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Staithes, a fine day beside the seaside in North Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 21:10 14 February 2010 | UPDATED: 18:26 05 January 2018

Autumn comes to Cowbar

Autumn comes to Cowbar

Staithes was once one of the largest fishing ports on the northern coast - with one of the smallest beaches. Jo Haywood enjoys a day beside the seaside PHOTOGRAPHS BY MIKE KIPLING

As beaches go, Staithes 18-metre wide sandy cove is a bit on the tiddly side. In fact, it is officially packed if two families, complete with buckets, spades and excitable children, turn up at once.

But that's one of the many good things about this picturesque, yet often overlooked, North Yorkshire resort - it's not overrun with children. Not that there's anything wrong with ice cream-smeared five-year-olds and Frisbee-throwing teens, but it's nice to find a stretch of Yorkshire's coastline that's specifically aimed at grown-ups.

There are numerous bistros, perfect for whiling away the hours over a bottle of wine and a plate (or seven) of fresh, locally-caught seafood; small, chi-chi shops filled with must-have homewares and fashion accessories (yes, I indulged - a set of retro ceramic coasters and a gorgeous scarf, in case you were wondering); and galleries building on the town's already strong artistic heritage and showcasing work from established and upand- coming local artists.

Staithes was once one of the largest fishing ports on England's north coast and an important source of minerals like jet, iron, alum and potash. The first miners had a pretty easy job as cliff erosion brought large quantities of minerals to the surface. But once these easy-pickings were gone, the work became progressively more difficult until it was no longer a commercially viable industry. The village is still a great draw for amateur and professional geologists though - if you're lucky, you can pick up sizable lumps of jet on the fore shore - and there is a thriving potash mine a couple of miles up the coast at Boulby.

On the day of my visit - a warm, sunny late autumn day that put its weak, watery summer counterparts to shame - the tide was well and truly out, revealing every inch of the once mineral-rich cliffs on either side. There was a smattering of small fishing and pleasure boats resting in the muddy harbour and a few colourful yachts skirting across the horizon, but nothing compared to the frantic to-ings and fro-ings of its heyday.

In the dim and distant past, there were about 300 men engaged in fishing in Staithes with three trains a week through Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough delivering the catch to the rest of the UK. Locally-built boats, known as cobles, and larger 'Five Man' vessels, which were crewed by seven and owned by five, were launched and landed directly on to the beach. Unfortunately, business began to dry up with the arrival as the steam trawlers as the harbour wasn't capable of accommodating them.

It retains another strong link with the sea through a certain Captain James Cook, more usually associated with Whitby, eight miles or so down the coast. He was born in Marton about 25 miles south of Staithes, the second child of seven born to Grace Pace (and no, that's not a made-up name) and James Cook. The family moved to Aireyholme Farm, near Great Ayton, when the local hero-in-the-making was eight before moving on again to Staithes.

In those days of poor roads and no railway, the best form of long distance transportation was by sea, making the village a very busy little port indeed. So much so that it soon won over 16-year-old James, who gave up all ambitions of a life in farming for a life on the ocean waves. Two years later, he moved to Whitby, where he made his name - and history.

But Staithes can still take credit for introducing Captain James Cook to the sea. Fishing, mining and the railway form the backbone of Staithes' history, but it has more than three strings to its bow. The town has also been a hive of artistic activity since the turn of the 20th century, when numerous artists descended to capture its highlights on canvas. The Staithes Group, as they were known, comprised up to 30 artists who made the remote North Yorkshire enclave their home. In recent years, they have gained recognition - along with other coastal art colonies like Newlyn and St Ives in Cornwall - for their pictures of everyday fisherfolk and the natural gems of the surrounding landscape.

On entering modern Staithes, it's initially a little difficult to see where they got their inspiration from. Traffic is directed away from the seafront and into a non-descript pay and display car park sitting in a fairly run-of-the-mill looking residential area. But don't be fooled by this uninspiring frontage. Once you've parked up and started wending your way wistfully down the steep hill into the resort proper, you soon start to see the real Staithes. The colourful, pastelpainted cottages, the boats bobbing about in the sheltered harbour, the rich sense of history and the vibrant café culture (get yourself a cappuccino and a slice of cake - I can heartily recommend the chocolate variety - from the harbour café, park yourself at a harbour-side table and watch the world go by).

No one could argue against Staithes dramatic beauty, but some like to bicker over its beach. The Good Beach Guide recently landed the 18-metre stretch of sand with the ignominious title of 'Britain's worst beach'. Some have argued that the curved cove isn't actually a beach at all - it's too small and few people use it for bathing - and therefore shouldn't be included in the guide at all. Others say this is missing the point and that, irrespective of its size, money and time should be invested to raise the beach to an acceptable standard.

The Environment Agency reckons it would take £14 million to fix Staithes' problems, primarily caused by agricultural pollution running off into the sea and circling the enclosed harbour. But, given the number of people who use the beach, it's unlikely the Government would hand over that kind of money.

The arguments look set to run and run, but don't let them put you off visiting this often misrepresented stretch of Yorkshire coastline. Staithes is much more than its beach. So next time you fancy a grown-up day beside the seaside, leave your bucket and spade at home (but don't forget your wallet) and head to the northernmost tip of the county's coast.

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