Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, is well known as a popular destination for the twice-yearly goth festivals that attract many visitors to the town – both to participate and to people-watch. Held in April and October (the latter, naturally, takes place over Halloween), goths of all ages meet in the town to watch bands, raise funds for charity, and generally have a good time.
The popularity of Whitby as a destination for this subcultural group, stems in part from Bram Stoker’s choice of the area for his eponymous villain to come ashore in Dracula, inspired by the dramatic ruins of the abbey on the top of the East Cliff. However, there’s a more recent macabre story attached to the town that isn’t just fiction.
Stranger than fiction
In 2012, following a heavy rainfall which washed away part of the graveyard of St Mary’s Church at the top of the East Cliff, human bones were discovered in Henrietta Street at the foot of the cliff. The church – and graveyard – date back to 1100 (there have been no new burials there for at least a hundred years).
The crumbling cliffs don’t just affect the long-dead residents of Whitby either. The same year saw five former jet workers’ cottages in Aelfleda Terrace – built halfway up the East Cliff – having to be demolished brick by brick, as a landslip left the properties hanging dangerously over the edge.
Despite the skeleton incident being a gift to headline writers worldwide – many of whom gleefully referred to it as ‘the Dracula graveyard’ – the bigger picture is more serious. On the Yorkshire coast alone, areas at risk from cliff erosion extend from the Humber Estuary to Middlesbrough – almost the entirety of the Yorkshire coast.
A popular coastal walk – the Cleveland Way, a 175km trail from Helmsley to Filey, taking in Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay and breathtaking scenery along the route, had to put a diversion in place in 2021, due to coastal erosion. Along the route, there are warning signs, advising people to keep clear of the cliff edge.
Yorkshire coast: historical erosion
This part of the coast has long had a problem with erosion. Along the Yorkshire coast alone, there are at least 30 settlements – some dating back to Roman times – that have been submerged by the steady encroachment of the North Sea.
The geology of the coastline is partly to blame. The cliffs are composed of limestone, clay and sandstone, all of which are notoriously vulnerable to water damage. The area is known for many fossils – ammonites and trilobites, which are often found after high or flood tides when the surrounding sediment is washed away to reveal these ancient specimens. Collecting them is not without risk; there have been deaths and injuries from continuing landslips and rockfalls.
The impact of climate change on the Yorkshire coast
Those residing nearby are clearly used to seeing crumbling cliffs and retreating coastlines. Residents are aware of the dangers of walking too close to the edge, or at the bottom of the cliffs, especially after heavy rainfall. But in recent years, the rate of erosion has accelerated considerably. Environmental scientists are in agreement: climate change is a factor.
More frequent and heavier storms are accelerating the fall of waterlogged cliffs into the sea. Increased storms also affect the sea (the North Sea is particularly turbulent) which then lashes against the base of the cliffs, weakening the structures still further.
A rise in sea levels will naturally increase these factors, as a higher sea level will reach parts of the coastline that were previously relatively safe. According to the British Geological Survey, the rate of erosion at Aldborough (around 50 miles south of Whitby) doubled between 1951 and 2004. This situation is set to continue. Some predictions are that the UK will see a rise of at least one metre, sometime in the future.
So, what is being done? The Environment Agency has announced that it is working with The Marine Protection Agency and the relevant councils along that coast to try and create some sort of defence against the encroaching tides. The shoreline management plan is a long-term strategy (over the next hundred years) to try and preserve the coastline environment in general, along with the communities that live alongside it.
Runswick Bay just up the coast from Whitby has benefited from a project to shore up the existing sea wall with limestone blocks. The coastline is subject to constant monitoring so that any accelerated change can be addressed by the relevant agencies. However, there are concerns that the Environment Agency are less engaged in the project than they might be.
A community in Sussex were told, “incursion by the sea was inevitable and the land should be let go and allowed to transform into a coastal floodplain”. It’s hard to imagine small towns and villages along the Yorkshire coast being any more of a priority in the current financial climate. Put simply, it seems like towns like Saltburn, along the Cleveland Way, and Aldeburgh – and potentially even Whitby – may join previous settlements