Alex Whittaker savours this hidden gem of the North Yorkshire coast …
The small and perfectly formed Yorkshire hamlet of Staithes is something of a mystery to many British seafarers. Other traditional ports on the North Sea coast like Whitby and Hartlepool are much better known. However, secluded and little-known Staithes is incredibly picturesque and provides a truly rewarding landfall. It defies one’s preconceptions of a Yorkshire fishing village. It is refined and colourful, popular and yet secretive. At one time, Staithes was a significant fishing port. Nowadays it is a honeypot for canny day trippers eager to experience its unique charm. In truth, its characterful cottages, great pubs and narrow lanes make it feel more like a Cornish smugglers’ den than a workaday Yorkshire port. The mellow blend of fishermen’s cottages and fine Georgian town houses, largely unspoiled by modern intrusions, gives Staithes a unique aesthetic appeal.
Staithes lies at latitude 54º 33’N, longitude 00º 47’W on the North Yorkshire coast. Whitby is just a few nautical miles away, but you would never guess it. Staithes is a small drying harbour, making it unsuitable for vessels that cannot safely take the ground. That said, you are in for a treat.
Approach from sea
Staithes lies in a narrow cleft between two rugged headlands. The northern one, Cowbar Nab, resembles a sugar loaf, or maybe a layer cake. Its massive bulk offers great shelter from the wild Norse northerlies. From the sea, the village lies at the foot of a semicircle of enclosing cliffs. The harbour is sheltered by two large breakwaters. Significantly, the southerly one is called ‘The Staithe’. This just happens to be the Old English word for ‘landing place’. The approach from sea is straightforward. The harbour entrance should be tackled on a course of 225° True to avoid outlying rocky shelves. These hazards extend 500 metres northwards on either side of Staithes Wyke (beach). With onshore winds, entry to the harbour can become hazardous due to breaking seas and should be avoided. At night, the harbour entrance is marked with port and starboard lights – West Arm: Green Fl, 4 secs; East Arm: Red Fl, 4 secs.
Top of the tide
Staithes is the sort of landfall we would make in calm and settled conditions, timing our arrival just before the top of the tide. Ideally, we would visit for lunch on that rising tide, tie up afloat to the harbour wall, grab a crafty bite and then leave before the ebb became too established. If all these stars align, Staithes is a truly superb target for an unforgettable day cruise. If you wanted to stay longer, of course, you would need to deal with the harbour drying to sand. Your choice might be to lay against the harbour wall, with the harbour master’s permission, but with all the fussy line tending that might entail. Alternatively, you might ring ahead and request a drying mooring from the harbour master. There are a limited number of visitor berths on the South Breakwater, so you would have to check for availability. Frankly, like the northern Anglesey ports in our home cruising ground, Staithes is not a place that we would rock up to unprepared. However, if the conditions allow, and your boat can take the ground, all well and good. You will be rewarded.
Naturally, with such a drying harbour, one’s planning must include tides. This handy link gives instant tide data for Staithes. You might choose the top of the tide and then work backwards at your own cruising speed from either Hartlepool or Whitby.
Staithes has at least three slipways. However, trailering your boat down to the sea through such a narrow, steep and encumbered lane would be enough to give most skippers grey hair. We confess that towing our 24-footer on its four-wheel trailer down such a sharp hill would never be our first choice. In high summer, road access to the honeypot can be a nightmare. Better to trail your boat to nearby Whitby and take advantage of the convenient marina, easy parking and simple launching down the luxuriously wide public slipway.
There are few boating facilities at Staithes, and certainly no fuel or chandlery. However, that is to miss the point. Staithes’ charm lies in its atmosphere, architecture and location. On a hot and sunny day, Staithes is such a relaxing and refreshing place to be. A lazy lunch at the quayside pub or a quick recce of the pubs and shops higher up the village offer their own reward.
Arriving by road
Staithes is marked by a modest sign pointing downhill from the main A174 coast road, which connects Whitby and Middlesbrough. Staithes Harbour lies at the foot of the North Yorkshire Moors but is utterly invisible from the main road. You have no idea what you are in for. We found it best to use the public car park in the upper village, right by the Welcome 2 Staithes cafe. We had no change for the parking machines, so we used our smartphone to pay the parking fee – a very reasonable six quid for 24 hours. The lane down to the harbour is steep, so if any of your crew had reduced mobility, Staithes would not be a particularly ‘disabled-friendly’ location. At the very least, it would be necessary to drive your precious cargo as far as you could down the hill. This is discouraged, and the lane is not designated for cars. However, we did see some elderly couples sitting in their vehicles at the bottom, admiring the view! Also, in high summer, people walking in the middle of the narrow roadway are an obvious hazard. Incidentally, said hilltop cafe is excellent – highly recommended with great service, and very reasonable prices.
