Staithes – Yorkshire’s Fishing Village Locked in Time

Staithes village
Staithes village

Staithes is a perfect ‘picture postcard’ village with its higgledy-piggledy streets and alleyways which plunge dramatically down a steep bank to its harbour and the wind-battered Yorkshire coast.

The village has changed little since the 1800s when it was home to a fleet of fishing boats known as cobles. Its fishermen plied their trade in unpredictable waters, risking their lives to bring home their catch.

Today, tourists flock in droves to see this village which feels like it’s locked in an earlier time. Exploring its tiny streets, alleyways and hidden yards is a joy because much of the village is pedestrianised.

Look closer and you’ll discover the village’s ‘secret history’. There are fascinating tales of smuggling, press gangs and even an early chemical industry based on urine!

Squeeze Street

Staithes is well known for its narrow alleyways known as ‘ginnels’ which run like a maze through the village, often linking streets or squares.

The wonderfully named Dog Loup is a ‘must see’ oddity. It’s one of narrowest streets in England at just 18 inches wide. Rumour has it that it was once used as an escape route for those evading the law or press gangs.

Running from the main Church Street to Gun Gutter, it’s a challenge to squeeze down this alley without turning sideways. I’d avoid eating a large plate of fish ‘n’ chips until after your visit!

Workers’ Cottages

Staithes village is sheltered from the full force of the North Sea by a towering cliff called Cow Bar but it’s still windswept on the windiest of days if a gale comes howling through.

Walk down the main street and turn off to Staithes Beck and cross the bridge to Cowbar Bank and North Side where you’ll find a group of old miners’ cottages which once served the alum mines nearby. Old Alum Cottage is now a B ‘n’ B.

These are typical of the homes lived in by the early workers with thick stone walls and small windows designed to keep out the worst of bad weather.

There are also fishermens’ cottages dotted around the village and larger houses which were once owned by ship owners and merchants.

A long-held Staithes tradition was to name your cottage after the family boat. Some cottages named after cobles are still painted in the colours of their owner’s boat.

Don’t Miss: Look out for old cottages named after boats including the Rose of England, Star of Hope, Confidence Cottage and Unity House. If you’re lucky, you might even find an authentic fishing cottage to rent.

The ‘Staithes Bonnet’

Fishing was the main industry in Staithes from the earliest of times, and women played an important role on land whilst the men were away at sea.

The fishing women wore what became known as ‘Staithes bonnets’ to protect themselves whilst they balanced fish baskets on their heads.

The bonnet was designed to protect their hair from flying fish scales and also cushioned the baskets of fish which they carried on their heads. The fish baskets were heavy and could weigh as much as 50 kilograms.

Don’t Miss: There’s a great display of the bonnets at the Staithes Heritage Museum.

Crazy About Cobles

In the late 1700s until the late 1800s, Staithes was a small but bustling port with many boat owners operating merchant ships or fishing boats.

By the early 20th Century, there were 80 fishing boats in Staithes, mostly cobles, a vessel with a high bow and a flat bottom which enabled the fishermen to easily land and launch from shallow, sandy beaches.

They had a rudder which could be ‘unshipped’ easily before landing. The cobles could be lifted onto a larger boat or onto dry land, which was important for their safety when a storm was imminent.

Don’t Miss: Discover cobles in Staithes – most are owned by local fishermen and are often moored in Staithes Beck. For a deeper dive into their history, head to Staithes Heritage Museum with its models and photographs of cobles.

A Fishy Tale

When the fishing industry was at its peak, it must have been impossible to escape from the smell of fish and seafood in Staithes. The stench of fish was said to have been all pervasive.

Fish would be unloaded at the docks and gutted before being transported. Much of the surplus fish was cured, pickled in barrels or smoked as kippers. Every inch of spare land in the village was covered with racks of drying fish.

Fish curing was important in the days when transport by land or sea was slow because of the lack of refridgeration.

When the railways were built, fresh fish could be easily marketed on the same day and were sent as far afield as Manchester, Leeds and London’s Billingsgate Market. 

Don’t Miss: The Staithes Heritage Museum is a great place to discover more about the village’s fishing history.

Witchcraft and Superstitions

Fishing folk in Staithes were renowned for being superstitious. If a fishing boat had caught nothing for many nights, the fishermen would keep the first fish that came into the boat and burn it on their return home.

There are also tales of boat owners assembling at midnight for a ceremony if they’d had a run of ill fortune. They’d kill a pigeon and extract the bird’s heart which was then stuck full of pins and burned over a charcoal fire. The story has shades of earlier local witchcraft tales.

Another story is that fishermen who met someone whistling in the street or saw a woman on their way to the harbour wouldn’t go to sea. Eggs were also thought to be unlucky and fishing folk even avoided using the word ‘egg’.

Woolly Jumpers

Photo – Gansey designs including Staithes (left) c/o East Cleveland Image Archive.

Ganseys are a distinctive style of woolly jumper worn by sailors and fishermen to keep warm. They rely on a combination of close knitting and a tight spinning twist for their weatherproof qualities.

Ganseys are a distinctive style of woolly jumper worn by sailors and fishermen to keep warm. They rely on a combination of close knitting and a tight spinning twist for their weatherproof qualities

Each gansey pattern was unique to a specific village with individual designs which were sometimes used to identify unfortunate fishermen lost at sea. The ‘Staithes Gansey’ has a horizontal ribbed pattern across the chest.

