Robin Hood's Bay - a picture perfect village with a fascinating past
PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 May 2017 | UPDATED: 19:00 03 August 2018
Richard Darn discovers a coastal gem in Yorkshire.
Let’s not beat around the bush – Robin Hood’s Bay has cornered the market as far as romantic fishing villages go. Attractive old cottages and steep cobbled lanes tumbling down the hill to the beach, surrounded by a horseshoe of cliffs creating a haven from the stormy ocean. It all looks sublime.
On the day of my visit the sea was in an angry mood.
En route I stopped off at Scarborough where the strong northerly winds were whipping up huge waves which crashed mercilessly into sea defences.
It was easy to see why tranquil Baytown – as locals call it – was and remains a fine place to ride out such a tempest and why it was once a more important fishing port than Whitby.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Why is it called Robin Hood’s Bay? I’m delighted to say that nobody knows so any guess is as good as another. One theory is that the name was actually the moniker of an ancient forest spirit and was used widely throughout England. Another suggests the Sherwood outlaw arrived to drive off a raiding French ship, but not before looting it and dividing the proceeds among the poor.
Who knows, but a team of highly paid marketing types could not have come with a more inspired bit of branding.
What we do know is that the name first appears in a 1530s document in which the village is described as ‘a fischer townelet of 20 bootes with Dok or Bosom of a mile yn length’. The chief resident in a settlement of 50 cottages was the wonderfully named Matthew Storm, whose descendants still live in the area.
Baytown’s history may have started pretty recently, but the Fylingdales area of which it is a part was once a bustling Bronze Age landscape supporting many more people than it does today. When a fire devastated moorland fourteen years ago, scores of 3,000 year old features were revealed, including a stone inscribed with a pattern which archaeologists said could be a map. It made national headlines and after being recorded it was reburied in the same spot rather than being carted off to a London museum.
Celts, Romans, Anglo Saxons and the Norse have also made their mark, but these days the only invaders are tourists, drawn by the magnificence of the place. Not only is the village on the Cleveland Way, but it’s also the final stop on the Coast to Coast path that traverses northern England from St Bees in Cumbria.
Lovely places to stay include the amazing Boggle Hole Youth Hostel, 20 minutes walk to the south and you can indulge in locally brewed Baytown Ales and sample the produce of artisan coffee roasters, Baytown Coffee.
Besides being irresistibly charming, Robin Hood’s Bay’s other great claim to fame is that it was Yorkshire’s ultimate smuggling village and it’s a deserved reputation. A good place to immerse yourself in these cloak and dagger stories is the museum, which is housed in the old coroner’s room and mortuary (free admission, dead or alive, but check for opening times).
The smuggler’s heyday was the 18th century when 80% of all the tea drunk in England was illicit. The village was a natural place to engage in such clandestine activity by virtue of its isolation and marshy hinterland, with the incentive being the hefty taxes imposed by the Government on silk, tobacco, tea and gin to pay for its wars with France.
If you were caught you could face the death penalty and the revenue men were sent in hot pursuit of lawbreakers. But that proved little deterrent to men for whom selling a pound of tea provided a week’s wages and who in any case faced the deadly perils of fishing, or being press ganged into the navy. In truth the whole operation was a village enterprise, involving men, women and children and even workers hired to mine allum (a valuable raw material used to fix dyes, abundant on the North Yorkshire coast). Even the local squire was in on the action and buried contraband in his back garden.
Faced by a wall of silence and scouts on every hill, the tax man faced an impossible task and if he did pay a call he could expect the Baytown welcome of a bucket of boiling water thrown from an upstairs window.
Eventually the trade was reduced as a by-product of victory over Napoleon’s France, which released thousands of troops to tackle the smugglers in their lair.
These days tourism is the source of local prosperity, but that of course started in the 19th century, with posh folk drawn by the drama of the coast and the daring deeds of the smugglers.
Appropriately enough, the town is home to a Victorian Weekend (December 8-10) when visitors can expect to encounter lots of people in top hats and wide frocks and indulge in ghost walks and storytelling and admire the illuminations. It sounds brilliant and it’s enough to prove that timeless Robin Hood’s Bay really is a town for all seasons.