Nostalgia: A day trip to ‘Robin Hood’s town’

Aerial view of Robin Hood's Bay. According to Hinderwell, it was a town 'frequently visited by strangers on account of the Alum-works in its vicinity'.
Aerial view of Robin Hood's Bay. According to Hinderwell, it was a town 'frequently visited by strangers on account of the Alum-works in its vicinity'.

A location highly recommended by Hinderwell to Scarborough’s summer visitors was “a small fishing-place thirteen miles north”, called “Robin Hood’s town”; but his reason for such a visit would surprise us living two hundred years later. According to Hinderwell, it was a town “frequently visited by strangers on account of the Alum-works in its vicinity”.

Between Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay there were, he wrote, only two villages, Burniston, four miles, and Cloughton, five miles north. “Neither of them, however, contain anything worthy of notice, except a quarry of freestone at the latter, from which the Castle at Scarborough appears to have been built”. Since there is no mention here of Falsgrave, Newby or Scalby, clearly Hinderwell had taken his “strangers” northwards up what we call the coastal road, now the A165, via Greengate (North Marine Road) and Peasholm.

Beyond Cloughton, he continued, the road was “stony and uneven, over a dreary moor, and the hill at Stoupe-brow is impracticable for carriages”. Again, this old route is unknown to the modern traveller. To take it would mean following the minor road through Newlands, Staintondale, over Stoupe Brow, down to Boggle Hole and then along the cliff top to the Bay - a route suited only to today’s hikers on the Cleveland Way.

Before reaching the sands at Robin Hood’s Bay, Hinderwell says “the road passes the Alum-works, where the curiosity of the traveller is gratified with a view of these immense mountains of alum-stone, from which the salt is extracted.” Whether Hinderwell knew what alum was, how it was produced, and what its many and vital uses were, we shall never learn: instead he wrote the lengthiest footnote in the whole of his History on the subject of alum without answering any of these questions.

Apart from “immense mountains of alum-stone”, we can only guess what Hinderwell’s “strangers” might have seen at this final stage of their journey to the Bay. We know that whereas the works at Stoupe Brow lasted only from 1752 until 1817, those much bigger at Peak (Ravenscar) operated almost continuously from as early as 1615 until 1852, when the industry generally was closed down by competition from the first synthetic dyes. All that can be said for certain is that, since it opened in 1992, the National Trust’s rescue of some of the Ravenscar works and its visitors centre there now provide the modern visitor with a thorough account of what had once happened on this site.

To the question everyone asks, “Why Robin Hood’s Bay?”, Hinderwell’s own answer was forthright and unambiguous. “The village derives its name from the famous outlaw Robin Hood who lived in the reign of Richard I, and is said to have retired to the place to evade the pursuit of the military parties sent to apprehend him.” Not doubting for a moment the historical existence of Robin Hood, Hinderwell then tells his readers that they could find his tomb at Kirklees “near Huddersfield”, which records that he died December 24, 1247!

As his authority for this popular nonsense, Hinderwell quoted Lionel Charlton’s 1779 History of Whitby at considerable length, though neglecting to acknowledge his source. No doubt he would have been embarrassed to learn that Charlton’s own source (also unacknowledged) was the Scottish antiquarian, John Major, who, without a shred of evidence, in 1521 put Robin Hood into the time of Richard Lionheart, where he has been ever since! He even invented his dates of birth and death. Only one concession to evidence was made by Charlton and seconded by Hinderwell, namely that an excavation of 1771 into the site of Robin Hood’s Butts at the Bay had revealed that they were prehistoric burial mounds, not practice targets for outlaws!

Robin Hood is, of course, a legendary figure. Many, even scholarly, attempts to identify him with a real historic person have failed to convince. The legend is an on-going, amalgam and accumulation of fictions, dating back more than 800 years and added to by a conveyor-belt of inventive antiquarians, wishful propagandists and imaginative Hollywood film-makers. There are hundreds of places, from Scotland to Surrey, named after him at different times, but he never hid in any of his caves, drank from his wells, sat in his chairs, climbed his hills, hid in his oak trees, or was buried in any one of his graves along with Little John. All these place-names were adopted by locals to lend authenticity to the multitude of stories, plays and ballads about this most famous folklore hero.

The legend is legion and dynamic. Everywhere, it seems, wants to be identified with him. Nottingham and Sherwood Forest hijacked Robin Hood and have made a fortune out of him. Birmingham now has a Robin Hood carvery in one of its hotels, a Robin Hood golf club, a cemetery and a junior school named after him! Doncaster adopted him for its new airport, but seems to have thought the better of it. To its credit, Scarborough has not yet cashed in on the name, though perhaps that’s because no businessman knows about his ballad associations with the town. At least, Robin Hood has only one coastal bay that he never visited.

From the beginning of its existence, “The Bay” or simply “Bay” belonged to Whitby abbey. Not until the monks were expelled and dispossessed in 1539 are there any written references to “Robyn hoyde bay” and “Robyn hood baye”. Afterwards this new name is always used. Writing about 1542, John Leland, the travelling antiquarian, called “Robyn Huddes Bay” a “fischar tounlet of 20 bootes”. There are also other place-names in the area dating from this time: Robin Hood and Little John Closes or Fields are in Whitby Laithes south of the abbey.

However, there is only one known surviving ballad describing Robin’s visit to the Yorkshire coast called The Noble Fisherman in which he lodged at Scarborough, not Whitby or the Bay. Also this ballad in its earliest printed form dates from 1631, nearly a century after Robin Hood got his Bay.

Only one tantalising clue in the written record suggests a connection between the legend and the Bay. A short time after the closure of Whitby abbey, the herring house there is said to be rented by John Smith of Wakefield, one of the principal sources of the stories of Robin Hood and his outlaws, who were said to live nearby in Barnsdale forest.

Finally, Hinderwell forgot to mention that Robin Hood’s Bay then derived most of its income, not from alum or even fishing, but from smuggling.