We had arrived on a glorious sunny day which had made me rather optimistic for the remainder of the week. But the forecast wasn’t at all promising. I don’t always take much notice of the weather forecast but this time the Met Office had got it spot on and when we woke in the morning there was heavy rain and a storm and it looked disappointingly permanent.
So we spent the morning in the cottage, the children didn’t seem to mind, they had their phones and devices to keep them occupied but by afternoon I was beginning to get bored so pulled on my rain coat and ventured out into the wet streets.
It was a different place completely today, empty pavement tables abandoned and dripping, the occasional visitor soaked and unhappy, a deserted beach and empty tourist shops.
Even in the rain however Staithes is lovely, a muddle of whitewashed cottages squeezed between towering cliffs on the North Yorkshire coast, it sits on either side of ‘the Beck’ which is a meandering creek which cuts through a dramatic cleft in the rocky landscape and emerges into the sea between soaring cliffs. A footbridge crosses the beck, the south side is in Scarborough Borough Council and the north is in Cleveland and Redcar. At one time it was the largest fishing port in the north-east with a side-line in minerals and mining and there is still a potash mine nearby.
Boulby Mine is a large site located close to the village which at four thousand six hundred feet deep it is the deepest mine of any kind in Europe and has a network of underground roads extending under the sea totalling over six hundred miles in length. It mines for potash and polyhalite both used as fertilisers and this is the only place in the World where polyhalite is mined in a seam three and a half thousand feet below the North Sea.
In its heyday Staithes had around fifty sea captains, most famously of course, Captain James Cook who came here as a boy to work in a chandler’s shop, but then caught sea fever and abruptly left. The shop is long gone but the cottage is still lived in, unlike many others which have become holiday lets but its place at the heart of ‘Captain Cook Country’ now underpins Staithes’ busy tourist season.
I visited the local museum which has three main themes, Captain Cook of course, the long gone railway line which once served the coastal fishing and mining industries and tales of smugglers. This section of the North Yorkshire is almost as famous as Cornwall as a location for smugglers. I used to like tales about smugglers when I was a boy, this is a booklet that I bought in with my pocket money in Cornwall in about 1966…
The Yorkshire coast is just two hundred miles from Europe across the North Sea. Ships taking sixteenth and seventeenth century exports to the mainland continent often returned loaded with contraband and other items that was destined to avoid the revenue duty.
It was the most unlikely of contraband that drove the trade – tea. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Yorkshire folk loved a cuppa no less than now, but tea was one of the most expensive commodities because of punitive levels of taxation, which at one point reached nearly one hundred and twenty per cent.
Just look what happened in the American colonies as a consequence of a tax on tea!
It cost up to thirty-five shillings a pound – but in the Netherlands it was only seven old pence. Smugglers seized the opportunity to buy it for next to nothing and sell for many times more than what they paid and a trade sprang to life that operated from 1700 until about 1850.
Yorkshire’s coastline was ideal for smuggling, with miles of deserted beaches where contraband could be landed and caves for its storage. Villagers were insular and wary of customs men from the outside, so they kept their mouths shut and took the smugglers’ backhanders. Ships would lay off the coast, their cargoes being run in by smaller boats. The trade flourished, with Staithes, Robin Hood’s Bay, North Landing and Runswick Bay the favoured landing places, the contraband being moved inland by pack-horses or on carts with their wheels muffled by rags.
And so I soaked up the history and later I soaked up more rain as I walked the steep hill to the car park to buy more time and to visit the local store to buy more provisions for the lock-down evening: nothing to do with Covid, just the abysmal weather.