The Sea Cliffs of Yorkshire

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Saltburn Sands and Saltburn Pier. An old man prepares to descend the ciff on concrete steps [Ask for #270.496.]


Saltburn-by-the-Sea. [Ask for #270.496.]

Over the millennia the North Sea has sliced off the eastern edge of the North York Moors as with a knife, exposing its hard rocky core for all to see—33 miles of continuous pinkish-tan cliffs never less than a hundred feet high and sometimes over 600 feet. For the most part they are nearly devoid of settlement; empty grassland separates widely scattered farmsteads, the cliff-tops reachable only by the Cleveland Way long distance path. Tiny villages shoe-horn into niches in the cliffs, their painted stone cottages terracing up alleys formed by steps and sidewalks. Part of the North York Moors National Park since 1952, this line of cliffs and its villages remains in pristine condition.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Straithes, VIew of this fishing village under sea cliffs. [Ask for #133.068.]


Straithes. [Ask for #133.068.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Ravenscar, The cliffs that surround Robin Hoods Bay [Ask for #270.114.]


The cliffs that surround Robin Hoods Bay as seen from Ravenscar. [Ask for #270.114.]

There is one exception to the general emptiness of the cliff regions: the town of Whitby, a crowded little city of 13,000 set in a river gorge that slashes through the half-way point of the cliffs. Its busy streets line its wide harbor and cut into the cliff-sides, cobblestoned surfaces climbing past centuries-old cottages. Above it all sits the ruins of a medieval abbey, built to commemorate a much earlier abbey where, in 664, the British churches accepted Roman (rather than Celtic) rules. The original abbey was sited here as protection from Vikings, a failure as it turned out, as the 160 foot cliffs, although intimidating from the sea, could be easily walked up via harbor paths. Steps still climb the cliffs from the busy town center, while sand beaches stretch to its west under cliffs only slightly lower.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Whitby, West Cliff, View from cliff-top park, towards the harbor and the abbey, with Abbey Steps running uphill at the center. [Ask for #270.173.]


Whitby. View from its cliff-top park, towards the harbor and the abbey, with Abbey Steps running uphill at the center. [Ask for #270.173.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Whitby, Whitby Abbey (EH), 11th c. monastery, viewed over meadow [Ask for #270.136.]


Whitby Abbey (English Heritage). [Ask for #270.136.]

Whitby’s original site, chosen for protection against sea-faring freebooters while maintaining access to the sea, reflected an age in which nearly all commerce was sea-borne but governments were still too weak to protect either this commerce or its lesser ports-of-call. It was for this reason that the fishing village of Fylingdales was founded on the cliff-tops rather that the base where they kept their boats, a half-mile walk down 200 foot cliffs. Although the village’s medieval church remains at the old village’s location, by Tudor times the villagers felt safe enough to move right down to the cliff bottom, building their cottages in rocky shelves cut by a little beck.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Robin Hood's Bay, Village churchyard, sitting atop the cliff at the village's medieval site. [Ask for #270.135.]


The original site of Fylingdales, once a cliff-top fishing village, is marked by its medieval churchyard. [Ask for #270.135.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Robin Hood's Bay, View of the village from across the bay [Ask for #270.131.]


Robin Hoods Bay, a fishing villlage terracing down the cliff. [Ask for #270.131.]

They called their new settlement Robin Hood’s Bay, and told a story of how the Nottinghamshire hero had driven out the pirates and brought safety to the fisher-folk. They built solid stone cottages set into the cliff-sides around the harbor, reachable by a maze of stone paths and steps. The sturdy construction of the cottages and village indicate a higher standard of living than you’d expect from people living off the sale of fish—a sign that the smuggling did not completely stop when the pirates left. There’s a pub and hotel by the harbor, several b&bs, gift shops, and tea shops scattered about its middle terraces, and a wonderful local museum hidden way up on its highest shelf. The museum, set in the Victorian-era mortuary, is filled with local history memorabilia on shipping, fishing, and smuggling, as well as the colorful banner of the Robin Hood and Little John Friendly Society. The cliffs, easily reached from the harbor-side pub, are noted for their fossils and rocky tidal pools. Access to the town is strictly by foot from the cliffs above.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Robin Hood's Bay, Village lane climbs cliff, lined by stone walls and cottages [Ask for #270.066.]


In Robin Hood's Bay a village lane climbs the cliff, lined by stone walls and cottages [Ask for #270.066.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Robin Hood's Bay, Village lane climbs cliff with steps, lined by stone walls and cottages [Ask for #270.067.]


