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A cliff adventure

Hayburn Wyke Credit Rob DingleHayburn Wyke Credit Rob Dingle

Part two by guest writer Kevin Rushby

Look at any map of England and note how a bony shoulder of land sticks out into the North Sea, a perfect target for any Arctic gale to smash itself against. That is the North Yorkshire coast. In the days of sailing ships it was undoubtedly the worst place in the world to be a mariner. On bad days vast waves will batter the villages, tearing at the sea walls with freezing claws. The wind on the clifftops can be both exhilarating and terrifying. Hats disappear into the sky.

Our walk from Staithes to Scarborough gave us a first night in Dunsley Hall near Sandsend, a village that makes a pretty good storm-watching point – if you get the right weather. In the 19th century the beach here was often littered with wrecks, the locals carting away useful timber and equipment. Many fine cottages were built with salvaged materials.

New Year's Day 1857 was a typical example. It began quietly with calm weather that lured many ships out. In Whitby sea captain George Brown set sail in the collier, Amelia, heading north to pick up coal in Sunderland. He was expecting a gentle voyage. Instead, that night his ship appeared off Runswick Bay in a howling gale, the sails torn to shreds and the men clinging desperately to the masts. They were hoping to get thrown on to the beach, but they hit the rocks. The ship was smashed to pieces. In fact the only item ever found was George Brown’s sea chest, washed up a day later. The villagers recognised the name because George was a Runswick boy, gone to Whitby to make a career as a sailor. By the time that storm blew itself out, more than 100 ships had gone down and dozens were drowned. Such occurrences were not unusual in the days before marine engines and storm warnings.

Heading out of Sandsend on our second day we passed through Whitby and up the 199 steps to St Mary’s Church where there is a memorial to the local lifeboatmen who drowned in one tragic storm on Feb 9, 1861. That day over 200 ships foundered on the east coast, but it was in attempting to rescue men next to Whitby pier that the lifeboat flipped over, drowning all but one of the 13 crew. Like many of the shipwreck horror stories of those times, the drama happened right in front of huge crowds of people lined up on the sea defences.

The section of cliff between Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay is one of the most beautiful, and there is a wreck to be spotted: the trawler Sarb-J, sitting at the base of the cliff a mile before Robin Hood’s Bay where we spent our second night.

It was the third day, however, that I loved best. After the epic climb up the cliff at Ravenscar, I was ready to appreciate the prospect many shipwreck survivors faced in past times: climb or die. There are many stories of sailors being found, half dead, at the top, too exhausted to crawl to the nearest house. For others, even less fortunate, their bodies were washed by the tide into Sailor’s Grave, a lonely rocky pool close to Scarborough.

You will meet few walkers along here in winter. At Hayburn Wyke there is a beautiful waterfall to the rocky beach. And then, after a long day, we arrived in Scarborough, gasping for tea and cakes, and with a deep respect for this magnificent and powerful coast.

Kevin Rushby is a freelance journalist, author, film maker, and The Guardian's Explorer columnist. You can follow Kevin on twitter and Instagram.

Discover further information on the North York Moors National Park coastline plus find details and route descriptions of the coastal section of the Cleveland Way National Trail.

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Kevin stayed at Dunsley Hall in the National Park, near Whitby and Clarence Dene Bed & Breakfast in Robin Hood’s Bay where the Victoria Hotel provided an evening meal.

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