Robin Hood's Bay to Whitby - Yorkshire Coast

Over the past couple of years we've walked several sections of the Cleveland Way, both across moorland and along the coast.  The route of this popular National Trail starts (or finishes) in the North Yorkshire market town of Helmsley, meanders its way through the North York Moors National Park before reaching the coast at Saltburn-by-Sea from where it then follows the coastline southwards, all the way down to Filey Brigg.  It's a 110 mile walk of spectacular, contrasting natural beauty and the fact that much of it is very familiar to me just makes me want to complete the entire trail all the more.

Last year we walked three portions of the coastal section of the Cleveland Way - from Ravenscar to Robin Hood's Bay, Cloughton to Ravenscar and Scarborough to Filey.  In mid-March this year we decided to walk the section from Robin Hood's Bay to Whitby, returning via a former railway line.

It was one of those mornings when the weather didn't seem quite able to make up its mind.  Looking down over Robin Hood's Bay and across the bay to Ravenscar the sky looked threatening, and yet patches of sunlight were trying to break through, adding a little sparkle to the breaking waves.  Whatever the weather though, the view down to this charming little fishing village is always one to savour and I was thrilled to see a patch of early daffodils in full flower - the first I'd seen this Spring.

Robin Hood's Bay

Before turning northwards to follow the route of the Cleveland Way to Whitby we headed down the steep narrow street to pay a quick visit to the oldest part of the village and also to wet our boots in the sea in honour of the Coast to Coast Walk and the late, great Alfred Wainwright.  The tide was high and the steely grey sea was a bit on the choppy side as we stood by the shore, looking across the bay to Ravenscar, which had been the starting point for our walk the previous week.

The start (or end) of the Coast to Coast
The majority of Coast to Coast walkers begin their 192 mile journey in the west, at St Bee's on the Cumbrian coast, so this particular spot must have witnessed many scenes of weary celebration.  It's not surprising then to find the aptly named Wainwright's Bar just a few short steps away at the nearby Bay Hotel.  

A place to celebrate

It was still quite early in the day as we climbed back up the hill to start our walk, but one or two shops were beginning to open for business and we were able to stock up on a few snacks for the day ahead.  One shop in particular caught my eye with its colourful arrangement of fruit and vegetables which looked very enticing - not just to me it seems!

Naughty blackbird!

The origin of the name "Robin Hood's Bay" is unknown, although it's unlikely that it had anything to do with the legendary outlaw from Sherwood Forest.  In fact, the actual name "Robin Hood" probably originated from a mythical woodland spirit, popular in folklore across the countryside in the Middle Ages. 

The start of our walk was easy to locate - we simply followed the Cleveland Way signposts to the north of the village and onto the clifftop path.  After a short distance we were treated to a lovely view down the cliffs, over to the village and the hills beyond.  Over in that direction the sky still looked threatening, but to the north, in the direction we were heading, the sky was blue and the sun was beginning to break through.

Looking back to Robin Hood's Bay

A little further along the path we passed an old rocket post.  Once a common sight along the coast, rocket posts were designed to simulate a ship's mast, complete with crow's nest, and were used for practice purposes by coastguards.  One member of the coastguard team would climb up to the crow's nest whilst others fired a line on a rocket which had to be caught and secured to the mast.  These practice sessions enabled the coastguards to perfect the technique for real-life situations, when it was necessary to rescue mariners from stricken vessels along the coast.

Rocket post

As with all National Trails, this route was clearly popular with walkers and the path was very well trodden and eroded in places.  However, the National Trails organisation does an excellent job of maintaining its routes and minimising the effects of all those footsteps.  Along the way we saw clear signs of this hard work at a point where new steps were in the process of being installed.  This kind of work is often undertaken by a group known as the Cleveland Way MAD (Make A Difference) Volunteers working in conjunction with the North Yorkshire Moors National Park Authority.

Path maintenance

Although I've visited Robin Hood's Bay, Whitby and the surrounding area a great many times in my life, I had never actually walked along this stretch of coastline before and it was both a pleasant surprise and a genuine treat.  The cliffs here are formed of a rock strata known as lias, comprised of limestone, shales and clays dating from the Jurassic period.  As our route wound its way along we would occasionally reach a turn in the path which gave us an excellent view of cliffs where the strata was clearly visible. 