This lane in Robin Hoods Bay uses steps to climb up to the town's museum. [Ask for #270.067.]

Fourteen miles to the northwest the village of Staithes has a similar history, and a similar situation. Here a tiny beck has cut a substantial canyon through the cliffs, and the fishing village climbs up its near-vertical south wall, then jumps across the stream on a foot bridge to fill a narrow shelf beneath its north wall. The sizeable village contains seven restaurants and cafes (including three pubs) as well as gift shops and a gallery specializing in the work of the Staithes Group, artists who found inspiration here in the late 19th century. As with Robin Hoods Bay the surrounding cliffs’ bases are easily reached from the town center, and are known for their ammonite fossils, which resemble chambered nautiluses. Two miles to the west (along the Cleveland Way) are the Boulby Cliffs, at 660 feet the tallest in England. While you can drive into the village and drop someone off you cannot park there; once again, you must park up the hill and walk down.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Straithes, Fishing boats in creek. [Ask for #133.076.]


Straithes. [Ask for #133.076.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Runswick Bay, Old fishing village terraces up from the cliff foot; old harbor and lifesaving station [Ask for #270.474.]


Lifesaving Station at Runswick Bay's harbor. [Ask for #270.474.]

If you want to drive down the cliff to park in a village center, visit Runswick Bay, two miles southeast of Staithes. It’s smaller than the other village and with fewer facilities, but still features the trim stone cottages, whitewashed and grouped tightly around narrow paths and steps. It also has a substantial sand beach about a hundred yards south of the parking lot. Nearby are the ruins of Port Mulgrove, a substantial iron mining settlement in the 19th century but now nothing more than abandoned breakwaters. It’s on National Trust lands, at the base of a 300 foot cliff that must be negotiated on a steep, rough path. It is said to offer the finest fossil hunting in the area, despite (or perhaps because of) its inaccessibility. Look for gray nodules and split them open with a hammer; you might just find a complete ammonite.

Unlike Port Mulgrove, the mining town of Skinningrove remains intact and populous, snug in its gorge near the northwest end of the cliffs. Its works did not close until the 1970s, and the town has the feel of a Victorian industrial settlement down on its luck rather than a Tudor fishing and smuggling village. What it lacks in restored quaintness, however, it makes up in easy parking, nearly no tourists, and fine cliff access. The town is worth a stop for its excellent mining museum, the Cleveland Ironestone Museum, where an iron mine and its entrance tunnel have been repaired and opened to the public.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Port Mulgrave, Cliff-top lane and farm passes by footpath entrance to National Trust property [Ask for #270.477.]


The path to Port Mulgrave starts at this cliff-top lane. [Ask for #270.477.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Skinningrove, Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum. Inside the mine tunnel. [Ask for #270.459.]


Inside the mine tunnel at Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum in Skinningrove. [Ask for #270.459.]

Early iron mining villages such as Skinningrove, Port Mulgrave, and even Staithes relied on their ports to get their ore to markets, but by the late 19th century this wasn’t cutting it. A railroad was built following the cliffs, about a half-mile inland—actually two railroads, the Whitby, Redcar and Middlesborough Union for the north half, and the Scarborough and Whitby Railroad from Whitby southward. The latter, never profitable because of its steep grades and sharp turns, is now a paved bicycle path known as the Cinder Track. Just outside Whitby it crosses the valley of the River Esk on a brick viaduct carried 120 feet above the river by 13 slim brick arches, whose broad views were praised by Bram Stoker in Dracula. From there it twists and turns through the empty farmlands above the cliffs, passing Robin Hoods Bay at five miles and reaching its literal and figurative high point at ten miles — Ravenscar, atop 600 foot cliffs.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Whitby, The Cinder Track, a rail-trail, Signpost on an old railroad tie; River Esk Viaduct in bkgd [Ask for #270.207.]


Entrance to the Cinder Track Bicycle Path, marked by signs on an upright railroad tie, at the River Esk Bridge, at Whitby. [Ask for #270.207.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Whitby, The Cinder Track, a rail-trail, The bicycle trail crosses the River Esk on a high brick viaduct [Ask for #270.206.]


The Cinder Track Bicycle Path, a rail-trail, crosses the River Esk on a high brick viaduct. [Ask for #270.206.]

