North Yorkshire and Cleveland
A Sheltered Haven
Sheltered from the north winds by Lingrow Knowle, the quaint village of Runswick Bay with its white painted cottages and neat gardens looks out on one of the loveliest bays in the north of England.
This picturesque bay, fringed with golden sand, provided safe anchorage for fishing boats for more than 600 years and when the industry began to decline, its unique setting attracted first artists and then holidaymakers.
For years, the inhabitants retained their insularity – the only link with the outside world being the precipitous winding road. Some of the men worked in the alum quarries at Kettleness and later at the Grinkle Ironstone mines but it was not until the coming of the railway that the village began to change. New houses were built at the top of the bank and slowly the villagers moved away. By the 1940s the shops had closed, fishing had declined and Runswick Bay had become a holiday village.
Today the village has only 40 permanent residents so although a popular resort in summer, the winter months offer peace and tranquillity.
The original village of Runswick Bay lay slightly to the north on the other side of Lingrow Beck but in one tragic night in 1664 the village slid into the sea.
Many of the villagers were attending a wake when a latecomer noticed the steps to the house slip away under his feet. Looking out, the alarmed mourners saw the ground slide several feet down the cliff. Escaping from the back of the house, they roused the rest of the village, most of whom ran to safety.
By morning every house had fallen into the sea, except one – the house of the dead man.
No-one knows which house survived – some believe it to be Jubilee Cottage, others think the original house no longer stands. The village was rebuilt but the land has continued to slip, so in 1970 a new sea wall built to prevent further damage. 1962 saw the opening of the new road, leaving the old one as a pleasant winding path from the top car park.
Around Runswick Bay
Although Runswick Bay is today very much a holiday village, if you take time to wander through the narrow passages and climb the steps, you can easily imagine what life used to be like in this once busy fishing village.
Standing in the centre of the Cockpit, with an uninterrupted view of the bay from its window, is the Institute. Opened in 1870, this was, and still is, the centre of village life, providing a meeting place for the fishermen in bad weather, a hall for all kinds of entertainments and a small hospital where, after a shipwreck, the locals provided blankets and hot drinks for the sailors.
Until the local people began to move away, the village had its own bakery and village stores. The bakehouse was a wooden building alongside Ebor House, where the women brought their bread to be baked. Around the corner was the village stores (now The Anchorage).
Although the houses are modernised and many have been considerably changed, a few in this street still outwardly resemble the fishermen’s cottages. Most would have had one main room downstairs which was both kitchen and living room and also the place where mussels and limpets were prepared for baiting the lines. Upstairs there were two bedrooms with a ladder leading to an attic where the boys of the family slept.
The pathway bears to the left in front of the gardens of the Chapel Cottages. Although now a blaze of colour in summer, the fishermen used the miniature gardens throughout the village for growing vegetables.
The Thatched Cottage is now a Grace and Favour residence of the Marquis of Normanby but with its unrivalled view of the bay it was formerly the coastguard’s house.
From here you can look back across the sands to the small green huts hiding in the slopes behind the bay. These early “second homes” were built in the 1920s by professional families from the West Riding who came for their annual holidays.
The tiny Methodist Chapel was built in 1829 by the women of the village. Inside, a poem on the wall commemorates their hard work.
Behind the chapel is one of the two village springs where the women came each day to collect water. It was not until the 1950s that all the houses in the village were connected to the mains water supply. In the garden of Spout House, is an anchor from one of the many ships wrecked in the bay.
A feature of Runswick Bay which has all but disappeared is the essential ‘bink’. Every cottage had a 2’6” high stone called a bink standing outside the front door on which to do the washing and any other outdoor tasks. Unfortunately only a few remain – one can be seen outside Ocean View.
From the top of the village is a spectacular view over the pantiled roofs and across the bay to the alum quarries of Kettleness.
Many of the cottages on the south side of the village have been rebuilt. Sea Cliffe stands on the site of one of the most important buildings in the village – the Paraffin House. The villagers came here regularly to replenish their supplies but it must have been a major feat carrying the paraffin here from the road.
Jubilee Cottage has changed considerably but the bare ground which lay at the side of the house was an important gathering place for the villagers. Here the children waited to throw confetti when a wedding party passed on their way back from the church at Hinderwell and in return, the best man threw pennies to them. At the top of the steps the bride and groom were greeted by an elderly resident who offered a jug of wine to the new couple, to welcome them into the village.
Continue on along the pathway to explore the south side of the village and return to the Cockpit at the Royal Hotel.
The Bountiful Sea
For centuries life in the village revolved around the fishing industry which by the 1840s supported 20 cobles. Fishing was a family concern with the women and children gutting and salting the fish when the catch was landed and preparing the mussels for bait.
In August the fishermen joined the herring fleet, taking their catches to Yarmouth. The herring houses which stood on the site of the car park were used to store dried fish for the village’s own use.
By the 1920s the industry was declining; some fishermen made extra money by taking tourists out in their boats and a few worked at the Grinkle Ironstone mines. After the last war many looked for a future outside Runswick and by 1950 regular fishing had come to an end. Today one full time fisherman operates from Runswick.
Smuggling provided another source of income as the village’s isolation made it easy for fishing boats to land illegal goods. The cargoes were hidden in the caves and woods and then taken according to local legend, the smugglers were forewarned of danger by a large white owl which perched on the inn sign and hooted until the danger had passed.
Shipwrecks off the bay provided a constant supply of coal and wood, for often a salvage company would offload the cargo in an attempt to refloat the ship. On once occasion the cargo of the Carula was washed overboard and the villagers were paid to collect it form the beach. At 1d per pit prop and 9d for a copper rivet it was well worth the effort.
At 4 a.m. on 1st July, 1978, the people of Runswick Bay stood on the beach to watch their lifeboat put to sea for the last time. After 112 years service to fishermen, sailors and holidaymakers, an era had come to an end.
The first lifeboat, The Sheffield, had come to Runswick in 1866 and was manned by a crew who had to be able to row for miles in stormy sea. The launching of the boat was a feat in itself: the children placed lanterns on the beach to mark the way then the boat was pushed on rollers to the sea edge by anyone available to help.
Perhaps the most famous rescue occurred in 1901. The men had gone out to fish in calm weather but a gale blew up. The lifeboat was needed but the crew and most of the launchers were at sea, so in spite of the harsh weather and strength required, the women and old men of the village launched the boat and stood by until the cobles were safely in.
Today the RNLI operate a small inshore rescue craft from Staithes but the people of Runswick have provided their own craft to go to the aid of holidaymakers and the lifeboat station has become a store for fishing gear.
Like most seafaring communities, the people of Runswick Bay were very superstitious and many local legends grew up associated with the fishing industry.
Victorian writers mention children lighting fires on the cliff top during a storm and dancing and singing:
“Souther Wind, souther,
And Blow father home to mother.”
They also maintain the wives of fishermen sacrificing a cat when the fleet returned safely after a severe storm.
Many of the older people of the coastal villages can still recall the omens of disaster that the fishermen respected. If a fisherman saw a woman whilst walking down to his coble in the morning, he would return home and not go fishing that day. Similarly, if someone talked of pigs to a fisherman he knew his catch would be too small for it to be worthwhile him putting to sea.
Perhaps the most famous legend is that connected with the caves, in the southern part of the bay, where the hob lived. Hobs or goblins seem to have haunted the Yorkshire moors and dales as they feature in many local legends. Runswick’s hob was thought to cure whooping cough, so mothers took their ailing children there and called out:
“Hob – hole Hob!
My bairn’s getten’t kink-cough:
Tak’t off! Tak’t off!"