Beautiful cliffs

In some places we could see signs of erosion, a common problem along parts of the Yorkshire coast.  This is most prevalent in areas where the coastline is formed from deposits of clay over the underlying rock strata, where heavy seas or rain gradually wash away the topsoil. 

Signs of erosion

The cloudy skies were still behind us as we drew closer to Whitby and the day had become pleasantly warm.  Sections of the path were lined with gorse which, like the daffodils at Robin Hood's Bay, I believed to be flowering a little earlier than usual.  The bright yellow flowers certainly added a touch of warmth to an otherwise predominantly green and blue scene.

A beautiful stretch of the Cleveland Way

Our route now followed a path behind Whitby Lighthouse.  Built in 1858, there were originally two towers aligned here to shine lights in a northerly and southerly direction, with a fixed light illuminating Whitby rock.  In 1890 a more efficient light was installed and the taller of the two towers became redundant.  Today Whitby lighthouse is fully automated and is controlled via a telemetry link from Trinity House's headquarters in Harwich, Essex.  At only 13 metres (42 feet) high, it's the smallest lighthouse I've ever seen.

Whitby Lighthouse

As we passed the lighthouse another small, squat white building came into view, perched close to the edge of the cliff.  This was the former Whitby Foghorn Station which was opened on 4th January 1902 and decommissioned by Trinity House in 1988.  Today the property is a private residence, appropriately known as Hornblower Lodge.

Approaching Whitby Foghorn

The path took us right by the foghorn, enabling me to get a close-up photograph of the huge metal horns.  Having heard this kind of foghorn in operation, I was relieved that they were inactive.  At such close proximity the sound it could make would have been enough to blow us off the cliffs.  Locally, the Whitby foghorn was nicknamed the "Mad Bull", in foggy conditions blasting out its deep bellow four times every 90 seconds.  Foghorns like this worked by releasing compressed air from a device called a diaphone which, interestingly, was originally developed as an organ stop.  In certain conditions this loud, low frequency sound could be heard up to 20 miles away.

Fog horns

A little beyond the foghorn station we got our first glimpse of Saltwick Bay, the rocks of Saltwick Nab and Whitby Abbey.  It was a lovely sight, and a welcome one too as we had decided to take a lunch break in Whitby.

First sight of Whitby

As we approached Saltwick Bay we passed Black Nab, which on first sight looks like an eroded sea stack but is actually part of the remains of a former quay which had been built here in 1673 to serve the nearby Saltwick alum works.  We could just make out the shape of a pair of cormorants perched on top of Black Nab.  Clearly this is a popular place for seabirds, judging by the white coating on the top. 

Black Nab

The alum works at Saltwick Bay were started by Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby in 1643 and were in operation until 1791.   Further along at Saltwick Nab we could make out remains of the quarry and area of dark red calcined (burned) shale.  Alum was used as a dye-fixer for wool which was once England's main export , the value of which increased significantly if dyed.  Once shale was quarried from the cliffs the alum was extracted by creating huge piles of shale and burning them with firewood continuously, sometimes for months at a time.   Little wonder then that the scars of this industry are still visible today, over 200 years after the last production took place here.

Saltwick Nab

After passing through a caravan park, our path led us closer to Whitby Abbey.  Peering over the cliffs rewarded me with a wonderful view of the abbey and the end of Whitby pier protruding into the sea beyond the cliffs.

Getting closer to Whitby

Once at the abbey we sat on the steps of an old stone column outside the perimeter walls to eat our lunch.  From here I was able to take a quick photo of the abbey ruins, obscured slightly by the wall.

The first monastery at Whitby was founded in 657 AD by the Saxon King Oswiu who appointed Lady Hilda of Hartlepool as its founding abbess.  In 664 Abbess Hilda convened the Synod of Whitby which was to be a turning point for the history of the church in England.  The object of this meeting was to determine whether the church would follow the established Celtic style of Christianity or convert to follow the practices of the Roman church.  The decision was made in favour of accepting Rome, which led to England establishing closer connections with continental Europe.  Among other matters discussed by the Synod was the method to be used to calculate the date on which Easter would fall each year and the style of tonsures (hairstyles, essentially) to be used by monks. 

Originally Whitby was called Streanœhealh until 867 when the monastery was destroyed in a Viking raid.  It was rebuilt in 1078 at which time it was renamed Whitby, meaning "white settlement" in old Norse. 

