The chalk cliffs around Flamborough – the highest in Britain – offer panoramic views and great birdwatching, while the sea is full of shipwrecks and seals
The beach is deserted when I get down there, but the cliffs are alive: thousands of nesting guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes in constant motion as they feed their young. I catch a flash of red and yellow as a puffin comes barrelling in from the sea, its beak crammed with tiny silver fish.
A few minutes later, out of the sea mist and drizzle, a boat appears from around the cliff, a big, wooden vessel without a cabin, bearing two men in oilskins and a stack of creel. They drive on to logs laid on the coarse sand, then lower a ladder. A brawny, weathered hand reaches out. This is Mike Emmerson, skipper of the Summer Rose, a traditional Yorkshire coble (fishing boat), and, I’ve been told, the best man to reveal a magical lost corner of England: the cliffs, sea stacks and caves around East Yorkshire’s Flamborough Head.
“We’ll get you out there,” he says as I land on deck, not entirely gracefully. “It’s been a bit scuffly, but it’s settling.”
Mike is full of the arcane language of Yorkshire seafaring. “Scuffly”, he explains, is a sea condition a little better than “jowly”. “We don’t want jowly – that’s not pleasant.”
I’ve long enjoyed walking around Flamborough, loving the magnificent chalk cliffs and usually remarking on how few people are around. Just a few miles south of the crowds on Scarborough sands, the cliffs rear up to a 10-mile stretch of world-class coastal scenery. Quite why the area has not achieved wider recognition is a mystery: Bridlington, at the southern limit of the cliffs, has its share of seaside dilapidation, but in winter you can walk all day here, above the raging seas, and never see another human being. And in summer, at low tide, coves like Thornwick Bay and North Landing are magical for children, with rock pools, caves and archways. Having seen it from land, however, I was keen to view it from the sea.Nungwi Village
Mike’s crewman, Bob Coates, jumps aboard, the propeller is engaged, and we edge back out to sea and sail south towards the headland of Flamborough.
Bob points out Breil Nook, an imposing bulwark of rock that juts out from the cliffs. To one side is a sea stack, Queen Rock, and the remnants of a second, King Rock, that was knocked over in a storm 50 years ago.
We sidle closer to the cliff face, the screech and clatter of birds drowning out the engine. Before the lighthouse was built in 1806, the sound of birds was the only warning sailors had of these treacherous cliffs – those at nearby Bempton are the highest in Britain, at over 100m. The warning came too late for many – the seabed is littered with wrecks, among them the Bonhomme Richard, which fought the British off Flamborough in 1779. Its captain, John Paul Jones, a Scot in a French-owned ship fighting for the American Revolution, managed the feat of winning a sea battle while losing his vessel. Despite intensive searches, no trace of this wreck has been found.
Mike eases our boat close up under the cliffs and then, with consummate skill, nips inside one of them.Nungwi Village
“On foot there are plenty of caves you can get into at low tide and explore,” he tells me. “But watch out for the seals – they don’t like it!”
We reverse out and turn north to Bempton, where the jagged rock face is salted with the white shapes of around 22,000 gannets – a tenth of the total bird population at this time of year.
“Flamborough folk used to eat a lot of sea birds,” says Mike. “Not now.”
On clear days the gannets can be seen plunging into the water all around the boat, but it seems I’ve arrived just after lunch and only the puffins and guillemots are diving for the finger-length sand eels that make the local ecosystem tick.
“We see a lot of porpoise,” says Mike, “but you’d be lucky to spot dolphins and whales – they’re much further out.”
From the cliff top, however, walkers do report seeing basking sharks and whales. At Whitby, 30 miles north, a minke whale once entertained August bank holiday crowds for several hours, and sightings are on the increase, especially of larger species like fin, sei, humpback and sperm whales. Sadly, the few that do get stranded are normally cordoned off by police tape, then dragged away to a landfill site.
Back on the Summer Rose we chug offshore and lift a few creel to discover a horde of edible crab and a brace of cod who have got stuck in there too. Everything gets measured and either returned to sea or thrown in buckets.
“We’ve done all right for crab this year. The late spring has affected the sea,” explains Mike. “Normally we’d be seeing crab give way to lobster by now and mackerel coming in. But everything is late – even the puffins would [normally] be gone by now.”
It’s an important point: everything here is governed by wind, tide and temperature. Sudden changes can bring rare birds from Scandinavia or even further afield. The cliffs are a twitcher’s paradise. When a Baikal teal from the far east of Russia appeared in mid April, it caused a stampede of camouflage binos and multipocketed vests. (The sighting was at a bird hide at North Cliff Marsh, Flamborough.) The cliff path between Bempton RSPB reserve and Bridlington has other attractions as well as birdwatching. At Sewerby Rocks, for example, just north of Bridlington, is a beach strewn with strange round stones neatly pierced by penny-sized holes – perfect for a bit of impromptu beach sculpture. Nearby is Danes Dyke, ancient earthworks that once made Flamborough an impregnable fortress; it’s now a lovely nature reserve.
On the boat it’s time for us to put out some fishing lines, which proves relatively simple. “Drop the line till you feel it bounce on the bottom,” says Bob. “Then just jig it around a bit.”
We do this, but clearly with differing levels of jigging skill: Bob soon hooks two codling, then a coalfish. I start to feel the pressure: I’ve sworn I’ll go home with a fish for dinner, but I’ve never been lucky at the sport. Mike leaves the tiller and chucks out another line; within seconds he’s pulling in a coalfish. The coffee is finished and all the sandwiches are gone. I’m already hearing the jeers of the family when I arrive home empty-handed. It really is time to pack up, but I jig relentlessly, and hopefully, until finally there’s a bite and I haul in a decent-sized coalfish… only for it to drop off in the air and swim away.
Mike pushes the bucket of cod towards me. “Here… you can say you caught these. I won’t tell.”
• Mike Emmerson and his cousin Richard run summer fishing, birdwatching and pleasure trips from North Landing. Boats leave about 1pm, but ring first (01262 850905/01262 850575). Half-hour trips £5 adults, £2.50 kids; three-hour fishing trips (with rod and bait) £15. For other excursions, see Yorkshire Wildlife Trust