Heroes of the storm


THERE is a roadside plaque in North Yorkshire which never fails to bring tears to my eyes and a shiver to my spine.

It is installed at the top of The Bank in the cliffside village of Robin Hood’s Bay and commemorates one of the most astonishing maritime rescue operations in history.

On January 18, 1881, a brig called the Visiter carrying coal from Newcastle to London broke up during a violent storm and the crew of six took to its lifeboat, where they spent the night sheltering beside the wreck. The following morning the brig’s quarter-board was found on the beach at Robin Hood’s Bay (known locally simply as the Bay) and the boat was spotted two miles to the south of the village.

The Bay’s own elderly lifeboat was deemed too rickety to be launched in mountainous seas and the vicar sent a telegraph message to the port of Whitby, saying: ‘Vessel sunk, crew in open boat riding by the wreck, send Whitby lifeboat if practicable.’

Such were the terrible conditions that it was impossible to row the Whitby lifeboat, the Robert Whitworth, around the coast to the Bay. So the harbourmaster, a Captain Gibson, decided that it must be hauled there overland. A distance of more than six miles, over hills more than 900ft high, this would have been difficult in clement weather. It was near impossible in a blizzard, with snow up to 8ft deep blocking the roads.

Two hundred stalwart Whitby souls set out to clear a path with shovels while 18 horses hauled the Robert Whitworth. Farmers and even children along the way joined in the digging while men from the Bay worked in the other direction. The village was eventually reached within two or three hours (accounts differ) and the boat had to be lowered with ropes down the narrow, twisting Bank. At the bottom, by the Laurel Inn, there was barely an inch to spare.

Eugene Birchall / Robin Hood’s Bay: The Laurel Inn / CC BY-SA 2.0

The lifeboat was launched immediately but had to turn back when six of its oars were snapped by a huge wave. After an appeal for volunteers, and a borrowing of the Bay boat’s oars, it set out again with an increased crew and this time they reached the stricken six, two of them delirious and all suffering from exposure. All were lifted into the lifeboat and returned to the Bay, to the cheers of the hundreds who had dug through the snow. Every man survived and the Whitby crew returned home as heroes.

Some days later when the storm had subsided, the crew walked from Whitby to the Bay and rowed the Robert Whitworth back to harbour.

You can learn more about this astonishing and heartwarming story, which I cannot believe has not been made into a film, herehere and here. 

I spent many happy holidays in the Bay as a child. When the Lancashire mills closed for the July Wakes weeks, my parents, far from wanting to get away from their workmates, joined them en masse in North Yorkshire, meaning the village was full of familiar Nelson faces. Many of the regulars decided to retire there when its house prices were still affordable.

Thirty years ago I took Margaret there for the first time and we were enjoying the superb ale in the Laurel when I sensed a presence. Standing before us was a red-haired chap called Philip, a former Nelson binman. ‘They want to speak to you,’ he said ominously.

At the other end of the pub sat several old Nelsonians, demanding news of my family. I told them that Dad was dead (they already knew) and that Mum, in her desperate loneliness, had been married again to an unspeakable roughneck.

Several pints and reminiscences later, we staggered back to the B & B where we were staying. There was no ensuite and during the night I stumbled naked down the corridor to find the loo. On my return I couldn’t remember which was our room and knocked on two doors, causing great hilarity to those inside, before finding Margaret. You can imagine the titters at breakfast time.

My mother died in 2009 and we scattered her ashes on the sea wall on my father’s birthday, July 29, in a family ceremony beside a bench we had commissioned with the inscription: ‘In memory of Pat and Jim Ashworth, who loved the Bay’. This had the dual purpose of commemorating them both and writing the second husband out of history. A lovely lady from Scarborough Borough Council called Marion Dudman sent me this picture of the seat along with a plan showing its location.

Friends who visited more recently reported that the lettering had faded. I contacted the council and, bless them, it was restored free of charge within days.  

Recipe corner

MY wife’s favourite soup is leek and potato, or t’vichysoisse, as we say up North. Here’s the easiest way to make it.

Ingredients: 2lb of leeks, washed and sliced thinly. A pint or so of hearty stock. A 110g sachet of instant potato (Sainsbury’s sells them in packets of four for £1.20). Some whole milk or cream or both.

Method: In a large saucepan, pour the stock over the leeks, bring to the boil and simmer until nice and soft. Stir in the potato powder, adding boiling water if the mixture is too thick. Allow to cool before adding milk or cream to taste – it will curdle if you add it too soon. Enjoy hot or cold.

Old jokes’ home

I played football yesterday on a pitch surfaced with compacted rubble and broken bricks. We lost 6-1 on aggregate.

A PS from PG

‘Have you ever heard of Market Snodsbury Grammar School?’


‘It’s a grammar school at Market Snodsbury.’

I told her a little frigidly that I had divined as much.

PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves

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