As we launch our Green Traveller's Guide to the North York Moors National Park, Paul Bloomfield gets a taste of North Yorkshire’s foreshore life and history (and seaweed) on a coastal safari from the fishing village of Staithes in the North York Moors National Park.
The small fishing village of Staithes, crammed into the crevice where Roxby Beck feeds the North Sea, is proper chocolate-box cute. Teapots and lobster pots. Art galleries and ye olde pubs. The kind of pastel-hued, higgledy-piggledy, cobbled, smelling slightly of seaweed and fish place that swarms with tourists in high summer.
But there’s still grit in this town’s oyster. He’s called Sean, and he’s a lifelong fisherman and lifeboat crew member who now also runs Real Staithes, which takes landlubbers like me out on coastal walking safaris to discover the wonders of the foreshore.
Some of the wonders are, like Sean Baxter, perhaps earthier than you might expect. “See these fossils embedded in the rock?” says Sean, pointing at swirling, rope-like formations. “What do you think they are?”
“Crinoids?” I guess, doubtfully, based on the illustrations he’d shown me a few moments earlier.
“Nope – prawn poo!” Sean guffaws, handing me a piece that’s lying free on the shale.
You don’t get that kind of insight on most tours. But then this isn’t like most tours. I’ve joined Sean, aided and abetted today by sons Luke and Thomas and collie Tiff, to experience the condensed highlights of the two courses run by him and his partner Tricia Hutchinson. I hope to glean just a smattering of Sean’s diverse knowledge about this patch of the foreshore running from Staithes to the ghost harbour of Port Mulgrave, a mile or so to the south. It’s a fascinating blend of geology, local and natural history, palaeontology – and a healthy dose of fishermen’s lore.
As we amble away from Staithes’ enclosed harbour, Sean’s brightly painted fishing boat All My Sons bobbing at anchor, we start with a short wild food foraging session.
“These seaweeds are edible,” Sean observes. “This laver is baked in laverbread, while you’ve tasted carrageenan plenty of times – that’s where your beer froth comes from.”
He hands me a small piece of green, urging me to try it. “Pepper dulse,” he smiles. I can’t say I’m sold – it tastes like I’d expect seaweed to taste – but I’m told Tricia’s kelp crisps are much more toothsome.
Winkles (or ‘chequers’, as they’re locally known) could make a snack, while limpets, or ‘flithers’, aren’t on the menu. “They’re edible,” Sean tells me, “but much more valuable as bait on longline hooks.”
Next there’s a handful of dog whelks – locally reputed to be poisonous. More interestingly, they also produce the dye tyrian purple, worth hundreds or even thousands of pounds per gram (“Though we get our purple from sea slugs,” Sean tells me).
Then it’s onto wildlife. Sean gestures back at the kittiwake colony around the cliff to the north, and points out a fulmar nesting in the rock face – “a smaller cousin of the albatrosses”.
“Last year I saw two humpbacks breaching, a sei whale, nine minkes, and loads of porpoises and seals,” Sean muses. “You hear so much doom and gloom about conservation – but there’s so much good news. I saw a razorbill yesterday at the cliffs at Boulby. Some day soon we might have guillemots and puffins nesting here.”
There’s social history, too. “You’re now stood on a railway track that served the ironstone mines along the bay, worked till the 1930s. Alum was also mined here till the 1870s, used as a mordant in setting dyes in calico.”
Poking around the brash – the seaweed and other detritus in piles at the high-tide mark – Sean is looking for jet, which gets tangled up in the weed.
“Look for something black and shiny,” Sean tells me. “If you think you’ve found a piece, scrape it on a rock – if it’s black, it’s coal, and if it’s brown, it’s jet. It’s been extracted here since the 18th century.”
Sean is understandably proud of the area’s geology. “We have more mileage of ‘Jurassic’ coast than Dorset,” he boasts. Not for nothing is this stretch called the Dinosaur Coast. Sean points out a rib bone protruding from the cliff – the rib of an icthyosaur or plesiosaur. Luke and Thomas dart here and there, periodically returning with nodules fallen from the cliffs – like nuts to be cracked, many conceal treasures: fossils of ammonites long embedded.
Picking over lumps of shale, Sean demonstrates how to scrape ochre – essentially rust from the ironstone – to use for paints. There’s a rainbow of different shades, from pale yellow to rich orange and rust-red.
We finish our course – more entertaining than any learning experience has any right to be – at Sean’s hut at Port Mulgrave, once an important harbour but now just a rocky cove with a row of tumbledown shacks. Inside Sean’s cosy lair, Tricia dishes up homemade soup, crabs, bread, hollandaise and salad, followed by the moistest home-baked fruit cake – a delight, topped with a slab of Wensleydale.
Recalling my earlier foraging lesson, I sprinkle a dash of dried pepper dulse over my soup. It tastes like the sea, concentrated: salty and fishy. And it’s just the flavour I want to remember from this day when, with Sean’s help, the shore yielded just a fraction of its secrets.
Real Staithes offers two fascinating and unique day courses: Coastal Craft, sharing Sean’s in-depth knowledge of the foreshore’s wildlife, geology and history, and Ancient Paint Palette, showing how to collect pigments and make paints from ochre, tyrian and charcoal made with driftwood. Courses run on spring tides, with a maximum of 8–10 participants, and include a hearty soup and fresh lobster lunch. (01947 840278)