As I stared down upon Staithes from the Cleveland Way; it wasn’t the familiar bleak, gothic beauty of the old harbour town which struck me, but rather the meteorological maelstrom happening in its midst. An autumnal storm front was rolling down the Northeast Yorkshire coast. A signature tailgate formation of an Arcus cloud crept towards the bay. From experience, I knew what was coming to town.
Adding to the dissonance of impending foul weather were Staithes’ resident psychotic sea-gulls; an unfortunate quirk of the local environment and nature. The town enjoyed a stunning seaside location, as it sat with protective arms or nabs, extending out into the grey void, and enveloping the lower town, offering a sanctuary from the cruel and often tempestuous North Sea. For a small coastal village, Staithes had a rich history to be proud of, with the valiant deeds of its lifeboat crews never too far away from all Staithesers’ hearts. These nabs, Cowbar to the north and Penny on the south, as well as offering protection, also provided the sea-gulls with an untouchable, perfect cliff-side nesting roost.
The cacophony from the precipice-loving seabirds was building up into something I had never quite heard before. The gulls were clearly agitated as they quarrelled amongst themselves, with unprovoked squabbles breaking out all around the cliff-side colony.
This deafening sound was becoming an unbearable pressure on my eardrums. Any daylight that was left in the shortening, autumnal sky was being quickly smothered by the burgeoning banks of Cumulonimbus. I stopped myself staring at the unfurling magnificence of the storm front and headed toward the lower town. Half-running down Cowbar’s steep hill, past the one-time fisherman’s cottages and across the rust-encrusted iron bridge over the beck into Staithes, I hastily travelled. The bridge had been designed with an iron-skirt below to create an inner-breakwater which offered a protective sanctuary for the brightly-painted Whitby Cobles, the small local fishing vessels, moored there. Sadly, those few craft which remained today spent most of their time in harbour, as their owner’s share of the North Sea quotas dwindled. After navigating a path through the quirks of a town evolved more than planned, I headed for the Mariner’s Beacon inn. From the harbour wall I squeezed down a narrow passageway, as this was the only way into the snug of (what the locals called), the Sailor’s Lamp. As I pushed open the heavy, creaking doors a warm, moist front seeped out and carried on it a taste of seacoal fires, snuff, chewing tobacco, malt, hops, history, tradition and sweat. A heady mix. For a split-second, the chaotic din stopped and someone shouted, ‘Close that bloody door Dom, will ye!’ Which obligingly I did and stepped into a heart-warming scene Dante may have imagined.
Tranquil it wasn’t. But the service was always friendly and efficient. I took my usual pint of Tsarmont mild (from Filey, apparently) from the service hatch linked to the main tourist bar, ordered a hot buttered Craster Roll (a local speciality: a traditional smoked ‘kipper-in-a-bun’), and found a seat in the corner by the door. I knew my place in the hierarchy of the snug, and so my position was within listening and ‘occasional comment’ range but outside the inner sanctum. My spot was also a good place to observe from: observing was what I did best.
I was on nodding terms with most of the inhabitants of the Sailor’s Lamp snug. Evidently, one or two of them even remembered my first name. After six months of regular visits, it was more than I’d have expected in this exclusive environment. I felt I was only tolerated as a favour to a local lad, Jim Brewer, with whom I worked at the lab in Whitby. Jim had introduced me to the place, my first Friday night in the new job. That was in late May of this year, 2011. Seemed like years ago now. Jim didn’t come in much, as he had a young family. But for me, a bachelor once more, the company of straight-up, intriguing, wizened middle-aged and old men, was a situation I had craved, without even being aware of it. So, cast adrift in an enclosed sea of turbulent and nefarious characters such as these, I sat back and soaked it all up, much the same as my beer mat did with the previous occupant’s spilt pint.
