Fresh polish for a small gem of the east coast

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Tim Smith is standing near the foot of the steep hill which connects the lower part of Robin Hood’s Bay with the upper village on the clifftop.

“This high wall here”, he points, “was in real danger of falling down. We used to walk up the hill hugging the railings on the other side. No way were we going to get close to that wall.”

Although repairs to the wall made it secure, demolition was out of the question. It was a listed structure and an essential part of Robin Hood’s Bay’s picturesque network of narrow streets and alleys.

The only long-term option was to have it dismantled and then restored to look like the day it was built. And so when work commenced, black and white photographs, thought to have been taken in the 1890s, were used to ensure that not a stone was out of place.

“Apart from making the wall safe, it’s one of those restoration projects which many people might not consider vital,” says Tim, who is vice-chair of the Parish Council. “But we have an absolutely unique village here, and a responsibility to preserve as much of the original character as we can.”

Work on the wall is part of several major schemes over the last four years aimed at returning Robin Hood’s Bay’s streetscape to how it looked a century ago.

The total cost of £275,000, has been funded by a partnership of English Heritage, the North York Moors National Park, the Highways Authority and North Yorkshire County Council.

First-time visitors may not appreciate how much work has gone into the restoration but those people who are familiar with the village will remember how, over time, many of the surfaces had been covered with tarmac, and the numerous flights of steps were constructed with cheap concrete slabs. It was a scene made even more ugly by frequent – and unsympathetic – street repairs by the utility companies.

Now, the streets have been resurfaced in the vernacular style with cobbles and York stone flags, and the work has been done by local craftsmen.

Robin Hood’s Bay is one of the most photographed villages on England’s east coast. No-one knows why it is so-named, but among several local legends is one about the eponymous outlaw making his escape to the Continent from here.

What is known, however, is that there was a fishing community with 20 boats here during the time of Henry VIII, and during the 1700s, the village had become the most notorious smuggling centre on the Yorkshire coast. It’s said that via a network of subterranean passageways, bales of silk could move from the bottom part of the village to the top without ever seeing daylight.

Many early cottages crumbled into the sea because of cliff falls, a process that is still ongoing and threatening parts of the upper village.

The lower village’s standstone-built terrace houses with red-tiled roofs began to take shape in the Victorian era when the village grew in prosperity and more than 170 traditional Yorkshire fishing cobles were owned by bay families.

The opening of the Scarborough-to-Whitby railway line, in 1885, reduced the village’s dependence on the sea for a living, and tourism steadily became the main business.

All of the lower part of the village is now a conservation area, and around 260 out of the 350 buildings are listed. The majority are second homes or holiday lets, and the village is thought to attract as many as 100,000 visitors a year.

Tim Smith says that the people who live there permanently take great pride in the appearance of Robin Hood’s Bay and the majority of them have made huge efforts to maintain their properties in the traditional style.

However, there was one glaring blot on the village’s streetscape that required more effort. Close to the centre, and passed by thousands of visitors every year, was a row of three houses with shops underneath them which was known locally as “Browns’ Buildings.”

Unoccupied for many years, they had become dilapidated and unsightly. The ownership was shared between members of a family and complicated, but new owners were eventually found who were keen to have the buildings restored.

With grants from English Heritage, the work was done to a quality that might not otherwise have been possible, says Edward Freedman, Building Conservation Officer with the North York Moors National Park.

“We reinstated a cast-iron staircase and railings to one of them, which were shown in old photographs, but had almost disappeared.” Now the buildings are back in use as before.

The final act in the village’s face-lift is the return of a large cast-iron fish to its position beside the cobbled slipway known as Wayfoot. The fish served as a collection box for the RNLI from as far back as 1886 – there had been a lifeboat based here since 1881 – but it had become unsightly with corrosion.

Ray Pennock, who has been involved in looking after it since the 1950s, says that when it was opened, the fish collected £1 7s 6d in its first year, but in recent times it has been averaging about £1,400 a year.

After the Robin Hood’s Bay lifeboat station was closed in 1931, the money was diverted and now goes into the RNLI’s general northern area funds.

“The lifeboat’s still needed here from time to time, mostly for people in the bay getting cut off by the tide,” says Ray. “So it would be good if the money could once more be given to Whitby.”