Walking the Yorkshire coast: the shipwrecks and sea caves of Flamborough and beyond
Standing in broad sunshine on the beach at North Landing, Flamborough, and watching the fishing boats come in, you would think there was nowhere more blissful and peaceful. People in shorts are strolling along the clifftop path, while the cliffs below are dotted with puffins and razorbills, most of them dozing in the warmth. Mike Emmerson, captain of the Summer Rose, is smiling. “We haven’t been out for two weeks because of the easterlies. Even today, you’d think it was flat calm from here, but there’s a swell. I wouldn’t take passengers in it.”
It is a reminder of how treacherous the Yorkshire coast can be. By one estimate, it has averaged two shipwrecks a week since 1500. In 1869, the 100-mile stretch of coast between Spurn Head and Teesmouth accounted for 838 ships – more than two a day. What few people realise is that many wrecks still survive, in some battered form, and can be visited. The coastal path is often walked, but few are aware of the lost and secret history that lies among the rocks and caves.
At North Landing, as low tide approaches, I set off along the rocks under the cliffs on the north side of the cove. At the point there is a large lump of rusting metal trapped in the rocks, a thing the size of a small car. It is the boiler of SS Rosa, an Admiralty ship that went down in 1930. Riveted steel plates are scattered about. Nearby are some wonderful sea caves to explore. (Always be absolutely sure of the tide times and heights, which change daily. An hour either side of low water is usually the best and only exploring time. Many sailors who survived wrecks died attempting to climb the cliffs.)
Heading back to the beach, I clamber across the rocks and enter a small cave right under a cacophony of seabirds on the chalk cliffs. Once my eyes are accustomed to the gloom, I make my way into a much larger cavern, like the digestive tract of an enormous sea monster. It leads down to an exit where the waves are breaking. This is Robin Lythe’s Cave, said to be named after a smuggler who used this magnificent cavern to land, and store, contraband.
At low tide, you can step out of the cave’s main seaward entrance and admire the cliffs of Flamborough Head, that notorious destroyer of shipping. Charles Dickens, touring the area’s graveyards in 1851, was moved to write: “You would imagine any man mad, from all that you see around you, who would think of trusting himself to the ocean.” By then, the shipwreck had become a relentless tragic narrative, with hymn-writers salting every lyric with wrathful tempests and harbours of salvation. More prosaically, the people of the coast gathered firewood and building materials galore: hire an old cottage along these shores and you’ll probably be sleeping under the timbers of a sailing-era shipwreck.
Flamborough’s most famous wreck has yet to be found: that of the American vessel Bonhomme Richard, which sank in 1779 in front of crowds of people on the cliffs. They had gathered to watch the ship battle it out with the British man of war, Serapis. Bizarrely, the Americans lost their ship, but boarded the Serapis and captured her in hand-to-hand combat.
The walk north to Bempton, via more caves at Thornwick Bay, is a wonderful one. As you approach the RSPB reserve, stop at New Roll-Up viewpoint: you might spot the remains of the Radium, an Italian ship wrecked in 1923.
Most wrecks here are exactly that – shattered remains – but there is one that looks like a full ship up the coast near Robin Hood’s Bay. Checking the tide, walk north along the rocky shoreline and you will come across the hulk of the trawler Sarb-J, which ran aground here in 1994 after her propeller got tangled in rope. A big rescue effort ensued and the crew were airlifted off. It is now perched on its keel under the cliff.
Further up the coast at Saltwick Bay, a walk across the scars towards the rock known as Black Nab reveals another wreck, this one almost unrecognisable as a ship. In 1976, the Admiral von Tromp ran aground here in thick fog and heavy seas. The Whitby lifeboat got so close it touched, but the rescue proved difficult and two men drowned.
The shore at Kettleness, between Whitby and Runswick Bay, is scattered with wreckage, including the Wolfhound, a Humber boat that went down in 1896; the boiler is still there, covered in kelp. One wreck, the Belgian trawler Jeanne, is remembered in the churchyard at Lythe, where there is a gravestone for three men who drowned in 1932. (This atmospheric graveyard appears in Daniel Day Lewis’s next film, The Phantom Thread.)
The last stop in any shipwreck walk ought to be the evocative St Mary’s church in Whitby, where there is a memorial to the lifeboat tragedy of 1861. During a terrible storm, and after saving many lives in front of a massive crowd on the pier, the lifeboat flipped over, drowning 12 men. One crew member, Henry Freeman, survived. He had the sense to wear a newfangled life vest.
After visiting the church, head down the steps – known by all as the Dracula Steps – across the swing bridge and over to the pier itself, a fabulous piece of marine engineering. From there, continue up the hill towards East Terrace. On a grassy bank you will find a park bench dedicated to Bram Stoker, who sat here and used a real shipwreck – that of a Russian vessel on the shore opposite – to create an imaginary one, that of the Demeter, and, of course, the most memorable shipwreck survivor of all time: Count Dracula himself.
The Hans Egede is a Danish schooner beached on the mud in the 1950s
Westward Ho!, Devon
Scapa Flow, Orkney
The Churchill Barriers blockships are wrecks that were deliberately sunk during the first and second world wars. They are popular with divers
Land’s End, Cornwall
The remains of RMS Mülheim, which ran aground in 2003, can be seen at Castle Zawn on the south Cornish coast
Dulas Beach, Anglesey
Spot the wrecks of fishing boats when the tide is out