20 May 2023

A walk on the beach at
Robin Hood’s Bay and
searching for smugglers

A walk in May along the beach at Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Living in Stony Stratford means I am perhaps as far from the coast as one can be in England. The nearest beach is at Southend-on-Sea in Essex, a two-hour drive away by car, and even longer by public transport.

Although I was back in Dublin a few weeks ago, the last time I had a walk on a beach until last week was in Courtown, Morriscastle and Kilmuckridge more than a year ago during a day in Co Wexford (6 March 2022), and before that in Skerries and Loughshinny in north Co Dublin the day before (5 March 2022).

Since my early childhood, I have always been invigorated by walks on the seashore and on the beach, and I miss the sound of the sea, the smell of the sea air, and the sea breeze blowing on my face.

I was missing all of these until last week. Charlotte and I were spending a few days in York, and one day we caught the bus to the North Yorkshire coast. We spent a few hours in Whitby, where we visited Whitby Abbey and Saint Mary’s Church on the East Cliff, walked around the town, paused for lunch, and caught a glimpse of the beach at the harbour.

Then, later in the afternoon, Charlotte brought me to Robin Hood’s Bay, a pretty village with a long beach, set in a sheltered bay beneath towering cliffs on the Yorkshire coast. Robin Hood’s Bay is a place where Charlotte spent many of her childhood holidays, and it is one of Yorkshire’s true jewels.

Robin Hood’s Bay is known to local people as Bay Town. It is a small fishing village and bay in the North York Moors National Park, 10 km (6 miles) south of Whitby and 24 km (15 miles) north of Scarborough.

Brooding cliffs tower above the beach at Robin Hood’s Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Brooding cliffs tower above the beach this small fishing village with its quaint charming cottages that spill down to the edge of the sea. From the cliff top, we made our way down through the twisting village, with little cobbled alleyways and picturesque dwellings.

Smugglers would slip through the same narrow winding streets of this fishing village in the 18th century with their illicit trade, following the network of passageways with tea, silk and tobacco.

Over coffee in the café at the Old Coastguard Station and Visitor Centre, where Charlotte often stayed as a child, we learned how Robin Hood’s Bay is one of the best spots for fossil hunting in Britain, with some incredible discoveries across the years across the golden sands. We read too about the incredible fossil finds and a little about the geology of Robin Hood’s Bay.

There too we heard how smuggling was rife all along the Yorkshire coast in the late 18th century. Vessels from the continent brought contraband that was distributed by contacts on land and the operations were financed by syndicates who made profits without the risks taken by the seafarers and the villagers. The contraband smuggled into Yorkshire from the Netherlands and France to avoid the duty included tea, gin, rum, brandy and tobacco.

Two excise cutters, the Mermaid and the Eagle, were outgunned in 1773 and chased out of the bay by three smuggling vessels, a schooner and two shallops. A pitched battle between smugglers and excise officials took place in the dock over 200 casks of brandy and geneva (gin) and 15 bags of tea in 1779.

I suppose gives an extra resonance or new significance to Yorkshire tea.

Many houses in the village were built between 1650 and 1750 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Many of the houses in the village were built between 1650 and 1750 and whole families were involved in the fishing industry. Fishing reached its peak in the mid-19th century, but started to decline in the late 19th century.

These days, instead of fishing and smuggling, the economy of Robin Hood’s Bay is vibrant thanks to the cafés, pubs, restaurants, galleries and craft shops and the income generated by tourism.

Essential repair work to the sea wall is being carried out, which means the sea wall path and the picnic area are closed until Autumn. But all the cottages remain accessible, all shops and businesses are open as usual, and we were able to spend some time at low tide in the late afternoon strolling along the sandy beach and in and out through the rocks and the rockpools.

Robin Hood’s Bay is built in a fissure between two steep cliffs. The headlands at each end of the beach are known as Ness Point or North Cheek (north) and Old Peak or South Cheek (south).

From the beach and the tiny harbour, we wandered back up through the maze of tiny, narrow and twisting cobbled streets and alleyways, imagining which houses had been the homes of sailors and fishermen, smugglers and press gangs, and wondering whether we might stumble across some of the tunnels or secret underground passages leading to hidden warehouses or linking the houses.

Wandering through the maze of tiny, narrow and twisting cobbled streets and alleyways in Robin Hood’s Bay (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Bram Stoker set some of his scenes in Dracula (1897) in Robin Hood’s Bay. The writer visited the area recreating the steep steps and the sightings of the red eyes, the ship that ran aground with the immense dog, the dog being none other than Dracula.

We all know, of course, that Dracula never visited either Robin Hood’s Bay or Whitby, and that he is not buried in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s beside Whitby Abbey. But did Robin Hood ever visit Robin Hood’s Bay?

‘Robin Hoode Baye’ is mentioned by John Leland in 1536, when he describes it as ‘a fischer tounlet of 20 bootes with Dok or Bosom of a mile yn length.’ There is a reference too to ‘Robyn Hoodis Baye’ in 1544. The place is also named in an old North Sea chart published by Waghenaer in 1586 and now in the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam.

The ballad ‘The Noble Fisherman’ tells of Robin Hood visiting Scarborough, taking a job as a fisherman, and using his skills in archery to defeat French pirates who were pillaging the fishermen’s boats along the coast. The pirates surrendered and Robin Hood used half the loot to build homes for poor people in the village now called Robin Hood’s Bay.

Or, so the story goes.

But this ballad is first referred to only in the 17th century at the earliest, three or four centuries after Robin Hood is said to have lived in Sherwood Forest.

Perhaps Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Little John, Will Scarlett and all the other merry band needed more than I can imagine to get away from the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Midlands for a day by the sea and a walk on the beach.

The economy of Robin Hood’s Bay is vibrant these days thanks to tourism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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