Don’t Miss: Why not buy your own personalised gansey? There’s a big market in posh versions if you want to get into the maritime mood on your visit to Staithes. Even actor Daniel Day-Lewis wore one on a recent Vogue cover shoot.

Taking the Piss

Who knew that Staithes was once a centre of the early chemical industry? It’s an amazing discovery!

The alum industry took off in the 18th Century as a result of the village’s closeness to alum, ironstone and other minerals. Look out along the coast north of Staithes and you’ll see the cliffs of Boulby. These rocks were a rich source of minerals and alum.

Alum was used as a fixative used for dyes in the cloth trade – and Staithes became one of its most important producers. It was extracted from burning large piles of quarried shales.

The material was processed and sent along channels to the alum works where human urine was added to the mix.
At the peak of alum production the industry required 200 tonnes of urine every year, equating to the pee of 1,000 people.

Buckets were left on street corners in Staithes and nearby towns so the public could supply their urine for the alum works. This was the origin of the phrase “taking the piss”!

Don’t Miss: For intrepid visitors, it’s possible to scramble across the cliffs to the old alum workings at Boulby. Take care not to get too close to the cliff edge, and check tide times if you venture near the coast. This useful guide to the alum works provides a great intro to the abandoned surface workings, the old alum tunnel and mine features.

Captain Cook’s Early Adventures

Explorer and adventurer Captain Cook is one of Staithes’ most famous sons. His family moved to Staithes in 1745 and the young James was sent to work as a grocer’s apprentice.

Historians have speculated that this is where Cook developed the lure of the sea while gazing out of the shop window.

It was in Staithes that Cook decided to take up seafaring, taking on an apprenticeship with a local shipowner. Later he moved to nearby Whitby where he joined the Royal Navy… and the rest is history. 

William Sanderson’s shop where Cook worked is sadly no more- it was destroyed by a storm in 1745. But parts of the building have been incorporated into Captain Cook’s Cottage which you can still see on Church Street.

Don’t Miss: Staithes Heritage Museum boasts a huge collection of exhibits from Cook’s life including over 200 books from the 1780s, original engravings from Cook’s third voyage, letters, memorabilia and model ships. Free admission.


Back in the 1700 and 1800s smuggling was rife along the north Yorkshire coast and Staithes had a reputation for being one of its centres.

Staithes was a favourite landing spot for smugglers with stolen goods – tea, rum and brandy were popular contraband.

The whole village was a maze of escape routes with networks of underground tunnels and hiding places used to whisk the prohibited goods away from the prying eyes of custom officers.

Don’t Miss: Take a walking tour of the village and look for alleyways, escape routes and smugglers’ hiding holes.

Press Gangs

Staithes was a target for press gangs recruiting men into the navy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

With the growing threat of the Napoleonic wars, the navy became desperate for new recruits, so they turned to the strong-arm tactics of the press gangs.

Gangs of “licensed thugs” were employed to abduct men and force them into service for the Royal Navy. Many Staithes fishermen suffered this fate with many dying at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The local men would try to evade the press gangs by escaping down the village’s alleyways or hiding in cellars.

Art and the Sea

Staithes has been an inspirational place for artists since the late 19th Century. They were attracted by its picturesque harbour and traditional fishing community.

The Staithes Group of artists became associated with the village in the 1890s. They are known as the “Northern Impressionists’ due to their love of painting authentic, real life subjects in the open air.

They lived amongst the fishermen and women of Staithes, often lodging with them or living in their attics. The fishing community gave them first-hand experience of the harsh lives of the villagers. 

The most famous artists from the Staithes Group were Laura and Harold Knight who captured a snapshot of traditional life in Staithes.

Don’t Miss: Contemporary painters are still attracted to the village. You can check out their work and that of the Staithes Group at the Staithes Gallery. Get arty and stay overnight – why not rent the Laura Knight Studio, a cosy studio cottage where Laura and Harold Knight once painted.

Fossil Hunting

Fossils Staithes
Fossils from Staithes

Staithes is located on Yorkshire’s ‘Dinosaur Coast’ so it’s no surprise that it’s a fertile territory for fossil hunters.

The dramatic cliffs around Staithes have been chipped away by jet, alum and ironstone miners over the years, but still retain a rich supply of fossils and ammonites.

A rare sea-going dinosaur fossil was discovered following a rockfall near Staithes in the 1990s. Perhaps you’ll be the next beachcomber to uncover a major discovery?

Don’t Miss: Join a guided group tour run by Real Yorkshire Tours which visits the foreshore of Staithes, the base of the cliffs and continues on to nearby Port Mulgrave. You’ll discover what was once a deep tropical sea, and hunt for dinosaur bones and fossils. You might even find a 200 million years old oyster shell called a “devils toe nail”!

Tide and Time

No trip to Staithes would be complete without a walk to the harbour wall where you’ll find dramatic seascapes. It’s a wild and windy walk on a blustery day when you might want to take cover.

A good place to escape from bad weather is the famous Crab and Lobster public house which sits perched on Staithes’ main sea front. From here there are fantastic views of the bay and the little beach beyond.

The pub’s entrance sign warns visitors that: “In rough weather please use the other door” and it’s not uncommon for drinkers to have to wait for a retreating wave before entering or leaving the bar.

The current Crab and Lobster pub isn’t the original inn which once occupied this site. Its predecessor was reduced to rubble by a violent storm!

Don’t Miss: The best panoramic views of Staithes and its coastline are from Cowbar Nab, a short but steep walk up Cowbar Bank. Don’t forget to take your binoculars for an even better view

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