Pirates of Thornwick

Updated: Nov 30, 2019


This is Thornwick Bay on the East Coast of Yorkshire.

Waves fly towards you from the ocean. Creating that deep underwater rumble that moves from the horizon and quickens towards you through solid ground. It makes your 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 the 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 with full force. Crushing their bodies against the milky monolithic cliffs of Yorkshire’s east coast.

In hindsight, this was the first of my ritual August camping holidays with my sisters, but I didn't know that then. This was our time to get away and see some of the varied country in which we reside. Over the next few years, we'd go to the South West, Northumberland, the Lake District, the Dales, Wales and beyond.

This year we were in East Yorkshire on the coast - we travelled around Flamborough and Thornwick Bay, visited Bridlington (and the creepiest model village ever) before moving North to Robin Hood's Bay and finally up to the crowds of Whitby. Right now, however, we were at the Wold Farm campsite - without showers. Which meant I had stand-up washes in the morning and washed my hair in a bowl near the sink. It wasn't ideal, but it was manageable - especially seeing the location.

The campsite backed straight onto the main walkers' path. Turn right and you head towards Thornwick Bay and Flamborough. Turn left and you reach the nature reserve. At night the lighthouse rhythmically spun inwards across the sheep fields, giving sleeping campers a constant reminder that busy lives continue whilst we doze.

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 peering 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.

You are painfully aware, however, that you are standing above all the action. You're 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 is filled with the nests of seabirds. You feel an undeniable urge to throw yourself into the blue ocean below. Or scale with bent fingers and hooked toes, the chalk of the cliff face. I watch as a little sailing boat, with triangular sales like a Junk, bobs along on the current below me. I wonder how much of me they can see. The air is foggy and gloomy and atmospheric. Later when the sun burns off the mist, the cliffs become 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 I guess, yes, I put a premium on solitude.

Thornwick Bay is a bizarre place - if you turn inland you can see a mass of caravans scattered across the hill like a pox. The bay itself is fairly quiet. However, in recent years holiday parks have expanded over the area. Meaning it is probably three times more noisy and busy and polluted than it was in 2015. There is a hut near the beach, out of which a cafe runs. Its peach-painted pebble dashing is falling off in chunks. It sells a mean builders-brew and chocolate Magnums. It feels like the end of the world or the world after the apocalypse. Strangely run down and grotty and wild. And I'd hate to visit again in case something has changed.

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