I took a welcome sup of malted sustenance. Just as the smooth, dark liquid hit the back of my throat, the storm outside finally announced its arrival with a spectacular sheet wall of hailstones. Ice ricocheted from the snug’s window panes and off the surrounding buildings, creating a din to almost drown out the melee inside, which was just another teatime session in the snug. The occupants were momentarily transfixed by the outside commotion; immediately this passed and they shifted their frenetic conversations to tales of stormy weather, particularly those they had battled through and survived. I listened on with some interest and thought, I could tell you a few, but I hadn’t been invited to spin the yarn. If they wanted to hear my stories, then they would ask. I was content enough to listen and to feel warm and sheltered from the raging tempest outside.
Sometimes I wished that my life had turned out like my new colleague’s: steady family, steady life, feet firmly planted in his forefather’s community, continuing on its traditions and heritage. But then I wouldn’t be here now, which would have been a shame. Securing a transfer from St Austell in Cornwall to here, in the northeast of England had been fairly simple. I mean, who doesn’t want to live in Cornwall? From the Southwest to the Northeast: there was a sort of symmetry in that. Travelling along that plane though brings a whole different set of rules into play. Perhaps it is down to the climate and the difference in latitude of a mere 4˚13ʹN but there is certainly a noticeable shift in how people look at their own lives and their attitude to life itself. I know it sounds a touch ridiculous and un-scientific but if you didn’t know any better, you would think it was genetic: that breeding in a particular environment moulded a future generation’s attitude to life. It makes you think though. It’s not even a matter of “nature over nurture”, but more Mendelian than that – genetic determination through locale and tradition.
Only seconds had passed since the storm unleashed its first barrage. I took another sup to oil the machinations of my mind. The next instalment turned up as tornado-strength gusts which rattled the wooden windows and shook the door in its frame. Again, the bawdy conversations ceased momentarily but then continued unabated inside, with as much gusto as the storm could muster outside.
My Craster roll arrived along with the eye of the storm. The delicious, hot buttery smell infused with the oily, smoked oak, pungency of the fillet set my mouth on edge before I had even taken a bite. Outside, everything was suddenly quiet, eerily so. A vacuum had been created by the superheated air as it rose, so no sound could escape its source. This lasted just for a couple of seconds, just time enough for me to taste the fruits of the North Sea and for the lags in the snug to draw breath. Then all hell broke loose outside: the winds lashed, the hail stung, the rain came down in vertical sheets, the thunder roared, the lightening blinded. All the elements of the storm coincided in one final encore to produce a natural event so big, so powerful, so loud it filled my entire world with chaos. As I swallowed my first bite, the storm blew over. The chatter in the snug started to build up once again, as the last watery glints of the fading sun seeped through the salt scraped windows, but failed to find any purchase in such a murky atmosphere as the snug of the Sailor’s Lamp.
Good timing, I thought, as I was able to finish my food and drink in relative calm.
I was dragged from idle contemplation by a commotion at the snug’s doorway. There was a great deal of fussing and raised voices coming through the shallow vestibule just in front of the doors. I could feel fresh, chilled air pushing its way into the acrid atmosphere of the snug. No one was complaining about the coldness now; they were all too busy gesticulating and bickering amongst themselves. As two of the snug’s residents came back into the displaced atmosphere of the Sailor’s Lamp, I noticed one was Geordie Mark, the one who bellowed at me, as I came in earlier this evening. The other was an older man; the original “ancient mariner” as the other residents of the snug affectionately referred to him. I think his name was Jonas.
‘What’s up?’ I asked Geordie Mark. He looked at Jonas.
Jonas thought deeply for a few seconds and muttered, ‘I never thought I’d live to hear it again…’ he said, cryptically.
Geordie Mark seemed all out of sorts and I decided to leave it.
As I sat back down, I felt whatever was happening was doing so outside. So, I gathered up my things, checking I’d not left anything behind in the gloom, and headed out.
Tourists and locals had spilt out onto the pavement. The town seemed to be bristling with an under-current of menace. Everyone seemed to be talking in hushed tones. Then it hit me. The overriding sound was that of an absence of background sound: an ambient silence. I knew that didn’t make sense but here in Staithes it did.
Not one to hang around with the throng, I pushed my way along the cobbled backstreets, towards Cowbar nab: normally home to hundreds of gulls. Now they were gone. All that was left behind of their incessant presence was a guano-spattered cliff face and bleached ironstone rocks below.