The Victorian era railroad owners expected Ravenscar to be a big hit among tourists what with its astonishing views, and developed it accordingly. Alas, English holiday-makers, who love their beaches above even the finest views, did not appreciate having to climb a 600 foot cliff path to reach a stony shingle, and ignored it in droves. Today it’s a scatter of 19th century urban architecture among the fields, including a railway station and hotel (now a tea shop). The views, however, remain stunning, and unlike the slightly higher cliffs at Boulby, easily reached by auto; the National Trust maintains a visitors center here.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Ravenscar, Signpoast on The Cleveland Way, a long distance footpath, points to the Ravenscar Tea Rooms, as the path follows cliffs past an isolated farmstead. [Ask for #270.122.]


Signpost on a grassy clifftop show the way to a tea room in what's left of Ravenscar. In the Victorian Age this spot was platted for vacation homes; this house is probably one of them. The Cleveland Way is a long distance foot path following the cliffs. [Ask for #270.122.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Sea Cliffs, Ravenscar, Spring wildflowers frame a view of Robin Hoods Bay [Ask for #270.129.]


View from Ravenscar. [Ask for #270.129.]

Fine little cities anchor the ends of the North York Moors cliffs. On the northwest it’s Saltburn-by-the-Sea, a classic seaside town with a wide sand beach. A mile’s walk from the beach leads you to the top of 300 foot cliffs, and these cliffs frame all views over the broad, flat sands. The attractive Victorian town sits atop its own hundred-foot cliff and is linked to the beach by an gravity-powered inclined railway; the top car has its large tank filled with water, whose weight causes it to sink down the steep track and pull the lower car up.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Saltburn Sands and Saltburn Pier. An old man prepares to descend the ciff on concrete steps [Ask for #270.496.]


Steps lead down the cliff at Saltburn-by-the-Sea. [Ask for #270.496.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Saltburn Sands and Saltburn Pier. Victorian era cliff lift, gravitiy powered, leads to pier. [Ask for #270.494.]


Victorian era cliff lift, gravitiy powered, leads to pier at Saltburn-by-Sea. [Ask for #270.494.]

Scarborough, however, is the crown jewel of the cliffs of the North York Moors. A lively little city of some 50,000, it guards the southern end of the Jurassic formations with a formidable castle atop a cliff-ringed promontory 280 feet above the town. Its keep survives as well as its gatehouse and most of its walls, all built of fine golden stone with wide views over the town. The castle cliffs protrude almost into the harbor, with paved paths leading steeply down. Here pleasure craft and fishing boats bob at anchor inside a tidal harbor marked by a whitewashed stone lighthouse, lined with buildings that alternate between distinguished history and gaudy vulgarity. Beyond that the Victorian city center perches 200 feet above spectacular sand beaches. This marks the end of the North York Moors, although a differing geology continues to form sea cliffs from younger Cretaceous rocks for another twenty miles.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Scarborough City, Old Harbour, View across harbor to the castle [Ask for #270.535.]


Scarborough Old Harbor.[Ask for #270.535.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Scarborough City, Scarborough Castle (EH), View from the gatehouse towards the keep. [Ask for #270.501.]


Scarborough Castle (English Heritage). View from the gatehouse towards the keep. [Ask for #270.501.]

At Scarborough’s center you will find The Rotunda, one of Britain’s finest science museums, founded and designed in 1829 by the great geologist William Smith. Smith, a canal surveyor, had pioneered the principles by which strata are sequenced by way of fossil groups, and had used his principles to construct the first geological map of England in 1815. The museum now proudly displays his achievements with displays carefully restored from their 19th century originals, including Smith’s original cross-section of Yorkshire’s cliffs ringing the top of the cylindrical main building.

ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Scarborough City, The Rotunda Museum, Geology museum at town center designed by William Smith (1829). [Ask for #270.524.]


Scarborough's Rotunda Museum of Geology, founded by the great early geologist William Smith in 1829. [Ask for #270.524.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Scarborough City, The Rotunda Museum, Geology museum at town center designed by William Smith (1829). Interior. Frieze designed by Smith in 1830 shows the local geology in cross-section [Ask for #270.520.]


This geologic map in Scarborough's Rotunda Museum was made by William Smith, the inventor of the geologic map. One of the earliest such maps in the world, it shows the local geology in cross-section. [Ask for #270.520.]
ENG: Yorkshire & Humberside Region, North Yorkshire, North Yorkshire Coast, Whitby, West Cliff, Panoramic view from the castle walls, over the town [Ask for #270.538.]


A panoramic view of Scarborough from its castle. [Ask for #270.538.]
Article by Jim Hargan
Originally published in British Heritage, September 2013
Jim's Brit
Travel + History
Contact Jim at:   jim@JimsBrit.com
Copyright ©2016, James A Hargan. All rights reserved.
Contact the webmaster at maven@harganonline.com