SOME years ago, an elderly man from the North York Moors said that if I wanted cheering up on a cold winter’s day, I should head for the coast.
There I could walk along the beach or use the cliff-top paths that provide exhilarating views but one had to be very careful, being especially mindful of cliff falls or high winds. Even when on the beach, a rock could fall from the cliff face and inflict serious injuries.
Despite the risks, he suggested I include Staithes, Runswick Bay, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay. Then he added that after a few hours battling with those sea breezes in winter, you will realize how well off you are in your own village, however isolated and cold it is, either high on the moors or snug in a deep and lush dale.
He was right, of course. The seafarers along that section of our coast are a hardy race and seem able to cope with the worst of conditions. In many years past, I’ve seen fishing boats with icicles hanging from their woodwork as they were being prepared for a fishing session on the high seas, and I have seen them returning with icicles so large that I wondered how they kept afloat. Some fishing boats seemed to defy the rougher elements of the weather and returned safely to shore.
In the past, the fisher folk of our north-eastern coastline were highly superstitious but I am not sure whether this intensified at this time of year with Christmas on the horizon or when at sea, Christmas passed without recognition as a very special time. There are some professions and jobs whose workers regard the Christmas period as just ordinary working days.
Years ago, when I was a bobby patrolling the town of Whitby and its harbour-side, I spotted a fishing boat heading out to sea with Christmas decorations inside the cabin. I thought it was a good idea but whether it carried any superstitious message, I cannot be sure. I saw it only once. Maybe it was celebrating the birthday of a crew member? Or someone’s first fishing trip?
With regard to superstitions among the fishing community, I did hear of cats being sacrificed if fishing cobles were involved in a tragedy of any kind, but sometimes cats were destroyed to ensure a safe return from the sea. Another custom at Runswick Bay was carried out as the fishing boats returned to the harbour in bad weather. As the boats aimed for a safe landing, the children would assemble around bonfires on the cliff top and chant:
Souther, wind, souther
Blow father home to mother.
Among the many beliefs and superstitions along the coast, there used to be an old belief that sea-anemones turned into herrings in the later stages of their lives, and it was for this reason that the anemones were often known as herring-shine.
Perhaps the creatures that were the most obvious targets for superstitious people were the various types of seagull. I am not sure whether this applies to all gulls or to particular ones. One old belief was that seagulls carried the souls of sailors who had died, particularly those who had perished at sea. It seems to have been an ancient belief that was rarely discussed by the fisherfolk, but nonetheless it seems to have been deeply ingrained within their minds.
This produced a strong belief that when a sailor died, he turned into a seagull. An extension of this occurred if a seagull flew in a very straight line – it was said to be following an unseen dead body of a sailor who had perished at sea and whose body was moving along the seabed.
If a seagull flew against the glass of a window of a house, it was interpreted as a warning that a member of the household would die at sea. Three gulls flying together overhead was considered a bad omen for the person who witnessed them; it could foretell the death of the householder or someone near to him. Perhaps the best known seagull superstitions is that gulls coming inland in flocks are signs of impending bad weather.
I think this continues to be widely believed both on the coast and inland, whilst there is a possibility that it might be true. Seagulls and other birds will often be aware of storms and bad weather long before we humans are, and will take the necessary precautionary action.
One of the more curious and perhaps more widely spread beliefs is that good luck will follow anyone who can touch a sailors’ collar. It is more effective if done without his knowledge!
One common belief was that a ship’s bell represented its soul, and it was believed a bell always rang when a ship sank in a storm or from any other cause. If a bell on board rang without reason it was considered a very bad omen, as was the sound of a bell ringing beneath the waves.
It is said that the sound of a bell ringing beneath the waves can occasionally be heard just off shore at Whitby, particularly during stormy weather. The story is that when King Henry VIII destroyed Whitby Abbey during his founding of the new Church of England, he said he wished to keep the abbey’s splendid ring of fine bells. They were salvaged from the wreck of the abbey and Henry arranged for the entire ring of bells to be transported to London by ship, whereupon they would either be installed in one of his properties or he would sell them.
The townspeople were horrified by his actions but there was nothing they could do. A crowd gathered in sorrow to watch the ship leave Whitby harbour with their precious bells on board, and many were in tears.
But shortly after the ship set sail from Whitby harbour, it capsized, sinking with the bells on board. There was no storm, no high seas or strong winds – for no apparent reason, the ship simply and suddenly sank out of sight and it was impossible to either salvage it or the ring of bells. They remain on the seabed somewhere opposite the abbey ruins and it is said that on some silent nights, those bells can still be heard, eerily sounding from beneath the waves. There is no report about what happened to the ship’s crew.
Another piece of superstition or perhaps nothing more than an item of ancient folklore relates to another spot on that coastline at Kettleness. Kettleness stands between Sandsend and Runswick Bay and comprises a handful of cottages and a coastguard station above Kettleness Point, a 400 feet high cliff. In 1829, a section of that cliff slid slowly into the sea, carrying the entire hamlet into the waves. The residents had time to reach safety although their homes were lost. This was just one of many landslides along this coastline.
However, somewhere at the base of the cliff was the haunt of the Claymore Bogles. Claymore Well was between Kettleness and Hob Holes near Runswick Bay and although no-one ever saw one of the bogles, they could be heard washing and bleaching their clothes and hitting them with a tool known as a battledore, rather like a boat paddle.