Once over the beck, I felt I had room enough to slow down. I started to think what had happened to make all the gulls disappear. My thoughts centred on the storm. The adage, “Worse things happen at sea…” didn’t materialise without some basis in truth. Why would they abandon their roosts: their one prized possession above all else?
Concentrating on the disappearance of the gulls, I had missed the wider picture: all the local wildlife seemed to have left.
There was a fierce, sudden coldness in the air: the tide was turning and bringing in the effects of the storm winds. I pulled my jacket closer. I started to shake uncontrollably. After a short time this stopped. Must be the adrenalin rush wearing off after the storm, I thought. The atmospheric conditions must be playing havoc with the local weather. I still couldn’t quite fathom the reactions of Geordie Mark and Jonas, as they stumbled back into the snug from the silence outside. What did Jonas mean: ‘I never thought I’d live to hear that again…’? How was it all tied together: the fleeing wildlife, the freak storm, the pockets of freezing weather, a seemingly re-occurring pattern of events? I had a feeling that this wouldn’t be the last I would hear of this eventful evening, particularly the apparent exodus by some or all of the local animal and insect population. For now though, what concerned me most was what could be heading in with the evening tide.
A short while later, I found myself standing in rather a precipitous section of Cowbar Nab, having wandered blindly, lost in thought and discomfort. It was almost dark now, as the last of the reflected sunlight had faded from the receding storm front. What moonlight there was, was firmly enveloped by the storm clouds as they moved south and west. I didn’t particularly want to be wandering around Cowbar after dark, you never know what is or isn’t in front of you. One slip and you’re fish food. So, I gingerly made my way back down to the main path to the Old Station car park at the top of Staithes town. All the while back to my car, I mulled over these earlier events. I wracked my brains for both the possibility and any known occurrences of large-scale instantaneous coastal wildlife disappearances. The storm may or may not have been a factor, but I had a feeling that it was not perhaps the main cause just more of an opportune co-incidence. I had heard of a similar occurrence somewhere but it escaped me for the moment.
I drove slowly back along the A174 coast road to Whitby. Despite the cold, I lowered my window and listened out for any audible signs of nature. I was greeted by the same eerie silence which had enveloped Staithes. It’s possible that the storm was so fierce that it had just scattered the coastal wildlife populations and they’d return in their own time, I reasoned. Even as I thought this, it didn’t seem very plausible. Natural groupings like flocks, herds and swarms will dissociate into smaller groups or even individual units, for very short periods of time to avoid an immediate threat but they’ll always come back together straightaway, as safety in nature is in the larger number. My mind ticked over in time with the car’s engine, occasionally pulling away out of control.
It wasn’t until I got nearer to the sea again at Sandsend Ness, just after Lythe, that I heard evidence of life on the coast again. I could just about make out the distinctive barking of a pair of cormorants as they flew inland. I didn’t know what was more unusual: cormorants flying away from the coast or the fact you could hear them after dark this late in the year. Something was not quite as it should be but I couldn’t identify what it was.
As I pulled into Whitby, the now-familiar gothic landmark rose high into the sky on the far eastern horizon. Bathed in reflected, sodium light from the port below and outlined in quicksilver from the emerging moon above, the skeletal remains of the ever-grand Benedictine abbey effortlessly dominated the ancient port. At once both a focal-point of beauty and also a reminder of decay and the passage of time: of man’s all too real mortality.
I carried on through the town, past the hospital and over the river Esk. My flat was on Abbot’s Walk in East Whitby, directly below the hill on which the ruined Abbey sat proud. Since arriving here, I felt it had kept a special eye on me: its shadowy presence always there in my peripheral vision. As I parked up and got out of my car, I again felt its encroaching weight resting gently on my shoulders. My mood had not lifted at all from the nab, as I had returned back to Whitby. I needed to get some sleep. With a transitory glance up at the partially-lit, one-hundred and ninety-nine steps to medieval divinity, I headed indoors.
By Sean A. Fitzgerald