The fishing village of Staithes, at the edge of the North York Moors, evokes the chocolate-box charm of Clovelly or Tobermory: multi-hued cottages spill from the crevice of Roxby Beck like oil paint squeezed from a tube. But ‘Steers’, as the locals call it, also echoes Lyme Regis. Its harbour is embraced by two protective stone arms and the flanking cliffs are studded with palaeontological treasures; not for nothing is the stretch running south towards Whitby called the Dinosaur Coast.
Take a treasure hunt
There’s more to Staithes than fish and fossils, though, and the best way to discover its gems – metaphorical and literal – is on a meander with Sean Baxter. A fisherman and lifeboat-crew member of many decades standing, Sean now dispenses nuggets of shore lore to landlubbers like me on Coastal Craft courses. Our route would lead us along the foreshore to the ghost harbour of Port Mulgrave, a mile or so to the south.
As we turned our backs on Sean’s brightly painted fishing boat All My Sons, bobbing at anchor, he served up an entrée of wild food, stooping to harvest a variety of salty, slimy algae.
“This purplish seaweed is eaten as laverbread in Wales and nori in Japan,” he told me. Offering me a morsel of green, Sean urged me to take a nibble. “Pepper dulse,” he smiled. In truth, I can’t say I loved the flavour – like I’d expect seaweed to taste, just more so.
A couple of oblong pools cut into the rock – lobster holding pens from the 19th century – were our cue to move onto the seafood course. We eyed up winkles (known locally as ‘chequers’) and limpets (‘flithers’), though the latter generally serve as bait on longline hooks. Next came a handful of dog whelks. Locally reputed to be poisonous, historically they’ve been hugely valuable as the source of the dye tyrian purple, worth hundreds or even thousands of pounds per gram today.
We ambled towards the shale cliffs, Sean pointing out a kittiwake colony to the north and a fulmar nesting above our heads. This stretch of coastline is rich in social as well as natural history, with a range of now-defunct industries leaving their mark.
Sean indicated pits bored into the flat rock beneath our feet. “We’re straddling a railway track that served the ironstone mines worked here till the 1930s,” he explained, before gesturing at cavities in the cliffs where alum, used as a mordant – a chemical for setting dyes in calico – was extracted till the 1870s.
Sean then picked up a handful of nodules fallen from the cliffs and, cracking them like nuts with his hammer, revealed wondrous kernels: ammonites. “We have more mileage of ‘Jurassic’ coast than Dorset,” Sean boasted. We fossicked the rostrums of ancient squid, and ran our fingers over waving crinoids and petrified strands of – so Sean assured me – prehistoric prawn poo.
Higher up in the cliffs, we marvelled at a bone protruding from the cliff – the rib of a large marine creature, possibly an icthyosaur or plesiosaur.
Dish of the day
The final item on our hunt was a favourite of Queen Victoria: jet, gathered here since the 18th century. Sean showed me how to ID likely candidates by scraping them on a rock. “If it leaves a black mark, it’s coal; if brown, it’s jet.”
We finished our ramble in style at Sean’s hut at Port Mulgrave. Inside Sean’s cosy lair, his partner, Tricia, dished up crab, bread, hollandaise and homemade soup, seasoned with a sprinkle of dried pepper dulse – a perfect finale: concentrated essence of seashore.
HOW TO GET THERE
Staithes is on the A174 between Middlesbrough and Whitby. Arriva bus X5 between those two towns stops above Staithes every half hour.
FIND OUT MORE
Real Staithes – coastal crafts day course
White House, Church St, Staithes TS13 5DB
Join Sean on the kind of tour you couldn’t get from a guidebook.
Fox and Hounds
4 Dalehouse, Staithes TS13 5DT
Take in a local ale at this popular former coaching inn that looks over the town centre.
40 Staithes Lane, Staithes, TS13 5AD
Charming family-run Victorian B&B in the heart of the town.