DURING one of the sunnier days of late July, we spent time on the beach at Sandsend near Whitby. My wife and I were there to carry out some research for my books and articles and there is little doubt we chanced upon one of the better days of our poor summer.

The sun was shining and there was a warm dry wind with never a hint of rain or thunder. Those benefits were more by chance than by good planning.

Sandsend has long been one of our favourite coastal villages. With its long, clean sands stretching nearly three miles into Whitby, and its own bay sheltered from the north-west by the cliffs, it offers free parking almost on the shoreline and a lack of noisy and garish amusement arcades.

There are ice-cream kiosks and refreshments close at hand. When our four children were small, we rented a cottage in Sandsend for our summer holidays and all were highly enjoyable.

What is not generally known is that Sandsend used to consist of two small communities, one known as East Row and the other being formerly Sandyford.

It is highly probable that in Viking times, the entire place was called Thordisa, which meant the stream or beck of a Scandinavian woman called Thordis.

I am not sure when Sandyford evolved into Sandsend but it is an apt name for the lengthy beach.

At times, there are suggestions that this area was the Dunum-Sinus that may date to the Roman history of this district. One of their roads or streets was a branch of Ermine Street that ran north from Lincoln to Malton, and then via Pickering across the moors through Cawthorne, Stape, Goathland and Grosmont.

From Grosmont, it crossed the River Esk and moors to terminate on the coast near Sandsend.

The exact location of the place where the road reached the coast is not certain.

One suggestion is that it may have been the Roman signalling station at Goldsborough, while others indicate it was probably the village of Dunsley near Sandsend.

Or, of course, it could have been Sandsend itself, which has always been considered a safe and convenient landing and departure point for incoming and outgoing sea vessels.

With the dense Mulgrave Woods reaching almost to the beach, this offered a wonderful escape route for smugglers and others coming ashore in secret.

I refer to this in my recent book Blessed Nicholas Postgate – Martyr of the Moors (Gracewing) where incoming priests, ordained overseas, sought temporary sanctuary in farms and cottages deep within Mulgrave Woods.

Two streams follow almost parallel routes from the moors as they flow through these woods into the sea at Sandsend.

Within those woods are three castles, all known as Mulgrave Castle, although the earliest was a timber and earth building sometimes called Wade’s Castle or Foss Castle This dates to Saxon times when it was the home of a huge Saxon warrior-king called Wade or Wada, said to be buried between two upright stones near Goldsborough.

Legendary tales of Wade relate how he was married to Bell, a giantess, and when she wanted a footpath to cross the moors, she and Wade constructed one. She carried the stones in her apron while he built the path, tossing the hammer to one another as they produced what is now called Wade’s Causeway.

A section of this can still be seen near Goathland where it is more correctly known as a Roman road.

It is part of the one that crossed the moors from Pickering to the coast and was an amazing construction complete with cambered surface, drains and small pebbles to make it smoother for chariots.

It has survived for centuries even though local people stole some stones for their own homes and farms.

The second castle was erected around 1190-1200 and survived with modifications until demolished by the Government in 1647. Its ruins remain but it was destroyed by explosives because the owners, a family who helped Catholic priests to hide after returning to this country from Spain, could not pay the fines for harbouring the priests and so the castle was seized by the Protestant state and demolished.

It was so well built that explosives had to be used. Much later, in 1735, the present castle was built near Lythe by the Duchess of Buckingham and is now the home of the Marquis and Marchioness of Normanby.

One of its famous guests was the author Charles Dickens, who is said to have danced on the lawns upon seeing the splendid gardens and the fabulous view of the sea.

Three things are now missing from Sandsend. One is the alum mining industry, whose scars remain visible in the cliffs; another is the amazing railway viaduct that crossed the beck near the beach; and the third is the cement manufacturing industry that dated to Roman times. But the beach and sea remain for all to enjoy. One of the joys of Sandsend is the opportunity to see a remarkable variety of sea birds, whether on-shore, on the waves or above the waves. Invariably we go armed with binoculars and a good reference book because the variety and number of birds can be confusing.

There are gulls galore but these should not be lumped together as mere seagulls. There are several varieties, the most common being herring gulls and black-headed gulls. Herring gulls are unmistakable due to their size, grey wings with black tips and the noise they make, whereas black-headed gulls have very dark brown heads.

These look black from a distance but in winter, the dark feathers disappear except for a small dot behind each eye. They are much smaller than herring gulls.

The snag is that other species of gull have black heads during summer, including the Mediterranean gull, Bonaparte’s gull and the little gull, while the rare Sabine’s gull sports a dark grey head.

Two very large gulls are the great black-backed and the lesser black-backed, each of whom have dark upper wings, those of the lesser black-backed being rather more grey than black.

However, our real test came with the sight of two large black and white birds that were swimming in a short procession across the bay some distance from the shoreline.

Although I spotted them with naked eyes, it required the services of a pair of binoculars to hopefully identify them – but that was not as easy as it might appear.

I thought they were a pair of guillemots – but they could also have been razorbills. Both are members of the auk family, both are about the same size and both are black and white in roughly the same places and both have a band of white across their lower backs, marking the tips of some feathers.

One of my reference books showed a flock of guillemots swimming with razorbills among them, while another portrayed a flock of razorbills with guillemots swimming among them.

At first glance, there was no difference – indeed, there are occasions when these two species share the same nesting sites. But there is a difference.

The guillemot’s beak is long and slender, coming to a sharp point. As the razorbill’s name suggests, this has a very sharp beak.

It has a downward point and is very wide from top to bottom, but narrow from side to side rather like a knife in action. Wise people and creatures keep well away from that formidable weapon.