The Pirates of Thornwick Bay

Waves fly towards me from the ocean. Creating that deep underwater rumble that moves from the horizon and quickens towards me through solid ground. It makes my heart quake within its bony cage – delicate and insubstantial – in the face of such power.

Do you know that rumble? The rumble of hooves? It starts imperceptibly beyond eyesight; their trotting feet, roaring into a canter. Until a little way offshore, they start to gallop. All the time, unaware, seemingly, of their fatal end.

At the base of the cliff, the white horses leap out of their depths, thrusting up their shaking heads, snorting with fear. The riders have all been forsaken; the stampede of mares and stallions, fillies and colts throw down their hooves onto the jagged rocks of the seabed below attempting to slow their heady speeds. Too late!

They hit full force. Crushing their bodies against the milky monolithic cliffs of Yorkshire’s east coast.

And then it happens again, and I watch the ritual crash as they hit, again and again, into the chalk and collapse with a crash.

My trip encompassed Flamborough and Thornwick, included a visit to Bridlington and Robin Hood’s Bay before finally ending up with the crowds at Whitby. Right then, however, I was camped up at Wold Farm. The site backed straight onto the main walkers’ path. Turn right and you’ll find Thornwick Bay and Flamborough. Turn left and you’ll reach the nature reserve. At night, the lighthouse spins rhythmically inwards across the sheep fields, giving sleeping campers a constant reminder that busy lives continue whilst we doze. The one eyed sentinel keeping check on peacefully sleeping bodies.

One morning, I took a wander through the gloom and found a cliff-path. I would take this route several times over the next three days. This evening, though, I stood on tiptoe, bent at the middle, hanging over the railings and peered down into gannets’ nests perched upon craggy mounds of grass. The salt air fills me with notions of taking to the high seas (17th-century style) with buccaneering, cutlasses, and hijinks on the high seas. Except this is Yorkshire, so my pirates roam chill waters and pillage stone houses on the moors. Lovers are windswept and hopelessly entwined in cocoons of rain and passion. The wilds are Northern and coal-stained. The accents sing deeply.

Along the East Coast of Yorkshire, is a network of pathways. Some just partings in the grass maintained by footfall. Some are impressive viewing platforms built to overlook the arches, caves and stacks along the way. It is one part rambling trail, one part pristine tourist attraction.

I was painfully aware, however, that I was standing above all the action, constantly peering over the edge trying to get a glimpse of the cliff’s spectacular natural features, caused by millennia of erosion. Each gully and crack was filled with the nests of seabirds and I felt an undeniable urge to throw myself into the blue ocean below. Or scale with bent fingers and hooked toes, the chalk of the cliff face.

I watched as a little sailing boat, with triangular sails like a Junk, bobbed along on the current below me. I wondered how much of me they could see. The air was foggy and gloomy and atmospheric. Later, when the sun burnt off the mist, the cliffs became bracing, sun-bleached and barren.

There is an RSPB site near Bempton. It is here that people, who don’t walk, drive up to the land’s edge, waddle cliffside, and then head back to the car. And then, there are those that drag themselves bleary-eyed to look at some ‘outside’ whilst dressed for a business meeting and patting themselves on the back for managing some ‘nature’. I apologise for being so cynical. But walk away from the hotspot and everything goes quiet, except for the sound of the birds. Every once in a while you might find someone doused in Regatta, North Face and Gore-Tex, with a pair of Binoculars and a DSLR hanging around their neck, but for the most part, you’ll have the place to yourself. Even during the national holidays – at least that was true when I was there. And, yes, I put a premium on solitude.

Thornwick Bay, as I descended down the cliff towards the bay, struck me as a bizarre place – if you turn inland you can see a mass of caravans scattered across the hill like a pox, but the bay itself was fairly quiet. In recent years, I’ve learnt that holiday parks have expanded over the area. Meaning it is probably three times more noisy and busy and polluted than it was in 2015. 

I remember there being a little hut near the beach, out of which a cafe runs. Its peach-painted pebble dashing was falling off in chunks. It sold a mean builders-brew and chocolate Magnums. It felt like the end of the world or the world after the apocalypse. Strangely run down and grotty and wild, yet hopeful and full of sun. And I’d hate to visit again in case something has changed such is the nature of memories that seem somehow perfect made, but resist revision like a petulant writer.

Map of Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Thornwick Bay
Bempton Cliffs
Bempton Cliffs
Thornwick Bay

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