Rory Walsh visits the Yorkshire coast to search for ‘the town that never was’
Trail • Coastal • Yorkshire and the Humber • Web Guide
Britain is haunted by the remains of ghost towns and villages. A single gravestone is all that survives of Dunwich, which gradually fell into the sea due to coastal erosion. Hallsands was reduced to ruins overnight by a storm, while Hampton Gay was gutted by fire. Besides the elements, people, too, have consigned places to history. The valleys of Nether Hambleton, Middle Hambleton and Mardale Green were flooded to create reservoirs. Imber and Tyneham were requisitioned by the military. And then there’s Ravenscar.
Ravenscar sits on the North Yorkshire coast, roughly halfway between Whitby and Scarborough. Perched on a headland between the North Sea and North York Moors, this quiet village can feel very remote. Yet it was once planned to be a major seaside resort – a rival to Scarborough and Blackpool. Land was bought, roads were laid and then… nothing. Ravenscar didn’t disappear; it didn’t appear. The National Trust describes it as ‘the town that never was.’
The parish of Ravenscar has around 300 residents. During the summer, visitors can outnumber the locals. Walkers regularly pass through Ravenscar while following the Cleveland Way. Most visitors arrive by car, taking minor roads across the hills. On a sunny Monday in August, I’m on a bus. There are two weekday buses to Ravenscar, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. At the terminus, in Station Square, the timetable is smaller than a smartphone and shorter than a text message.
In the middle of Station Square, a large tree shelters a cluster of picnic benches. A tearoom and a couple of houses line one side. Adjoining them are the remains of Ravenscar railway station. The railway came to Ravenscar in 1885 but closed 80 years later. The station building was demolished and the line to Whitby is now a long-distance footpath: the Cinder Track. Instead of steam locomotives, hissing noises come from a coffee machine and distant waves.
From the deserted platform, the blue stripe of the North Sea appears beyond large green fields. Most of Ravenscar is dedicated to farming. Follow the unmetalled lanes between the fields and you’ll notice that they have some odd features: they’re very straight and wide enough for cars to pass each other, some have drain covers and curb stones, and they all have road names. Rural Ravenscar has an urban street plan, its extent revealed at the National Trust visitor centre.
Past the imposing gates of the Raven Hall Hotel, the visitor centre hunkers down in a hollow. When I arrive, England are playing Nigeria in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The radio and listeners alike crackle with nerves. On the back wall is a large map. Dated 1902, it shows Ravenscar’s roads lined with green and pink rectangles – plots of land for sale; Ravenscar rendered as a giant Monopoly board, with ‘You are here’ instead of ‘Go to jail’.
The name Ravenscar didn’t exist until 1897. For centuries, the area was known as Peak, due to its elevated coastal location. In 1763, Captain William Child bought most of Peak and built a clifftop mansion, Raven Hill House. The estate eventually passed to Child’s grandson, Richard Willis, a young reverend. Despite his vocation, Willis was addicted to gambling. He ran up huge debts and in 1850, served a year’s hard labour for fraud. The Peak estate was repossessed by mortgage lender William Hammond.
From the visitor centre, a stone path rolls downhill past a spectacular view of Robin Hood’s Bay. Two RAF jets roar overhead, black specks in the blue sky. The route continues through leafy trees and lush ferns. At several points, the sound of trickling water heralds a nearby stream. At a fork, the trail descends towards the sea. Clusters of grey walls, caked in lichen, nestle in the grass. What looks like another abandoned village are the remnants of the Peak Alum Works.
More than a century after Captain Child purchased the site, it became a hub of Britain’s early chemical industry. Alum is a mineral compound used for fixing dye onto cloth. The surrounding cliffs comprise sedimentary shales and clays formed about 200 million years ago. In 1640, alum was found at Peak between layers of the rock. The Peak Alum Works quarried and extracted alum for the textiles trade, turning into crystals that were then ground into powder. A large grinding stone still sits on the cliff edge.
As I explore the remains, a fresh sea breeze relieves the baking midday heat. The area wasn’t always so fragrant. Crystallising the alum required potassium and ammonia. Peak’s coastal location provided both. Potassium came from local seaweed; ammonia arrived by boat. The major source of the latter was human urine, collected in cities, including Newcastle and London, then shipped to the alum works in barrels. The barrels were unloaded using the winding house, a clifftop winch.
Despite the unsavoury ingredient involved, the alum works employed more than 100 people. The works were even raided by European pirates. Then, in the mid-19th century, synthetic dyes rendered alum obsolete for making textiles. Demand collapsed and the Peak Alum Works closed in 1862.
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The closure was bad news for the Peak estate. In need of new income sources, William Hammond keenly supported the railway. Ten years after his death, the estate changed hands again – and changed its name.
In 1895, the land was bought by developers with ambitious plans. Two years later, they formed the Ravenscar Estate Company. ‘Raven’ came from Raven Hill House (which they turned into the hotel) while ‘scar’ is a local term for a cliff.
As the trail passes back through the trees, the Raven Hall Hotel appears on the summit. A more sobering reminder of the company’s efforts lies underfoot. The path near the alum works is lined with crumbly red shale. Higher up, the surface is laid with bricks. Most have been worn smooth but others still bear a single word: RAVENSCAR. The Ravenscar Estate Company set up a brickworks to build houses for a new coastal resort.
Some 300 men were hired to lay roads and sewers. More than 1,300 plots of land were offered at auctions. Less than half sold. When the Ravenscar Estate Company was liquidated in 1913 only a few show homes had been completed. The trail’s steep route back to the village suggests why. Ravenscar is 200 metres above sea level. Despite the railway, the site felt isolated. Exposed to North Sea gales, the elevated headland has a microclimate prone to swirling mists. And intrepid investors who reached the sea found there was virtually no beach.
At the top of the path, a stone seat offers a place to reflect. The sea sparkles in the afternoon sun. A view of Robin Hood’s Bay, a fishing village that has become a holiday hotspot, is almost a taunt: ‘Here’s what might have been.’ The story of Ravenscar has some sensational subplots – a gambling vicar, boatloads of urine – but the tale of ‘the town that never was’ follows that of any human settlement: location, location, location. n