Robin Hood's Bay, Whitby.
Robin Hood’s Bay is a small fishing village and bay located five miles south of Whitby and 15 miles north of Scarborough on the coast of North Yorkshire; it is built in a fissure between two steep cliffs; the village houses were built mostly of sandstone with red tiled roofs; the main street is Station Road which descends from the cliff top where the manor house, the newer houses and the church of St. Stephen stand and it passes through the village crossing the King's Beck and reaches the beach by a cobbled slipway known as Wayfoot.
Bay Town, which is its local name, is in the ancient chapelry of Fylingdales in the wapentake of the Liberty of Whitby Stand, the name is believed to be derived from the Old English word ‘Fygela’ which meant ‘marshy ground’; the village has two churches both dedicated to St Stephen; the Old St Stephen's Church, Fylingdales, on the hill side at Raw, above the village, replaced an ancient church which had Saxon origins and was demolished in about 1821 and was a dependent chapel of Whitby Abbey; a new church, also St Stephens, was built in 1870 in the village from the designs of G. E. Street near to the old railway station.
The cliffs are Upper Lias shale capped by Dogger and False Bedded Sandstones and shales of the Lower Oolite; the Wine Haven Profil near Robin Hood’s Bay is Global Stratotype Section and Point of Pliensbachian Epoch, one of four chronographic substages of Early Jurassic Epoch; the Bay, which is on the Yorkshire Jurassic Coast, is also famous for the large number of fossils which may be found on its beach.
Millions of years ago, the land upon which Robin Hood’s Bay is situated was once a deep sea and the sea animals of the time, that were buried in the mud, became fossilised, providing one of the best sources in Britain for the fossil hunter; some of fossils that have been found can be seen on display in the museum, but more can still be picked up on the beach if you look carefully.
The scaurs, derived from a Norse word meaning ‘rock’, exposed at low tide, were formed 170 million years ago and consist of limestone and blue shale and a wealth of sea life can be found in the rock pools at low tide.
The actual origin of the bay's name remains a mystery; there is no actual evidence to suggest that Robin Hood of Sherwood Forest ever visited the Bay; therefore, the name has more than likely grown from local legends; it may have come from the fact that Robin Hood was also the name of an ancient forest spirit and the use of the name was widespread in the country.
However, an English ballad and legend does tell of a story of Robin Hood encountering French pirates who came to pillage the fisherman's boats on the northeast coast; the story starts when Robin Hood decided to go to sea, he went to Scarborough and passed himself off as a sailor called Simon and a widow, with whom he stayed the night, found him employment as a member of her ship's crew, but in the fishing boat it became obvious that he was no fisherman and was scorned by the other sailors.
However, when a French pirate ship bore down on them the captain gave up all for lost and dismissed Simon's assurance that he could dispatch all of the French sailors before they could board their ship; Simon furious at the lack of faith in him, had himself tied to the mast, from where, as he had predicted, he managed to slay all of the French sailors with his Bow and Arrows; a feat only Robin Hood could have managed..
On boarding the French ship, they found a booty of 12 000 pounds; Simon declared that half of it should be given to the widow and the other half to his fellow crew members; however, the captain insisted that the ship, and it's booty, now belonged to Simon, so Simon announced his intention of building a refuge for the needy.
The first evidence of man in the area was 3000 years ago when Bronze Age burial grounds were dug on the high moorland a mile or so south of the village; these are known as Robin Hood’s Butts; some 1500 years later, Roman soldiers had a stone signal tower built at Ravenscar in about the 4th century AD; the first regular settlers, however, were probably Saxon peasants, followed by the Norsemen; the main colonists of this coast were Norwegians who were probably attracted by the rich glacial soil and ample fish and this is how they survived by a mixture of farming and fishing.
By about 1000 the neighbouring hamlet of Raw and village of Thorpe, Fylingthorpe, in Fylingdales had been settled by Norwegians and Danes, but after the Norman Conquest in 1069 much of the land in the North of England, including Fylingdales, was laid waste and then William the Conqueror gave Fylingdales to Tancred the Fleming who later sold it to the Abbot of Whitby.
The earliest settlements were about a mile inland at Raw, a hamlet slightly inland, which helped to avoid detection by other pirates, but by about 1500 a settlement had grown up on the coast; the first recorded reference to 'Robin Hoode Baye' was in 1536 by King Henry VIII’s topographer Leland, who described it as, "A fischer tounlet of 20 bootes with Dok or Bosom of a mile yn length."
