They are part of Yorkshire’s fishing heritage. Now Sarah Freeman finds out how the humble gansey is fueling a new business on the coast. Pictures by Ceri Oakes.
hen the fishermen of Robin Hood’s Bay pulled on their woollen ganseys for another day at sea, more often than not their only concern was whether the jumpers were thick enough to keep them warm. Every so often though, one would glance down at the pattern and be reminded of just how dangerous their profession could be.
Each port and each fishing family along the coast had its own specific design for the ganseys they wore and the reason had little to do with fashion. It meant that if there was a shipwreck or an accident at sea, as there so often was, when the bodies were washed up on the shore they could be easily identified.
These days there aren’t so many fishermen and those that still do ply their trade along this part of the coast are blessed with better boats, ones fitted with so much technology they can usually dodge even the fiercest of storms. Most have also swapped the traditional gansey for high- performance fabrics, but in one small corner of Robin Hood’s Bay this little slice of fishing heritage is being given a 21st century makeover. By his own admission, Matthew Pugh is a bit of a sucker for clothes and it was while looking for items to stock in a new shop, just at the top of hill leading down to the Bay, that he came across the original gansey pattern for Robin Hood’s Bay.
“It’s not only a beautiful, practical garment, but it also has a story to tell about this corner of Yorkshire,” he says.
“Here in Robin Hood’s Bay there are only a handful of people left who can still knit a gansey, so it was really difficult to find a team of people who could produce them for us. Fortunately, after a bit of a search we have now got everything in place.
“We wanted the jumpers to be unisex, so getting the grading and sizing right so it works on different shapes took a while to figure out, but people seem to love them. It feels like they are investing in a little piece of history, but one which happens to look good too.”
Much like the discovery of the gansey, becoming shop owners wasn’t something that Matthew and Laura Hepburn had planned. Matthew, who is originally from Pontefract, started out his career in fashion, eventually working for Crombie as a menswear buyer before moving into financial management for Mercedes and Jaguar Land Rover. Laura, originally from Robin Hood’s Bay, completed her photography degree and before starting the shop had worked in marketing and brand management.
“There is something really beautiful about Robin Hood’s Bay, so we decided to buy a house and move here a few years ago, which for Laura felt like coming home,” he says. “When people end up settling here they tend not to leave as it’s such a special place. One day a sign went up in one of the souvenir shops saying that the business was closing and the premises were up for rent.”
Within days the lease had been signed and Berties of Bay was born.
“The previous business used to sell painted pebbles from the beach. We said to each other if our new idea doesn’t work we can walk back down to the beach, pick up a few stones and grab a paint brush, but hopefully it won’t come to that.
“One thing which has really informed what we do at Berties was a trip to the Netherlands. Honestly, it was really eye-opening. They have a totally different approach to retail and shop ranges are much more eclectic. At Berties we have embraced that same philosophy so everything we offer is decided by things we love and would like to buy ourselves.”
The business, named after Matthew and Laura’s pet cat, is what an estate agent would call bijou. However, it is big enough to act as a showcase for a curious cabinet of beautiful things. While Matthew hopes the ganseys will become Berties’ trademark, the shop doesn’t just do jumpers.
Alongside ganseys there are also utilitarian smocks, chunky woollen scarves and throws, retro telephones, vintage books and, after a little trial and error, Berties has also managed to bottle the spirit of the Bay itself with a range of diffusers and candles with names like Slipway and Rocket Post.
“It’s hard not to fall in love with a place like Robin Hood’s Bay and I think we are on the brink of a real renaissance of our coastal towns and villages,” says Matthew, who spent countless summers as a child with his family in nearby Whitby.
“When I was growing up these places were packed with shops selling small gifts and souvenirs and the odd pub whose menu only stretched to a packet of crisps. Visitors now demand much more than that.
“They want nice cafes, they want great restaurants and I hope they also want to go away with more than just a stick of rock. Staithes just along the coast has done great things with its annual arts and heritage festival and it does feel like there are a lot of good things happening in Robin Hood’s Bay too.”
He might well be right. The old post office, now known as Tea, Toast and Post, serves up fish finger sandwiches in doorstep bread, homemade scones and some say the best coffee in the village.
Recently it’s also been making waves as a music venue and, while the capacity may be small, it has so far managed to attract performances from Matt Deighton, a guitarist who has played with Paul Weller and Oasis, and Simone Felice, the New York record producer and songwriter, who can usually be usually found playing festivals in San Francisco.
There’s more. Earlier this year Oliver Jones, director of a new North Yorkshire arts organisation called Landfall, and Sarah Scott, owner of the Secret Seaview Chapel and the former Swell Cafe in Robin Hood’s Bay, hosted the very first Comedy in the Dark event.
Pioneered in 2008 by a company called Big Difference Productions, the shows, where the comics perform on stage in pitch darkness, have grown in popularity, but few predicted the small village would become the first in Yorkshire to host an event.
“Sometimes all a town needs is a bit of momentum for really good things to happen and I would like to think Berties can be part of that,” says Matthew. “I want people to come in here and feel they have stumbled upon a little treasure trove. One thing I am keen to do is make sure there is a mix of new and old and I want it to feel authentic. The other day a young lad came in and spotted an old storm lantern for sale. He had a big smile on his face when he turned to me and said: ‘My grandad used to have one of these when I was growing up. I have never seen another one like it since, but it brings back so many happy memories’.
“And that’s what I want this place to be about, creating happy memories.”