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Yorkshire: Misty Moors and a Shady History

The forbidding uplands, made famous by the Bronte sisters, are only one of the attractions in this part of eastern Britain

September 29, 2002|NANCY J. BAIRD

ROBIN HOOD'S BAY, England — As we started down the steep hill, the flat calm of the autumn North Sea lay in front of us, meeting the horizon in varying shades of gray. The morning threatened drizzle. The street, just wide enough for one car, bore the sign "Necessary vehicular access only," so we descended on foot.

At turns in the narrow, worn cobblestone sidewalk, tiny, picturesque houses and shops materialized from under red tile roofs. They were crammed closely together, constructed on the craggy, steep rocks of a ravine that tumbled down to the sea.

When we reached the sea, we tried exploring the village with a map picked up at a local coffee shop, but it offered little help. We got lost in a maze of passageways and alleys. Nonetheless, it was great fun. "Oh, look at this doorway," one of us would call, or "Let's see what's in this little shop."

Ellie, my traveling companion, and I had taken a train from London several days earlier and picked up a rental car at the station in York. We drove across the Yorkshire moors on narrow, winding roads from Pickering to Red House Farm, where we rented a cottage for a week. The farm was in Glaisdale, a tiny village within North York Moors National Park and eight miles from Whitby, an old resort town and port.

These expansive Yorkshire moors--open, rolling uplands covered with heather--were made famous by the Bronte sisters in their popular novels. Between the lonely, forbidding and wind-swept moors lay green, rolling dales dotted with hamlets.

We followed a leisurely pace in the car, stopping to sightsee along the two-hour drive to the farm and during the week we were there, warmed by the friendliness of the people and relishing differences in the dramatic landscapes.

North York Moors National Park covers 553 square miles. Forty percent of it is open moorland, the largest expanse of heather moorland in England and Wales. The high ridges offer far-reaching views over the green dales and forests. The moors are wild and remote, offering a haven for curlew, grouse and golden plover, all of which nest in the heather.

Villages, seemingly little changed in several hundred years, are scattered throughout the dales. Stopping the car once on a hill to take pictures and admire the view, we noticed an old, weathered farmhouse and outbuildings sitting alone in the heather. The setting made us think of lonely scenes from "Wuthering Heights." Heather grew around us almost as far as the eye could see, in varying shades of purple.

Along the coast, steep cliffs rise sharply from the sea and level out to unspoiled countryside. Small villages of closely clustered cottages hug the cliffs.

Robin Hood's Bay, or "Bay" as it is known to locals, is nestled in a cove on the Yorkshire coast. It is one of the most picturesque villages in the region and is popular with tourists, but the season was over on the September morning that we arrived, and there were just a few other visitors.

The stories I had read about it began to take shape in my mind as we walked past the small homes and shops. I tried to picture how it might have looked in 1745, when its name was synonymous with smuggling. Hard to imagine of such a peaceful and innocent-looking place. Nonetheless, this village once was the headquarters for the most powerful gang of smugglers on the northeast coast of England, and many of the townspeople were accomplices. In an era when smuggling was virtually a national industry, Robin Hood's Bay became its very heart, chiefly because of its isolation.

At the time, for example, Britain consumed about 4 million pounds of tea a year, with 3 million pounds of it smuggled in. Residents despised what they believed to be unjust taxation of goods imported from the Continent. To them, the solution was simple. Those who weren't involved in the smuggling operation looked the other way.

Contraband was regularly transferred, usually under cover of darkness, from ships to small boats, then unloaded on the beach. The goods were handed off up the hill through tunnels and secret passages within houses, some say without ever seeing the light of day. The back of a cupboard in one tiny house might have a trapdoor that opened into the pub next door.

From the top of the hill the goods were transported across the moors to waiting customers. The merchants and other recipients were eager for their tea, brandy, rum, wine, tobacco, spices, perfume and lace from the Continent and never asked questions, and the villagers accumulated stashes of illegally earned cash to save for a rainy day.

From our base at the cottage in Glaisdale, we discovered other area attractions too. The village of Grosmont (pronounced GROW-moat) was nearby, and it was here that we caught a restored steam train for an 18-mile trip to Pickering, where we browsed at market day booths and had lunch at a cafe.

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