I stepped down from the ‘United’ bus at a junction on the main Redcar to Whitby road, and found myself on the edge of a small estate of unprepossessing council houses.
Feeling underwhelmed at the climax of my journey, my 12 year-old legs dawdled 300 yards further, and I began a new trip, from the prosaic into the poetic.
This was Staithes.
At the Captain Cook Inn the flat road began its 1:4 descent; the tarmacadam surface gave way to polished cobblestones. What had looked so ordinary became so much more alluring.
Of a sudden, the village revealed itself before my keen eyes. The curtain had opened on the most sumptuous of theatre sets.
Small cottages stood cheek-by-jowl with handsome town houses, they appeared to clamber over, and hug each other; there was a network of enchanting alleys and yards. The piercing ‘keeow’ calls of the herring gulls, and the taste of salt and coal smoke were in the air.
The road curved, enticing me along a High Street of brick, render and stone, of slate and pantiles and impressive chimneys.
There were women sitting on occasional chairs outside their open front doors; they were knitting (my aunty Betty reckoned this gave them something to think about whilst they were talking). They were the guardians of the peace; with their kind but strict faces, they surveyed this network, and little got past them. Some wore strange looking white bonnets.
On the pavement there were freshly made crab sandwiches inviting visitors to take one and leave their money in the basket; it seemed like a trusting place, and why wouldn’t it be?
I remember there being three pubs, and a butcher’s shop; there was a grocer’s, a gift shop and a post office, even a bank, and there was Toffee Crackle House – that was where I wanted to live.
And finally, beyond the Cod and Lobster Inn, there was the sea.
The high, gull-laden cliffs embraced it all, they seemed to protect and threaten the place. All this was spread before me, and as if it wasn’t enough, my youthful imagination led me further, into another realm.
My mind, like a Chinese lantern, flashed images onto these beguiling streets and passages.
There were fishermen in oil-black sou’westers, speaking in a dialect thick with Scandinavian words; wives shawled and bonneted, and with missing teeth, gutting mackerel on the silver-scaled street; bearded smugglers heaving barrels of brandy into back yards; sails unfurling in the harbour, a stiff breeze whipping the rigging.
I thought I glimpsed Captain Cook leaving the chandler’s with a handful of mahogany things a sailor might use.
There was a storm brewing, a swell on the wicked, grey sea; petrels and fulmars circled above and there was a sea fret on my face. The taverns offered a refuge, sending smells of sour ale and comforting tobacco, out onto the street.
Beyond the village there was the horizon. What lay beyond that? Nordic ports of the former Hansiatic League and folksong crossed my mind. The question prodded my curiosity for years to come.
The truth of these fanciful, if clichéd images, is contained in Staithes’ history, but there is enough still present, to satisfy the romantic mind.
This is a photograph I bought from Terry, the owner of the wonderful shop in the High Street, it sells all things useful and useless; his father owned the original plates.
The history of this tough, practical, yet absorbing place is deeply branded into its fabric, and that is part of its appeal, but there are important details that currently set it aside from other visually attractive coastal villages.
Day-trippers trod a path down the High Street to the beach via the teashop and the ice-cream van. Wherever I have been in the world, I have learned not to travel in their wake.
Mercifully they do not swamp Staithes, that fate is reserved for the prettier coastal villages nearby that most people seem to flock to. Such destinations seem to take pride in their league position of ‘most visited places’. Long may Staithes dwell nearer the relegation zone.
I tend to take the lanes and alleyways less travelled, for Staithes is such a permeable place with passages so narrow, where even the bandiest of legs could stop a runaway pig.
They lead to the most intimate of spaces, that don’t let you down – they often contain an interesting cottage of colours that can lift your mood, or an authentic Victorian lamppost, an inviting bench, a collection of plants in pots, or just things that people have left outside their front door. There are instances of voices revealing their daily business, for there would be little privacy living in a place like this.
Some of the lanes are still cinder paths, with tiny spaces of land overgrown with weeds and bordered by fences in need of repair. One such space looks down upon the High Street and much of the lower village; it has a bench, and it is my favourite spot to sit and consider the place. Should I have been blessed with the talents of Dylan Thomas, this is from where I would observe my Llareggub and write my ‘Under Milk Wood’.
Staithes is changing more slowly than some of its neighbouring villages; there are details I feel comfortable with, and my connection with what is still a meaningful place to me, remains.
It was a working village when I was a child, well populated but beginning to decline – its fishing industry was dying and people were dying, neither to be replaced in sufficient numbers.
Nearby were the villages of Runswick Bay and Robin Hood’s Bay – these were the places that everyone seemed to flock to, but they seemed too precious for dustbins and lines of washing. They were very pretty, but for me, a little too sterile. The Staithes of today is not yet a bijou resort, but the hanging baskets are starting to appear.
On three occasions I have taken a cottage there, and remembering those women with kind but strict faces, I sat on my occasional chair, in the High Street; I had no wool to knit, nor mackerel to gut. I simply watched the hikers and geologists heading to their points of interest.
A small child, a girl of about 8 years old, approached me, the stranger, with a tray of fairy cakes. She had made them with her grandmother’s help, and asked me if I’d like to buy one for 50 pence, in order to raise funds for the RNLI. She had a sparkle in her eyes that contained a sense of fun and adventure. She spoke with a confidence that came from a place of wellbeing. It was heartwarming, but for a moment I felt sad, as I realized that what I was witnessing used to be commonplace, but was now a rare occurrence. What a place for a child to grow.
Staithes doesn’t flaunt itself. It remains understated. It doesn’t succumb to flattery. Because it still has something of a permanent population, people just get on with their lives as window cleaners, postmen or shop assistants, but they are fast dwindling in number.
It has reached a stage of transition, and is becoming a place to look at. Its cottages and houses have become a means to make money.
The ‘Farrow&Ball’ colour range appears here and there, replacing the traditional colours of the leftover paints used on the fishing boats. There is a feeling of inevitability that if Staithes is to survive, tourism is probably the only economy that can support it. My fear is that what has been such a strong place, will become just another space, and a thin experience replaces an all-consuming one; a benign comfort to post to ‘Facebook’ friends to strengthen the image of a worldly and exciting life.
I am not the first person to want to paint in Staithes. It has a long association with painters, a fact that initially stimulated me further in wanting to work in the village.
The Staithes Group established itself here as 25 painters came together towards the end of the 19th Century. Dame Laura Knight and her husband Harold Knight being the two most renowned, and their stay has been well documented.
The group’s legacy is substantial; their paintings offer a fine social record of this hard environment. If it interests you, I would urge you to look them up.
They also stimulated a century of untold numbers of paintings of Roxby Beck and fishing boats, to the point where I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t see another. Partially as a result of this, my fervent zest to record my feelings for this place no longer lied within the village, but somewhere beyond……………… (To be continued).