Runswick Bay has always been special. With Staithes to the north-west, and Sandsend to the south-east, Runswick village huddles on the cliffside as though seeking shelter from the north wind that blows cruelly in winter. The foundations of the buildings cling tenuously to fickle clay that has been known to shake cottages into the sea like a careless hand casting dice. It is said that one night, about the year 1664, the whole village but for one house vanished under mounds of earth and rocks. Fortunately, as some villagers were ‘waking’ a corpse, they were able to rouse the rest of the community, all of whom escaped. As late as 1817 when George Young, the Whitby historian, wrote of the incident, articles including a silver spoon and coins which had been carried from the rubble by the tide were still being washed back.
The village was rebuilt on another area of cliff and life went on as before. Tradition drew small coastal communities closely together, a bond forged by the common struggle to snatch a livelihood from the North Sea. Family trees became intermingled by marriage over many generations. With every man a fisherman, all eyes were constantly turned to the fickle wind which could change a family’s circumstances by merely flicking a few points northerly. Fishing was a hard life, and yet an occupation in which men grew up, son following father into the family coble to learn the art of shooting lobster and crab pots, or cleanly casting a long line without ‘ravelling’.
A tough breed, with their own brand of dialect, the fisher folk became as one when danger threatened. Runswick's lifeboat had its share of saving lives. Launching was no easy matter. In the early years of the 20th century, before tractor-powered launches were available, the lifeboat rested on a four-wheeled carriage, the front wheels of which were eight feet in diameter, with loosely jointed rims like caterpillar tracks to prevent the carriage sinking into the sand. A rear wheel had a diameter of four feet, and the rim was a foot wide for the same reason.
When distress signals were heard or a wreck sighted, the men left whatever they were doing and ran down to the boathouse. One night they walked out on a preacher in the middle of his sermon!
The boathouse doors were opened, a carbide lamp was lit outside, while boys laid a wide path of burning ‘ducks’ to the water. When the men assembled, three went on board and the chocks were dragged free from the rear wheels. The crew of 20, manning the two-handled winch, halted the boat about a dozen feet down the
Runswick in the 1980s