At Easter, I took a short break on the east coast of North Yorkshire and have been meaning to write about it ever since! It’s a region that we know well as a family: my husband spent many holidays in Filey as a child and, when we were first married, some friends owned a house at Robin Hood’s Bay, at which we spent several wonderful long weekends. Built in the seventeenth century, this was the house that stands nearest the sea, adjacent to the ‘quarterdeck’, or man-made apron for viewing the bay, and, on stormy nights, the waves broke right over it and the whole building shook. (It’s next door to what was the Leeds University/Sheffield University Marine Laboratory from 1912 to 1982 and now, rebuilt, a National Trust visitor centre.) The house is still there, though no longer owned by our friends. During its time, it has been several times hired by authors wanting a quiet place in which to write without disturbance (though when I visited the house its plumbing system was so eccentric that a great deal of time had to be deployed in pumping out sewage and clearing the drains!). Robin Hood’s Bay itself is the setting of the Bramblewick novels, by Leo Walmsley.
No visit to the East coast is complete without a visit to this mediaeval fishing village. However, this year, my husband and I headed a little further north, to Port Mulgrave, a hamlet near Staithes. Bleaker and more desolate than ‘the Bay’, this place really could have been at the end of the world.
One of the most magnificent things about this stretch of Yorkshire coast is that visiting it is like stepping back into the past, but in an unpretentious way (quite unlike, for example, the self-conscious ‘olde-worlde’ well-preserved streets of towns such as Harrogate). The house in which we stayed was a massive building that dated from the period when ironstone was mined there during the nineteenth century. I’m not sure what the purpose of this building was originally: it may simply have been a dwelling for the ironstone workers, or it may have been part dwelling, part factory. Today it has been divided into several cottages, one of which was our holiday house. Intriguingly, the end cottage was burned down some time ago, without any damage having been caused to the rest of the building. Its owner still visits regularly to tend the garden and the empty space where the cottage once stood.
I hadn’t heard of Port Mulgrave before. When I came to look it up, I discovered that the Mulgrave Estate covers a massive area at the centre of which lies Whitby. By chance, on this holiday, we also happened to pass the estate office in Sandsend.
Although it was Easter, we managed to avoid the crowds, apart from an ill-advised foray into Whitby – another favourite haunt – on Good Friday. On Easter Saturday, we walked from Robin Hood’s Bay
to Ravenscar and climbed the cliff that leads to the golf links and the Raven Hall Hotel, where we bought a sandwich lunch and sat outside to soak up the sunshine.
We stumbled upon several plump seal pups at the boulder-strewn end of the beach, just before the start of the climb up the cliff. One of them growled menacingly at our dog, clearly more than a match for him (He’s a very mild-mannered dog, and certainly wouldn’t have hurt it; he stood timidly several feet away and looked in wonderment at it!). Almost full-grown, they were evidently awaiting the return of the parent seals with more food.
I’d never been as close as this to seals before and had no idea how beautiful they are. Glistening and glossy, each was a different colour. Some were dappled like horses.
I admit it, I wrote this post largely as an excuse to share with my readers their beauty and that of this magnificent coastline! Also, some Twitter friends have wondered about my promotion of Yorkshire seafood, especially crab. Now you know! I love this place and everything it has to offer.
[Text and photographs © Christina James 2014]
I’ve written several times about the importance of place in my novels and how much I admire writers who can evoke a specific place (whether real or fictional) and imbue it with its own particular character and atmosphere. Fictional places that I love include Margaret Mitchell’s Tara, Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead and Gerald Durrell’s Corfu (the last perhaps not strictly speaking fictional, but still, I’m certain, an embroidered and selective portrayal of the island as it existed when he moved there with his family).
Towns, villages and hamlets in the area of South Lincolnshire where I grew up have some wonderful names: Spalding itself (named after a sixth century Anglian tribe called the Spaldingas), Whaplode, Quadring Eaudyke, Gosberton Risegate, and, perhaps the one I like best, Pode Hole (which, apparently, is Anglo-Saxon for ‘the place of the toad’). Today Pode Hole is a very small village, best known for the pumping station which was opened in 1965 and is already a Grade II listed building. It connects two waterways to Vernatt’s Drain, an astonishing feat of late seventeenth century engineering which began the long, slow process of draining the Fens. (I’ve read that Vernatt’s real name was Baron Philibert Vernatti, and that he was ‘an adventurer’. I’d certainly like to have met him!)
Place names in South Yorkshire are also evocative. There is Silkstone (which sounds beautiful, but was once quite a grim mining village); Hoylandswaine, which reads like the name of a bucolic lover but more prosaically means ‘a spur of land jutting out from a hill’; Durkar (which means ‘grit marsh’, but to me has always sounded Asian: a rather exotic cross between ‘durbar’ and ‘gurkha’) and Goldthorpe and Grimethorpe (the Danish ‘thorp’ referring to a small new settlement next to a larger village).
Many of these Yorkshire place-names are Norse or Danish in origin. There is an even greater concentration of such Scandinavian names on the East coast, particularly in the Scarborough – Robin Hood’s Bay area and its hinterland. My all-time favourite is Ugglebarnby.
As a family, we’ve passed through Ugglebarnby many times on our way to a day out at the coast. Knowing that ‘-by’ is the Norse suffix for ‘the place of’, we’ve always assumed that Ugglebarnby meant ‘the place of Uggle’s barn’. We’ve had fun speculating about Uggle: we’ve discussed how he probably came storming inland, straight off his dragon-prowed longboat, saw a likely-looking Saxon barn and laid claim to it and the adjoining village, thereafter fighting off all challengers and making it quite clear to whom the barn belonged by emphatically slapping his name on it. My husband and son, both tall and red-haired, and with ancestors in the female line whose surname was definitely of Norse origins, like to imagine themselves as modern incarnations of fierce manly Vikings – sailing the oceans, whirling sharp battleaxes and certainly getting their own way (the desire to do this is still a pronounced family trait) in claiming new territories. They’ve therefore always felt a strong affinity with Uggle. Perhaps because of my own Saxon origins, I’ve imagined him as quite a sinister character, probably reclusive, a hulking, brooding giant emerging like a Rottweiler from his homestead (plus barn) to defend it against all comers.
Today I’ve disappointed myself a little, therefore, by looking up Ugglebarnby in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, only to discover that its meaning is ‘the owl at Bardi’s place’. Now Bardi might have been just as bloodthirsty and truculent as Uggle, but somehow I doubt it: he was obviously nice to owls, and whether or not he had a barn is not recorded. A bit of a let-down!
We could have looked up the name years ago – The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names was left to my husband by his first boss, who died at some point in the 1980s – but I’m glad that we didn’t. If we had, all those fantastical conversations on the way to the coast would never have happened. But one crucial thing hasn’t changed: Ugglebarnby is still a peerless place-name!
[Click on photographs to enlarge them.]
Perhaps you have your own favourite place names; if so, I should very much like to hear of them.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James