Whitby Abbey

Suitably refreshed and rested, we left the abbey behind us and made our way towards the steps down into the town of Whitby.  From the top of the steps on the East Cliff we had an excellent view across the harbour and along the West Cliff where we could just make out the shape of the Captain Cook statue.  Cook, who was born in nearby Morton, Cleveland in 1728, began his sailing career in Whitby before setting sail to become the first European to explore the Australian coast in 1770.

View from Whitby's East Cliff

From the top of the East Cliff we descended the famous 199 steps to the old town area.  Tradition has it that you should count every one of the steps whilst ascending or descending but now, as in previous visits, I was too busy taking photographs to keep count.  Amazingly, given how busy it was, I managed to get a picture with only two people on the steps ahead of me, one of them being Tom.  Having taken the shot I turned to find a small queue of people behind me, patiently waiting to descend the steps.  Smiling sheepishly, I thanked them before quickly making my way down to join Tom in Whitby's busy old town.

199 Steps

I always find it something of a shock to the system, leaving the relative peace and quiet of a long walk to emerge into "civilisation", and never more so than today.  The narrow streets were heaving with tourists.  After several failed attempts to manoeuvre myself and my rucksack into a shuffling line of people trying to view one of the shop window displays, I gave up and suggested we ought to visit a pub instead.  

Crowded Whitby

After a couple of beers, a welcome sit down and a quick check of the map for the rest of our route, we were all set to leave the crowds behind us, walking away from the town through the main quayside car park.   Once we had reach the point where the River Esk flows into the harbour, we crossed the railway line and climbed up to the busy A171 which we followed for a short distance until we'd located the starting point for the track which was to lead us all the way back to Robin Hood's Bay.

The River Esk flows into Whitby Harbour

The Cinder Track, as it's known today, is the course of the former Whitby to Scarborough railway line.  First opened in 1885, the line was used to transport goods and passengers along the North Yorkshire coast until its closure in 1965.  Unlike many railway track beds which were constructed from crushed stone, this one was surfaced with cinders, making it ideal for cycling.  Shortly after its closure the entire track was purchased by Scarborough Borough Council and today the Cinder Track makes up 21 miles of the National Cycle Network.  It's also a perfect, level surface for walking along and ideally located to incorporate into a circular walk in conjunction with a stretch of coastline. 

It certainly felt good to be away from the crowds and traffic as we began to follow the track through a pleasant wooded section.

On the Cinder Track

After a short distance the track emerged from the trees to cross the Larpool Viaduct.  This 13 arch structure spans the River Esk and at its highest point stands at 120 feet.  First opened in 1884, it was awarded Grade II Listed status in 1972.  Crossing the viaduct on foot was something of a surreal experience, rather like walking along a wall-lined street 120 feet above the ground.

Crossing Larpool Viaduct

Peering over the wall gave me an excellent view of the River Esk and beyond to the village of Ruswarp, a view which was possibly in Bram Stoker's mind when he mentioned the Larpool Viaduct in his famous 1897 novel Dracula...

The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the  harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, through which the view seems  somehow further away than it really is.

View from the viaduct

The distance from the viaduct back to Robin Hood's Bay was almost six miles, but the level, comfortable surface of the Cinder Track meant that we could walk at a quicker pace and cover this distance reasonably quickly.

The Cinder Track

Along the way, just outside the village of Hawsker, we passed Trailways, a cycle hire centre which also provides self-catering accommodation in former railway carriages.  One day I think I might just hire a bike from here and possibly cycle to Scarborough and back.  I imagine it would be a lovely, safe and easy way to enjoy a bike ride along the coast.

Cinder Track cycle hire

The Cinder Track eventually wound its way closer to the coastline and, as we approached Robin Hood's Bay, I could see the path we had followed along the Cleveland Way on our outwards journey towards Whitby.  The sky was now overcast but the temperature was perfect for the speed at which we'd been walking, covering the six miles from Whitby in just under two hours.

Approaching Robin Hood's Bay on the Cinder Track

In total we had walked for a distance of just over 15 miles.  It had been very much a walk of two halves.  The first section, along the coast, had been one to take slowly and enjoy the views, with a few ascents and descents along the way.  In contrast, the second half was completed at a much faster pace along the relatively even surface of the Cinder Track.

Coming soon... Back on the North York Moors, we enjoy a sunny walk from Egton Bridge along Glaisdale Rigg and back over Egton High Moor.



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