Why the Yorkshire coast is an inspiration for artists and writers

Whitby's 199 steps (c) Tony Bartholomew

Whitby's 199 steps (c) Tony Bartholomew - Credit: Archant

Writers have long been inspired by Yorkshire’s coast. We dip into their pages...

Boggle Hole looking south (c) Tony Bartholomew

Boggle Hole looking south (c) Tony Bartholomew - Credit: Archant

At the time of writing this piece, the country is still in some degree of lockdown, although there are definite glimmers of light at the end of what has sometimes felt like a very long, dark tunnel.

We hope it won’t be long before you can safely join us again on the Yorkshire coast – although, of course, we strongly recommend that you listen to, and abide by, current government guidelines on travel.

In the meantime, we’ve pulled together some of our favourite quotes about the coast in the hope they’ll help you to dream now, and discover later.

Novelist AS Byatt is so fond of the Yorkshire coast that she set a large part of one of her most famous books, Possession, here, mainly in Whitby and that mecca for fossil-hunters, Boggle Hole. But we’re particularly fond of her description of Filey in a short story called Sea Story:

‘…a fishing town with a perfect sweep of pale golden beach, crumbling grassy cliffs, and the unique Filey Brigg, a mixture of many rocks, beginning at Carr Naze, and stretching out in a long peninsula into the North Sea, full of rock pools and rivulets, harsh and tempting at once.’

Doesn’t that set you itching to grab your bucket and shrimp net and go hunting for tiny crabs and gem-like sea anemones?

But if wind-blown walks are more your thing, here’s Victorian writer Charlotte Brontë on Filey:

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‘The sea is very grand. Yesterday was a somewhat unusually high tide – and I stood about an hour on the cliffs yesterday afternoon – watching the tumbling in of great tawny turbid waves – that make the whole shore white with foam and filled the air with a sound hollower and deeper than thunder... When the tide is out – the sands are wide – long and smooth and very pleasant to walk on. When the high tides are in – not a vestige of sand remains.’

Charlotte’s literary sister, Anne, was equally fond of the sands seven miles up the coast at Scarborough:

‘Refreshed, delighted, invigorated, I walked along forgetting all my cares, feeling as if I had wings on my feet, and could go at least 40 miles without fatigue, and experiencing a sense of invigoration to which I had been an entire stranger since the days of early youth... the sea was my delight.’

Her love of the Queen of Watering Places is shared by long-term resident and internationally-known playwright Alan Ayckbourn, author of 84 plays including The Norman Conquests. Born in Hampstead, he long ago gave up the bright lights of London for a more elemental existence on the North Yorkshire coast:

‘Everything about Scarborough is contrast. It’s built on two bays. The north side is very quiet for people who just like to look at the sea, whereas South Bay has got the harbour and the candyfloss and bingo.

‘[It’s] October or November when the shutters come down on the front. That, for me, is when the best time of year begins. I love the Yorkshire coast when the waves are high and the sea comes crashing in and the voices of the Brontës fly on the wind.’

Robin Hood’s Bay has captured the hearts of many, including contemporary writer Benjamin Myers. The title of his highly acclaimed 2019 novel The Offing refers to ‘the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge’, and from it we offer you this enchanting description of what the locals call Baytown:

‘I approached it from the north and saw a giant semi-amphitheatre that held within it farms and hamlets as the land funnelled downwards from the purpling moors, and below them the fields ran all the way to an opaline sea, over which there perilously perched a huddled cluster of houses jiggered together in a cleft in the land. Between them and the water, a narrow sweep of glittering sand. A bronze band.’

Michel Faber is probably best known for his novel The Crimson Petal and the White, set amidst the slums and middle-class hypocrisies of Victorian London, but we love this evocative description of Whitby’s two stunning piers from his novella The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (a reference, of course, to the challenging but worthwhile climb up to St Mary’s Church and Whitby Abbey):

‘Siân walked to the lighthouse, then left the terra firma of Aislaby sandstone to read the timber deck of the pier’s end. Careful not to snag the heels of her shoes on the gaps in the wood, she allowed herself the queasy thrill of peeking at the restless waves churning far beneath her feet… She stood at the end of the west pier and cupped her hand across her brow to look over at the east one. The two piers were like outstretched arms curving into the ocean, to gather boats from the wild waters of the North Sea into the safety of Whitby harbour.’

For centuries, writers and artists have been amongst those who have loved the Yorkshire Coast in all its unique beauty and drama. If you’ve never visited, start planning now – we look forward to welcoming you as soon as we are able.

For more information on what’s on across the Yorkshire Coast and the North York Moors this month, visit discoveryorkshirecoast.com and Yorkshire.com or call the Tourism Bureau on 01723 383636.

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