Doubtful emperor tale but grassy Yorkshire clifftop has Roman link

A snow bunting. Picture by Michael Flowers.
A snow bunting. Picture by Michael Flowers.
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Carr Naze is one of the most fascinating yet surprisingly unsung places on Yorkshire’s 100-plus miles of coastline. You will search in vain for the name on recent Ordnance Survey maps, though, so let me tell you that it’s the grassy clifftop forming the landward end to the well known reef of rocks called Filey Brigg.

In summer, Carr Naze gets very busy with day trippers picnicking at the nearby country park. It is a superb viewpoint across Filey Bay and northwards to Scarborough. But in winter it can be an exposed and uncomfortable place. At the weekend, with a biting wind streaming down from the Arctic, its only visitors were backpackers hobbling along the final paces of the Yorkshire Wolds Way, which finishes there, as well as birdwatchers and a few hardy people out for a cobweb-blowing stroll.

I make a trip to Carr Naze most years in late autumn and always try to put myself in the caligae boots worn by Roman legionaries who manned a signal station on this clifftop until it was abandoned in the early 5th century. Archaeologists excavated it in 1857 after a landslip revealed part of its foundations, and concluded that it had been almost 100ft high.

Its dating was confirmed by the discovery in 1909 of two hoards of late 4th century coins. Also found were jewellery, pottery and five huge stone blocks thought to have supported the tower.

It was one of a chain of five signal stations along the coast, and in direct line of sight with those at Beacon Hill on Flamborough Head and the cliffs above Scarborough. Their purpose was to provide early warning of invasion, pretty much forerunners to the ballistic missile radar base that’s such a feature of Fylingdales Moor.

Back then, of course, the danger of attack came not from the air but the sea, specifically pirates from Denmark and Germany and Viking invaders from further north.

Below the Scarborough side of the Brigg and just yards from the site of the signal station is a large rock pool surrounded by surprisingly flat rocks where, it is said, the Emperor Constantine once bathed while on a visit to this far flung part of his domain. It is now known as the Emperor’s Bath, but I’m somewhat sceptical about the story given that much of the cliff was later quarried and the pool looks too perfect to have been eroded by the sea.

These days people still spend the short winter days keeping look-out at Carr Naze, but now it is through high-powered telescopes. And the invaders don’t come by boat but on wings. They are often locally rare seabirds driven ashore while on their autumn migration. For me, though, Carr Naze’s speciality in winter has for many years been the snow bunting, a large and snowy-plumaged member of the same family as reed buntings and yellowhammers. This clifftop and nearby fields is the only place I have ever seen them.