Six hundred feet up on the cliffs, Ravenscar is a village haunted by the ghosts of those who dreamed of turning it into a chic resort to rival its neighbours, Scarborough and Whitby.
If their vision had been realised more than a century ago, it would be a town of elegant streets lined with stately villas overlooking the sea and coastline sweeping north to Robin Hood’s Bay, busy promenades of shops and even an observatory.
Instead, it’s probably the quirkiest place on Yorkshire’s coast, thanks to its air of unfinished business that left it isolated and strangely empty.
All that remains of the dream are the Raven Hall Hotel, a cluster of buildings around Station Square and the occasional house standing alone.
The ghostly outlines of houses and streets never built are visible in lines of kerbstones marking their boundaries, and gratings for the drainage system laid to serve them sited incongruously in the middle of grassy paths.
Now the story of how the dream died and Ravenscar came to be labelled the Town That Never Was has been unearthed using a wealth of material buried in archives – and lays to rest myths that have grown up around it like the weeds on abandoned building plots.
Marcus Aldrich and Amanda Batcheler have spent three years researching what really happened for their book, Going Once… Going Twice… Going Wrong! and website.
And contrary to the commonly-held belief that a development company’s plan to transform Ravenscar failed because investors wouldn’t buy into building on the often storm-lashed or foggy clifftop, they have discovered that the vision came close to being realised.
More than 1,000 plots were sold, but the plan faltered because of a stand-off between investors and developers over who would start building first.
Amanda, who runs a bed-and-breakfast near Malton, and Marcus, who is a tourism and economic development consultant, became fascinated by Ravenscar’s atmosphere on a visit.
“I had a million questions which nobody seemed to be able to answer. You’ve got this beautiful place, but there’s something just not right about it. You’ll hear people saying, ‘What happened here?’ and we kept going back to find out about this remarkable story, and what happened, so we started to dig about,” says Marcus.
Amanda adds: “If you walk round up there, everybody’s asking questions. You can sit in the café and they ask questions and it was just the frustration that there wasn’t any information about it, which is a shame because it’s part of our lost history.”
The trail led to the North Yorkshire county archives in Northallerton, and also the records of C Hoare and Co, in London, Britain’s oldest bank.
“Looking through the catalogue and sales ledger, the story just jumped out of the pages and brought the whole thing to life. There was a lot of myth, and it all started to unravel and there was a story to tell,” says Marcus.
“It was like forensic financial analysis, because we had the accounts, the ledger that showed the sales, all the transactions. A lot of money had been put into this and it was a real thing. This whole story about nobody buying any plots was a myth. There had been a lot of money borrowed and put in.”
What it had been put into was a plan developed by a consortium headed by London businessman Charles Edmund Newton Robinson, who had built Salcombe, in Devon, into a successful resort.
In 1895 he turned his attention to a Yorkshire clifftop hamlet historically known as Peak, with the intention of replicating that success, and started buying 740 acres of land for £13,450, then a substantial sum.
Renamed Ravenscar, the new resort was aggressively marketed, and workmen began marking out plots and digging a drainage system.
And the investors came, seduced by a blatant lie. Maps drawn up showed a sandy beach at the bottom of the forbidding cliffs, where none existed. Then as now, Ravenscar descends to a shelf of rocks.
“That’s part of why it didn’t happen,” says Amanda. “This location’s beautiful, but it’s not accessible, there’s no beach and because it’s so high it can be sunny in Scarborough and misty or windy up here. That in itself was dishonest, saying there’s a beach.”
Marcus adds: “They waxed lyrical about it, which they could in those days, and it got traction, people took title and could see a future there, could see themselves building there, living there, so these people bought into it in hard cash.
“We think a lot of them got buyer’s remorse when they actually visited. It can be the most beautiful place, and then when it’s foggy you can’t see your hand in front of your face.”
What Amanda and Marcus can’t be sure of is the developers’ motivations.
“We don’t believe they cared whether there was anything built there,” says Marcus. “Their business was about selling plots of land. They made their money by buying the land and passing it through about three companies, which they all had a hand in, and then all they had to do was sell these plots of land.
“There was some intention to build a holiday resort, but they were quite quick to get out when they thought it wasn’t going to happen.”
The plan foundered on an impasse between developers and investors over what was built first, houses or infrastructure to serve them.
“It was a chicken and egg situation,” says Amanda. “They needed people to build the houses, but people needed to know everything else was going to happen, otherwise there was no point in building a house.”
The developers went into receivership in 1909 and Ravenscar was not just left unfinished, but hardly begun. Decades later, the land passed to the National Trust. Amanda and Marcus have worked with the National Trust to bring the story to life, producing a walking route around Ravenscar and an aerial film of the area that gives a sense of how it would have been developed.
“We just felt we had a duty to turn it into something, because it’s not to be missed,” says Marcus. “You go to Ravenscar and there’s a house that just stands alone, and when you’re able to put it in context it all starts to make sense. If we can share that interest we had in it, and answer some questions, that’s what motivated us to do it.”
And they are also working on an online re-creation of how Ravenscar might have looked, selling virtual plots from the developer’s maps.
Marcus says: “We would like to re-create the town virtually, historically and architecturally as it would have been so you could hold your phone up and see what it would have been like.”
For both Marcus and Amanda, there is still more to discover. “It was something that we found we couldn’t stop, until we put something together and said ‘That’s our take on it, but that’s not the end of the story’. There will be more stories to come out. It would be good to find ancestors of the people who bought into it.”
Going Once… Going Twice… Going Wrong! and details of the virtual plots can be found at www.thetownthatneverwas.co.uk