As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the North York Moors, Writer Steve Jack gets creative at the Arts & Heritage Festival in Staithes, one of North Yorkshire's prettiest coastal towns.
There’s something special about the North Yorkshire coastline and, although I’m fairly familiar with its charms, the journey out here always provides a rush of excitement. Just past Pickering, the Hole of Horcum’s huge natural bowl never fails to take my breath away, and I love the road as it swoops and swirls its way across heather-topped moorland en route to Whitby and the North Sea beyond.
Today’s destination, though, had always seemed rather enigmatic to me: a quiet place with a somewhat inscrutable character that – compared to, say, Robin Hood’s Bay – felt a little more circumspect and harder to get to know. So arriving in Staithes on the occasion of its second annual Arts and Heritage Festival was quite a revelation: its doors had been well and truly flung open, and every conceivable venue – a total of 77 houses, cottages, tearooms and galleries – was there for all to enjoy.
If the scale is impressive, with 110 artists and their works scattered among galleries, shops and homes, then so is the variety. As well as seascapes and landscapes galore, by talented artists such Joanne Wishart and Clothylde Vergnes, you can find photography, ceramics and jewellery, as well as demonstrations and workshops on topics as diverse as lute-making, glass-staining and observational drawing. I settle for an amble amid pop-up galleries and a beguiling half-hour in the company of John Cole, the local lobsterpot-maker. It is far more absorbing than I thought possible.
At lunchtime, I’m drawn by the sign pointing towards ‘Proper Yorkshire Fish’, and hunker down on an upturned rowing boat on the beach to tuck into my fresh haddock butty. ‘What could be properer than this?’ I wonder. Refuelled, I’m off again, running the High Street gauntlet of scone-peddlers and while-you-wait poets to huff and puff my way up Cowbar Hill to one of Britain’s finest viewpoints. ‘What’s that racket?’, I mutter under my breath, my attention momentarily snatched from the picture-perfect harbour below, only to discover that it’s Steve Iredale, Staithes’ chainsaw-sculptor-in-residence. He’s busy putting the finishing touches to an eight-foot carving of a wooden fish, and this, I realise, is no ordinary day out.
The afternoon meanders along agreeably in a warm haze of fuzzy bonhomie. And, as I savour a pint at the bar in the Cod & Lobster, I realise that what charms me the most is not really the ‘art’ itself (very good though much of it is) but the camaraderie, the sense of inclusiveness, and the idea of everyone being ‘in it together’. So when I see that the Lifeboat Station has been turned into a temporary concert hall, with locals belting out songs inside for an appreciative audience of visitors gathered around the sea front, it feels just about right: quirky, honest, and full of collective enthusiasm.
Things draw to a close that evening at the aptly named Kipper’s Corner outside Staithes Gallery. This nostalgic slideshow could be terrible, of course; but it turns out to be a belter. Those in the know have come armed with deck chairs, woolly blankets and flasks, and settle in for the ride.
Others, like me, stand mesmerised as we are taken on a rollercoaster journey, from early fishing trips in search of herring shoals to wartime solidarity trips and ‘beautiful baby’ shows, as the history of a village and its inhabitants unfurls onto a brick wall opposite, through a series of remarkable images. The sea-shanty accompaniment, bashed out on the keys of an open-air piano, is the icing on the cake.
These weather-worn yet kindly faces from the past have told me all I need to know about this proud, doughty people, who arguably have closer ties to the ocean than to the rest of Yorkshire (let alone the wider world). Far from remaining an enigma, Staithes has shown me its heart and soul today, and I am thoroughly enchanted.
Next year's Staithes Arts & Heritage Festival will take place over the weekend of 13th/14th September 2014 – this third edition promises to be the best yet!