of tea in her front room when her back room went over the cliff. The problem is the area’s geology. All along this coast – Scarborough, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay – the North Sea is nibbling away at the land. A huge seawall was built at Robin Hood’s Bay in 1975, but there have been further works in the last decade and more are planned. Just a few hundred yards along the shore fields are crumbling and sliding into the ocean. Mud is polished smooth as marble by rainwater running off the fields, as well as the tide, and it is possible to see uprooted brambles and bushes that have tumbled alongside.

Smuggling was a dangerous business which has often been romanticised by films and books. The volunteers at the museum are keen to point out the desperate situation faced by families on the Yorkshire coast, perhaps in light of this week’s riots.

‘They were often struggling just to feed themselves.’

They fished for food and did what they could to sell the surplus. We’re staying in Tommy Baxter Street. Tommy’s wife walked miles across the Moors to Pickering to sell their fish at market. This was real poverty and hardship and not the mischief seen in Whisky Galore. Although I was told proudly that the smugglers ‘ran rings’ round the Customs men.

The smugglers were avoiding duty. A pound of tea cost a few pennies in Holland, but tax escalated the cost to £1 in Britain. Smugglers risked hanging or deportation to the colonies, but it was a lucrative business. Robin’s Hood Bay is still a rabbit’s warren of cottages to this day, so outsiders would have had little or no chance of finding tobacco, brandy or lace. Cellars and lofts were connected and tunnels ran under the streets.

So, were they still finding loot that had been lost or hidden and forgotten? Just a few years back, according to the museum guide, coins were found in a pouch in the cliff. Eventually prices fell and the knowledge and numbers of Customs men grew. The profit was no longer worth the risk.

The museum has a simple but funny exhibit for children. It’s a model of a fishwife in contemporary clothes with a tray of food and odds and ends. The children have to find the smuggled items.

‘Go on, have a look under her skirt,’ the guide says.

There’s even a sign encouraging you to do so!

Erosion: looking north from Robin Hood's Bay

Erosion: looking north from Robin Hood's Bay

Of course, fishing remains a dangerous profession even in the 21st century, but there was little hope for men who went overboard in the past. The mortuary is used for museum exhibits and is full of great documentary evidence. I can see the attachments for the late-Victorian gas lights and wonder how many poor drowned souls were brought here. I knew that mariners’ tattoos were often the only form of identification when their bodies were washed up. But their heavy woollen sweaters were knitted with unique local designs which would often help the coroner in his duties and link a man to a village. The museum records 100 shipwrecks off Robin Hood’s Bay since 1820, but many more vessels would have gone down without note and forever remain a mystery.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a great base for exploring this coast. If you want to stay local you can explore the fossil-rich coast, but you can go a little further afield to Scarborough or Whitby or York. Whitby makes much of its literary credentials and attracts many Goths keen to explore the Abbey’s connections with Dracula. The view from the Abbey is wonderful and even on a summer’s day it is atmospheric among the broken, jagged stones. But the town has much more to offer. There are fishing trips, speedboat rides, trips on the old lifeboat and the Captain Cook Museum.

Scarborough isn’t the kind of town to make a fuss about its heritage, though it has a surprising amount to go with the rock and chips. High above the sweeping golden sands at the foot of the castle is the church of St Mary. A bunch of wild flowers lies at the foot of an unremarkable gravestone, blackened by time and weather. This is the grave of Anne Bronte. Below, beside the harbour, is a pub called The Richard the Third. It’s built from the local sandstone and hosted the ill-fated Richard for the night sometime in the 1480s. Either side of the pub are coffee shops, rock emporiums and Winking Willie’s chip shop. In America a whole city would’ve sprung up around the pub where King Dickey supped a pint. In Yorkshire, as in much of the UK, we can be complacent we have so much history.

Back in Robin Hood’s Bay cheers ring out from the slipway. A group of men in orange T-shirts, legs plastered in mud, have completed the Coast to Coast Walk. They run for the fingers of rock that jut into the bay. Their journey can only be complete when they splash into the North Sea. They gather for pints and photos, OS maps flapping in plastic around their necks.

‘We’ve done it lads.’

Despite the recession, Robin Hood’s Bay is doing good business. Rain slants from a darkening sky, but it doesn’t stop the tills ringing. People are buying Yorkshire beer, Whitby ice-cream, Whitby jet, fish from the Bay. Umbrellas unfurl and collars are turned against the wind, but people are laughing and chatting, determined to have a good time.

Finally, when it’s time to leave Robin Hood’s Bay, there’s an unstoppable procession of day-trippers and tourists, car engines roaring up the steep bank in first gear. It’s like the Italian Job in Yorkshire. But instead of the gold, they’re wondering if they should jettison the golf clubs or the kayaks to make those final few yards to the clifftop…….

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