Staithes – a North Yorkshire fishing village with a special character and atmosphere all of its own
You meet the old part of the village of Staithes as you follow the road as it plunges steeply down from Bank Top – cottages start to line the road, you turn a corner and there before you is the cobbled High Street with its collection of cottages, old inns and fascinating little shops. Following along the street you catch glimpses along alleys and pathways to the cottages, houses, chapels and workshops that are packed in apparently higgledy-piggledy fashion on either side in the steep valley running down to the sea between the dramatic cliffs. Further along, just before you reach the Cod and Lobster, you get a sudden burst of sea view – the sky above the horizon is always different and lively here and you quickly realise why Staithes has attracted so many artists to its many and varied vistas for the last hundred years or so. A few yards further on and you are on the front with the full view of the beach and harbour there before you, framed between the sheltering cliffs. Time to explore…
Staithes was established in the mid 15th C simply as a landing place for a settlement known as Seaton Garth a little further inland. But from the 16th Century it developed a reputation as shellfishing village. By the early 1800s Staithes was the largest east coast fishing port north of the Wash. Boat building, especially the traditional cobles and five-man boats, also took place in the shelter of the beck and many workshops once lined its banks.
The auction of fish on the harbourside was apparently a lively affair with hundreds of buyers from far afield competing for the best catch. Those fish not carried off in panniers by teams of packhorses to market towns in the region would be cured for long keeping and Staithes was once buzzing with this as an associated industry. However, by the 1860’s the last of the Staithes fish curers had been put out of business by the coming of the railway that could take fresh fish to distant markets.
Decline of both the fishing and the boat building industry at Staithes came with the coming of steam trawlers following the fish down from Scotland and the eventual collapse of the herring stocks. Although the bigger boats had ceased their trade by the early 20th Century the smaller cobles continued fishing right up to the current day. Today a small amount of line-caught fish and some fine lobsters and crabs are brought ashore by local fishermen and can be sampled at local eateries.
This was a less orthodox industry that thrived all along the coast at the time of high taxes on many imported and luxury goods in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Activities were literally underground at times as contraband was shifted up through the village from the sea to be spirited away from the sights of the customs officials – who apparently had a particularly hard time of it trying to get the better of the Staithes locals!
Tourism and artists
Although the coming of the Victorian railway put paid to the fish curing industry it also brought new visitors to Staithes in the form of tourists and, more notably, artists who were drawn to the village by its picturesque views, its characterful people and its quaint customs. For 30 years from 1880 a collection of artists known as the Staithes Group lived and worked in and around the village and played their part in revolutionising the British art scene. In this period the place was host to artists of international stature as the group’s work evolved from realism to impressionism. One of the best known was Dame Laura Knight who met her husband-to-be, Harold, here in 1897 – the couple later making it their home for many productive years before heading south to join the Newlyn School in Cornwall. There is a collection of the Staithes Group works in the Whitby Museum in Pannet Park.
Things to do
Visit the beach Sheltered behind the harbour there is a small beach much enjoyed by families in the summer months.
Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre – Located in one of the many old chapels in the village this charming small museum charts the local connections with Captain James Cook who as a young man in 1745 was apprenticed to a village merchant in a shop down on the harbour. (The shop has since been washed away by storms!) The museum also offers a fascinating insight into other local history and customs and has a small shop.
Explore the village! With the help of a useful leaflet available locally you can follow an intriguing guided tour round the backways, along the narrow passages and through the cobbled yards of Staithes. There’s much more of it than meets the eye at first sight!
Go on a fishing trip The local shops and pubs advertise local people offering fishing trips out to sea in local boats.
Visit the Lifeboat Station Located on the north side of the beck the lifeboat station houses the modern inshore lifeboat and tells the stories of many heroic sea rescues over past years. In the summer Lifeboat Weekend is a lively affair with many events, people in traditional local dress and firework displays over the water.
Walk the Cleveland Way You can get on to the Cleveland Way going both north and south from the village for a variety of there-and-back or round walks taking in the spectacular cliff top scenery and destinations such as Runswick Bay village to the south where you can take refreshment at a number of local pubs before continuing on your way. A number of leaflets and local walks books give details of walks of various lengths and using local ordinance survey maps will enhance your expeditions.
Browse through the shops The village has some delightful small shops ranging from the highly practical to attractive gifts and souvenirs, including locally made arts and crafts. A number of shops sell useful food items to keep you going through your stay. At the top of the bank in the newer part of the village is a small branch of the Co-Op that stays open long hours and stocks a large range of goods, including wines and spirits. There is also a post office, a newsagent and a handy store in the new village.