Staithes: A Traditional North Yorkshire Fishing Village

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Charming and quaint, Staithes brings you back to a bygone era.

The picturesque fishing village has been featured in films and TV shows as well as inspiring many an artist and even a famous Naval Captain.

It’s no wonder some refer to it as England’s prettiest harbor.

Staithes Location

Tucked away on the North Sea coast, Staithes is a village of beauty.

It sits directly on the border between the boroughs of Redcar and Cleveland to the north and the Borough of Scarborough to the south.

Staithes map
Staithes location

Nestled between the Cowbar and Penny Nab cliffs, it’s just 10 miles from nearby Whitby – a drive that’ll take you around 22 minutes.

Staithes used to be a prime spot for a bit of fishing, but it’s now largely a little tourist hotspot within the North York Moors National Park.

However, its population has been on the decline for many years and many of the homes are now holiday cottages or second homes that are owned by those not native to the village.


With a sheltered harbor, two long breakwaters and high cliffs surrounding it, it’s no surprise that the geography of Staithes led it to become a popular fishing spot.

To the west lies Boulby Cliff, a place where mining operations were also plentiful. It was here that alum was extracted from the quarried shale.

Staithes fishing boats
Staithes harbour boats

The alum was then used as a mordant, improving the permanency and strength of color in cloth dying.

Staithes also attracts geologists thanks to the strata in the cliffs.

At the beginning of the 1990s, an extremely rare fossil was found here after a rockfall.

The fossil was of a seagoing dinosaur. Fossil hunters still flock to the area, with nearby Port Mulgrave being a popular spot.

The History of Staithes

Staithes is an old traditional fishing village with its name deriving from the word for ‘landing place’ in Old English.

People have long suggested that this landing place was effectively the port for the nearby places of Hinderwell and Seaton Hall.

Staithes is actually pronounced ‘Steers’ or ‘Steeas’ by the local population reflecting the traditional dialectal name.

At the start of the 1900s, there were over 80 fishing boats that operated full-time out of Staithes.

Staithes view sea
Staithes view from the sea

Now, over a hundred years later, there are only a few who remain. Most fishermen in Staithes used the traditional coble vessel.

This vessel was developed locally, and it is a type of open fishing boat that has a distinctive high-bowed flat-bottomed shape.

This was thanks to the North Sea conditions in this area. The design allowed the boats to be launched easily into the surf directly from the beaches.

Staithes was also home to a famous resident for a short while. Captain James Cook resided in the village between 1754 and 1746.

He worked as a grocer’s apprentice, and it is said that his living in the village sparked his passion and fascination with the sea.

It was from Staithes that he moved to Whitby where he then joined the Royal Navy.

Sadly – The grocer’s store where Cook worked was destroyed in a sea storm. But Captain Cook’s Cottage in the village contains its remnants and recovered parts.

Things to Do Staithes

First and foremost, you cannot come to Staithes and not admire its beauty.

Although it is small, it is full of charm and wonder, with cobbled streets and colorful cottages crowded into the cliffsides.

Staithes attracts geologists
Staithes weather

The vibe is a relaxing one, taking you away from the usual seaside hustle and bustle in bigger coastal towns such as Scarborough and Whitby.

Despite this, there’s still plenty to do.

Walking and Exploring  

If you’re heading to Staithes, you want to put on some comfortable shoes. It’s hilly with an intricate network of ginnels and alleys.

Weave your way through the cobbled streets amongst the cottages and see what quirky street names you can find.

It’s even home to the narrowest alley in the whole world! Dog Loup alley measures just 18 inches across.

It runs off Church Street from the west side at the lower end. It’s easy to miss because it’s so narrow.

If you’re an avid walker, you may be interested in the Cleveland Way National Trail. It’s a trail that runs for an impressive 110 miles, taking hikers from Helmsley to Filey.

What to Expect? Walkers can delight in the beauty of not only the North Yorkshire Coast but also the North York Moors National Park. Skirting through Staithes, you can pick up the signs easily and complete a section of the trail in either direction.

Captain Cook & Staithes Heritage Centre

The Heritage Center is home to lots of antiquities and memorabilia from times gone by and is dedicated to the history of Staithes and its inhabitants, including Captain James Cook.

Things to Do Staithes
Staithes fishing boats

The center is a village focal point telling of its amazing history and includes artefacts from Cook’s travels, ironstone mining, lifeboat stories and maritime models among other things. It’s well worth a visit.  

Staithes Art History

It’s no surprise that such a stunning location attracts artists.

The Staithes Group was a colony of artists in the 19th Century that gathered in the village and who were inspired by French Impressionists like Renoir, Cézanne and Monet.

The group was home to artists such as Laura Knight, who had a studio with her artist husband Harold. Staithes continues to attract artists and photographers due to its captivating scenes.

Fossil Hunting and Rock Pooling

Thanks to its location on the Jurassic coastline, Staithes is a popular place for fossil hunters and rock poolers!

If you head to the beach area, you’re sure to find people chipping open beach rocks to see if they can find a fossil or two.

Staithes in Culture

Staithes Bonnets

These famous bonnets were made in the village and were worn by the wives of the fishermen right up until the 1960s.

Made traditionally with a yard of cotton fabric, the bonnets were a hat made for working women who would carry baskets (skeets) and boxes of lobsters, crabs and herring on their heads from their husband’s fishing boats.

The bonnets had a special double crown and a frilly trim at the rear to stop drips running down the woman’s neck.

Staithes night view
Staithes at night

A poke at the front would also help protect her face from the sun or from bad weather and sea spray.

The bonnets also had a drawstring so that they could be made to fit the head properly and could also be smoothed out easily so they could be ironed.

Before the First World War, every woman and young girl in Staithes wore a bonnet.

They were originally made in three colors: white, black and mauve. The black bonnet was worn during mourning and the mauve when they were out of mourning.

Some fisherwomen widows continued to wear black for the rest of their lives. A black one was even set to Queen Victoria after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, which she did actually wear.

During the War – White fabric became hard to find, so printed and colored cotton became commonplace.

The bonnets were always handmade in the village and were never shipped in from elsewhere.

They were bought from Seymour’s, a shop at the end of the High Street, from the late 1880s.

Staithes on Screen

If you have little ones (or bigger ones that have grown a bit!), you may remember a British TV series that was aired on CBeebies called Old Jack’s Boat.

The show starred Bernard Cribbins as the eponymous character who owned a colorful boat named The Rainbow.

Each episode of the series was filmed in Staithes with Jack telling a story to his dog, Salty.

Bernard Cribbins spoke about the location of Staithes and said how special it was due to its beauty and friendliness as well as the sea air.

We can’t argue with his views there!

Aside from featuring on TV, Staithes was also a location used in the 2017 Daniel Day-Lewis film Phantom Thread.

Final Thoughts on Staithes

If you want to get away from it all or want some artistic inspiration, you cannot go wrong with a visit to Staithes.

This delightful little North Yorkshire gem will right up your street (or should that be tiny ginnel!)

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