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Prospect of Runswick Bay

Originally published in the Dalesman Magazine

Runswick in the 1980s


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 

slipway, while launching racks were attached to either side of the carriage, and then the winch-brake was eased so the boat could descend to the sand. While the winch rope was being disconnected, the crew — dressed in heavy leather sea boots, with cork lifejackets laced over their oilskins — clambered into the boat to check their oars. When all were ready, the strongest launchers manned the racks and pushed, while women and boys took hold of two ropes at the front of the carriage to pull. To encouragement shouted by the crew, the launchers hauled and pushed.

     Gathering momentum, the caterpillar wheels trundled towards the sea. At the waterline, the tow ropes were dropped, everyone running to the back to drive the carriage into the sea until it was almost awash. While the steersman untied the rudder, two ropes were hooked to the stern, and passed to the eager hands of those who were now waist deep in freezing surf. These ropes, ‘connecleys’, were led backwards, so that the lifeboat was almost catapulted into the breakers. The haulers ran up the beach. The lifeboat surged into the sea, bows rising as oars plunged in unison.

     When the cheering had died down, then came the waiting. Dark-eyed women, wrapped in shawls, with children tugging at their skirts, watched the sea, worrying over their husbands and sons. Every person in Runswick had a relative on the boat, a breadwinner whose loss would be hard-felt. It was an experience they faced every day of their lives, but it was never as harrowing as on those nights when their men folk challenged the worst moods of the sea to render help to mariners less fortunate than themselves.

     A measure of the women’s’ characters can be gauged from an incident which occurred on 12th March 1901. At dawn the men set off to fish in their cobles. Hours later, the wind changed its direction and became a shrieking gale. The villagers drifted to vantage points, where they tried to spy the distant cobles. It was obvious they needed to launch the lifeboat, but all the crew was already out at the fishing grounds, along with nearly all the manpower needed to launch her. The women decided that if the shore-bound old men could man the lifeboat, then they, the women, could launch her.

     Their achievement illustrates the limits to which the human body can be stretched when danger demands it. The Cape of Good Hope, manhandled by the womenfolk, oars powered by aged muscles, was   able to stand by until all the cobles safely reached shore. A postscript to the unprecedented event was that all the women were invited to a reception dinner in Manchester where Ethel Patto accepted a plaque and a photograph on their behalf.

     Since that day, in 1901, Runswick’s successive lifeboats have taken part in several rescues. One of the more notable was on 19th November 1924, when the Princess Clementine went aground at Old Nab, between Runswick and Staithes. The crew members were taken off, but the captain refused, hoping his vessel could be towed off when the weather eased.

   He stayed alone on board, with the sea battering the ship into a wreck beneath his feet. After eight days, he signalled for help. For bringing the exhausted captain ashore, Coxswain Andrew Tose and Second Coxswain Thomas Patton were each awarded the R.N.L.I bronze medal.

     The 1939-45 war changed life irreparably for the villagers. Many of the sons who had seen active service returned home married. The obvious housing shortage, plus the depletion of inshore fishing stocks, forced them to seek work away from the bay. With young blood not replacing old in the cobles, the long standing fishing families began to disappear. And by then, the tourists had discovered the idyllic bay, and as cottages became vacant they were swiftly bought. The new owners spent weekends renovating the properties, and many of them grew to love the bay so much that when they retired they moved permanently into those weekend homes. One regular visitor to the bay was a vet whose practice was in Thirsk, Alf Wight, better known by his pen name – James Herriott –  who spent summer holidays in the Marquis of Normanby’s thatched cottage on the seawall at the foot of the cliff.

     The 1960s saw a new straight road cut from the Runswick Bay Hotel down to the village, replacing the twisting old route which has since been ravaged by landslips until it is barely wide enough for walkers, but it does endure as a footpath down the hillside to the cluster of cottages below. A concrete seawall, built in 1970, complete with a slipway, stopped some of the erosion, and has since been enhanced. Fishing boats still grace the front but few, if any, are working boats. The lifeboat house, for so long a centre of the community, stands empty, its duties taken over by the inshore rescue craft at Staithes.


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Communicated information

Evening Gazette  18/3/1977 & 29/11/1980

Johnson, J.S. ‘Jazzer’    The Lifeboats Of Runswick Bay       HUB 1974

Young, Rev George.   A History Of Whitby  Vol II (1817)  Caedmon 1976

Chris Scott Wilson                   Writer                                             

©2010 C.J.S.Wilson

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