By this time the cliff settlement had grown larger than the inland settlement, probably because they felt more secure from piracy and because it would be more convenient to walk from the boats; by 1540, the village was said to have fifty cottages by the shore, a large settlement at that time, so we can speculate that the present village originated somewhere in the 15th century; in 1540, the chief tenant was Matthew Storm, whose descendants still live in the area.
In the 16th century Robin Hood's Bay was a more important port than Whitby, in a series of Dutch sea charts published by Waghenaer in 1586, Robin Hood’s Bay is indicated whilst Whitby is not even mentioned; the bay was described by a tiny picture of tall houses and an anchor on the old North Sea charts, which are now in Rotterdam's Maritime Museum'; after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Whitby Abbey and its lands became the property of King Henry VIII with King Street and King’s Beck dating from this time.
Robin Hood's Bay, which consists of a maze of tiny streets, has a tradition of smuggling, and there is reputed to be a network of subterranean passageways linking the houses; during the late 18th century smuggling was rife all along the Yorkshire coast and this village was reportedly the busiest smuggling community on the Yorkshire coast; its natural isolation, protected by marshy moorland on three sides, offered a natural aid to this well organised business which, despite its dangers, must have paid better than fishing.
The smuggling was backed up by many on land who were willing to finance and transport the contraband; fisherfolk, farmers, clergy and gentry alike were all involved; vessels from the continent brought the contraband, which was then distributed by the contacts on land and the operations were financed by syndicates who made profits without any of the risks being taken by the seamen and the villagers; tea, gin, rum, brandy and tobacco were amongst the contraband smuggled into Yorkshire from the Netherlands and France in order to avoid the duty.
Fierce battles often ensued between smugglers and excise men, both at sea and on land and Bay wives were known to pour boiling water over excise men from bedroom windows in the narrow alleyways; there were many hiding places, bolt holes and secret passages within the village and it was said that a bale of silk could pass from the bottom of the village to the top without ever leaving the houses.
The threat of the excise men was not the only danger to Bayfolk in the late 18th century and the early 19th century, they were also endangered by the Press Gangs who regularly roamed the area; sailors and fishermen were supposed to be exempt from them but, in reality, rarely were and once ‘pressed’, their chances of returning to their homes were not high.
If a Press Gang was seen coming, the village women would beat a drum to warn the men folk that the Press Gangs had arrived and it was not unusual for the Press Gangs to be attacked and beaten off; even the government was discouraged sometimes, in 1773 two excise cutters, the Mermaid and the Eagle, were outgunned and chased out of the bay by three smuggling vessels, a schooner and two shallops; and in 1779 a pitched battle between smugglers and excise men took place in the dock over 200 casks of brandy, geneva gin and 15 bags of tea.
A plaque in the town records that a brig named "Visitor"
ran aground in Robin Hood's Bay on the 18th January 1881 during a violent
storm; in order to save the crew, the lifeboat from Whitby was pulled
6 miles overland and through 7 feet deep snowdrifts, by 18 horses, with
the snowdrifts being cleared by 200 men; the road down to the sea through
Robin Hood's Bay village was narrow and had awkward bends and men had
to go ahead demolishing garden walls and uprooting bushes to make way
for the lifeboat carriage; it was launched two hours after leaving Whitby,
with the crew of the Visitor rescued on the second attempt.
Fishing was a main occupation followed by generations of Bay folk and it reached its peak in the mid 19th century; they used the Coble for line fishing in winter and a larger boat for herring fishing; fish was loaded into panniers and men and women walked or rode over the moorland tracks to Pickering or York; many houses in the village were built between 1650 and 1750 and whole families were involved in the fishing industry; many families owned or part owned Cobles; some even owned ocean going craft; the main legitimate activity had always been fishing, but this started to decline in the late 19th century and today most of its income comes from tourism.
Robin Hood's Bay has a long tradition of using the Coble for fishing; it is a flat-bottomed and high-bowed boat, which was designed to cope with the particular conditions prevalent in this area; the flat bottoms allowed the boats to be launched from, and landed upon, the shallow, sandy beaches, which is an advantage in this part of the coast where the wide bays and inlets provided little shelter from stormy weather.
Tourists are no longer allowed to drive down to the bay without a pass, or permission, but car parking is available; it is a steep walk down to the bay and tiring on the way back up.