Descending the lane from the upper village, the way broadens out into interesting shops, The Royal George pub and an art gallery. It is a lovely compact vista on a sunny day, with the honey-coloured buildings and the traditional stone sets underfoot. Later you come to Captain Cook’s lodgings, where he lived when he was apprenticed to the local grocer. To think that such a distinguished mariner knew his way around bulk flour and sugar is quite astounding.
Pride of place on the quay undoubtedly goes to the fine Cod & Lobster pub. The food was good and the happy prices suited the jolly seaside ambience. It was mad busy all day, but we snagged an outside table right on the quay – a great way to pass a boozy maritime lunchtime.
Staithes beach has unexpectedly fine golden sand – not something one would automatically associate with the northern sea. Also, there is a plateau full of handy rock pools at the base of the cliffs, near the harbour master’s office. There were happy holidaymakers paddling, sunbathing, walking the breakwaters and, of course, catching crabs. Signs warn that the steep cliffs can be unstable, so one must be wary of falling rocks in some places. However, these falling rocks have liberated many Jurassic era fossils – so much so that locally this is called the ‘Dinosaur Coast’. Little kids and enthusiastic dads could be seen earnestly hunting for trilobites. While we were there, the tide was out, so the larger fishing vessels leaned lazily on the harbour walls. The smaller fishing boats – traditional, lean, brightly painted Yorkshire cobles – were lying on the sand against their chains. It all looked vividly English – especially under the sunny cliffs of Cowbar Nab, which has the smart RNLI lifeboat station nestling under. On the nearer shore, the harbour master’s office stands just above the sands by the slipway, surrounded by lobster pots. It looks disarmingly cute. Everything was gentle and quiet, with no intrusive arcades or funfairs, just lots of ozone-friendly and traditional laid-back seaside family fun. No raised voices or hint of rowdiness. Frankly, it all felt so wholesome. Staithes village is probably too small to ever be overwhelmed by Mammon, and there is certainly not a gaudy McDonald’s in sight …
We found that exploring both sides of the village was great fun. You can pass to the lifeboat station side of the village via a small bridge. This crosses what becomes a deep gorge delivering two small rivers, which continues up the steep hill on this Cowbar side. We walked up the very steep lane on Cowbar Bank to a small viewpoint at the foot of some cottage gardens. This was high, and not a little exposed, but the panorama of the village and gorge was unmatched. We could see all the way to the sea. We could overlook fishermen’s cottages with bright cobles tied up to their very back doors. One cottage was festooned in multicoloured fishing buoys and floats. We were surprised how far up the gorge the water remained tidal. From our crow’s nest we could clearly see even more boats and mooring posts behind the river cottages. This is an idyllic spot for any boater to live.
Staithes’ dramatic setting and refined traditionalism took us completely by surprise. It really is a hidden gem. We never expected a North Sea fishing haven to look so good. As a day-cruising location in good weather, at the top of the tide, it has few equals. Tides permitting, Staithes is a superlative lunchtime stopover on any peregrination from Whitby to Hartlepool. Highly recommended. Also, stay tuned, since this criminally undercelebrated coast possesses other hidden gems, which we will celebrate in due course.
Staithes 10 interesting facts
‘Staithes’ derives from Old English and means ‘landing place’.
Staithes is known for its fossils on this ‘Dinosaur Coast’.
Staithes Art Festival takes place every September.
The TV series Old Jack’s Boat, starring Bernard Cribbins, is filmed at Staithes.
Today, local fishing boats catch cod, lobster and crab.
Staithes has a small fleet of brightly painted Whitby coble fishing boats.
A group of artistes, the Northern Impressionists, were based at Staithes.
A narrow alley called ‘Dog Loup’ is claimed to be the narrowest in the world.
In the 1990s, a rare seagoing dinosaur fossil was dug up at Staithes.
Captain Cook worked as a humble grocer’s apprentice in Staithes.
The 2017 film Phantom Thread was shot on the streets of Staithes.
Harbour Master – N Fowler
Roselands , 70 Staithes Lane
Staithes, Yorkshire. TS13 5AD
Tel.: 01947 840110
Note that the harbour office on The Staithe is unmanned.