Secrets and shipwrecks

Who better to show you a harbour town than a fisherman? Kevin Rushby scours the beaches with a Yorkshire son.

In a rock pool at the base of a cliff, Sean Baxter has discovered something: an innocuous yellow brick, rounded at the edges but with the inscription V&D faintly visible. It's the sort of thing you would normally walk past but on this stretch of wild coast everything carries a story with it.

"This was cargo on the SS Clementine," Baxter says, squinting out to sea. "It was lost in 1924 and, at some low tides, you can see the wreck. Not today though."

Strange that the unfortunate ship should hold on to its secrets for almost a century then suddenly release them but this coast has many mysteries. We are less than two kilometres south of the fishing village of Staithes, a huddle of whitewashed cottages squeezed between towering cliffs on the North Yorkshire coast. Baxter has been fishing here for more than 35 years, learning the ropes as a teenager from old men who had inherited traditions largely unchanged since Viking times. In the village's delightfully quirky museum, among the vast collection of archive photographs, Baxter is there as a young man, carrying fishing lines down to the harbour on his head.

"In its heyday Staithes had around 50 sea captains," he tells me. "Most famously, of course, Captain Cook came here as a boy to work in a chandler's shop but then caught sea fever and left." The shop is long gone but the cottage is still inhabited, unlike many others that have become holiday lets.

Baxter and his wife, Patricia, are on a mission to revive the village and communicate how fascinating this little harbour and coast are. Their weekend breaks are full of a sense of enthusiasm and discovery, plus the benefit of long experience - Patricia's family have been fishing here since at least the 17th century. Participants stay in a fisherman's cottage next door to the Baxters' home, a few yards away from the harbour and a couple of good pubs, one of which, the Cod and Lobster, is so close to the sea it has been washed away twice. Winter, I reckon, is the ideal time to visit, with its huge dramatic skies and all sorts of discoveries to be made on the foreshore.

"Look at this!" Baxter has spotted something in the rock pool where the brick was lying. It's a fat, slug-like creature that when rolled in his hands squirts out a purple dye. "It's called a sea hare and the dye is what was used to stain the sails of Cleopatra's ships." He carefully returns the creature to the water. His knowledge of this coast is augmented by years of experience working as a fisheries adviser around the world.

We move on, picking our way across a flat area of rock, the scar that is revealed at the base of the cliff only at low tide. The rock dates back to the Jurassic period and, as we soon start to discover, is packed with fossils. Helped by Baxter's teenage sons, Luke and Thomas, our six-year-old, Maddy, fills her pockets with ammonites and horn-like belemites. New finds turn up here in abundance, particularly during the stormier winter months.

When we pause for coffee, our seat is a stratum of fossilised tree roots. The sheer quantity of fossils is staggering, far greater than I've seen elsewhere. And further along, among the sandy tide-shadows of rocks, Baxter shows us where to find small pieces of jet, a semi-precious stone that is fossilised monkey-puzzle trees.

We hunt for our lunch. Out at the ends of the scars, where the sea is thrashing and boiling, there are a few of Baxter's creels, which we retrieve from the waves. Inside are several lobsters, some undersized and thrown back but a few large enough for lunch. Maddy plucks up courage and holds one of them despite Baxter showing the impressive array of wrist scars that years of wrestling with lobsters have left. There is another treat too: Baxter has left a couple of baited shore lines out overnight and we haul in a coley, one of the cod family.

"The sea here is very productive," he says. "We see lots of whales: minkes mainly but I've seen humpbacks and sei too. A few weeks ago we caught a big porbeagle shark - and released it. The harbour mouth has lots of porpoise and we see dolphins regularly."

As a fisherman who has worked in commercial fisheries around the world, Baxter is forthright on subjects such as EU quotas and that favourite bugbear of fishermen the world over, the effect of seal populations on fish stocks. "We are managing the environment, so it's madness to think seals are somehow exempt."

Such views might not suit everyone but Baxter is an undoubted conservationist. He has introduced hooks that protect marine mammals from injury and also champions local size limits on certain species, limits over and above the legal requirement. When we headed out on his boat, All My Sons, the previous afternoon, fishing and lifting lobster pots, Maddy caught a big ling. It was not big enough for Baxter, however. "I'm encouraging all the boats here to set a four-pound minimum," he explained, throwing the fish back in the sea.

Back on the scars, we explore another bay and he points out the signs of ironstone mining, an industry that prospered here in the 19th century. "The iron deposits were actually the reason why we have so many wrecks - they interfered with the compasses," he says.

There are more than 1700 documented wreck sites along this stretch of coast. Its awesome ability to claim lives and ships lead to terrible tragedies such as the Rohilla, a hospital ship that sank off Whitby in atrocious weather in 1914, drowning 84 of the crew and passengers within sight of the shore and the gathered townsfolk.

After about three hours' gentle fossicking, we finally arrive at Port Mulgrave, an abandoned ironstone mining port, now home to a hotch-potch of beach huts, often made from beachcombed materials.

Outside the Baxters' corrugated iron cabin, a campfire is burning and Patricia has already cooked the lobsters caught from the boat the previous evening. I have to admit that I eat three, probably too many considering there is a steep climb out of the bay before a walk back along the clifftops. There is Maddy's beachcombing collection to carry, too. She has dumped the fossils, some fool's gold crystals and the jet in favour of a carrier bag filled with silt that she insisted is precious clay. The best of the ammonites and the jet go back in my pockets.

This coast has treasure for everyone.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Staithes is in the North York Moors National Park, about six hours' drive from London Heathrow.

Staying there

Three-night packages with Baxter's business, Real Staithes, cost £245 ($437) a person, including cottage accommodation in the village, guided walks, fishing trip and meals (with one lobster lunch). Day trips cost £50 a person, including guided coastal walk and lobster lunch; see realstaithes.com. There is alternative accommodation at Roraima House, an excellent B&B in the upper village, for £80 a night for a double room; see bedandbreakfast-staithes.co.uk. Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre opens daily 10am-5pm, +44 (0)1947 841454.

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