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Discovering our Heritage Coast

In 2005, John Buglass Archaeological Services (JBAS) produced a desktop assessment into the archaeological and historic background of the landscape in and around Filey Bay in North Yorkshire. The study area stretches from Cunstone Nab (TA 0990 8310) in the north to Wandale Nab (TA 2082 7359) in the south. The study area is centred on Filey Bay but also includes sections of coastline running both north towards Scarborough and south towards Flamborough Head. The area under consideration was to include not only the coastline and the marine environment out to the 12 nautical mile limit but also the terrestrial heritage up to one mile in land. 

The purpose of the study was to start to determine the nature and extent of the historical and archaeological resources the area and to establish a series of recommendations for further archaeological and historical research.  

On completion of the research for this report, it was rapidly discovered that there was far more information than the current project could assimilate and interpret. Because of this, the information here has been presented here as an overview, and includes some interesting historical information relating to our coast.


 The rich resources in the area and Yorkshire as a whole have undoubtedly been exploited by hunter-gatherer communities since Palaeolithic times (c.500000 – 10000 BC), and although there is little trace of their communities, they have left their mark with flint tools, earthworks and burial mounds. 

When man started to clear the land in the Neolithic period, he left behind worked tools and the flint flakes from their manufacture.  Axe heads have been found at Filey and at Speeton, flint flakes are in evidence.  Burial mounds or tumuli from the Bronze age at Gristhorpe and the Iron Age through to the Iron Age of the square type are at and Reighton and Bempton.  A round barrow was excavated at Gristhorpe excavated and contained a skeleton in an unusual coffin dated to 1900 – 1500 BC of a type found in Jutland and at Bempton/Metlow Hill a barrow a has been excavated and was found to contain the inhumation of a child accompanied by flint tools and characteristic ‘food vessel’ ceramic forms. Just outside of  the zone there is a Mesolithic seasonal campsite at Star Carr near Scarborough, There is also a lithic working site just south of the zone at Grindale, with evidence of activity dating from the Mesolithic through Neolithic. 

There is a beacon mound of uncertain date at Bonfire Hill in Reighton , now surmounted by a modern pillbox; and at Standard Hill in Bempton, the site of a beacon in use from the sixteenth century until 1887. Both of these sites may have had significance as signalling points during the Civil War and the battles to take Scarborough Castle in 1645.  

At Gristhorpe there is a -damaged linear bank and ditch similar to the one at Buckton Dyke in Bempton. Bank and ditch features of uncertain (probably prehistoric) date survive as crop marks in Reighton parish, entire field systems including banks, ditches, track-ways and a possible enclosure can be found, and as extant earthworks at Speeton Dyke . At Bempton There is also a probable Iron Age crop-mark complex comprising a double-ditched track-way and rectangular enclosures and in Reighton. And at Speeton, an earthwork is present which could be a field boundary of any date from Roman to medieval (43 – 1539 AD).  

Evidence suggests that Dane’s Dyke may have been built in the Bronze Age along with other linear earthworks on the Yorkshire Wolds, been re-used in the Iron Age to protect against tribal or Roman incursions, and possibly used again in the ninth to tenth centuries AD against Danish invasion - hence the name).

The Roman Period 

Following the Roman conquest of Britain in 45 AD, control of the region was established via the fort at Malton, however settlement in the zone seems to have been confined largely to Filey.  The most significant Roman remains are the signal station at Carr Naze on Filey Brigg which formed part of the ‘Saxon Shore’ defences erected in the fourth century AD to protect the province of Britannia against invasions from the Continent.  There was a possible Roman settlement at Long Whins , where an assemblage of characteristic pottery was also recovered. Speeton may also have Roman antecedents, evinced by a scatter of artefacts datable to the second century AD). 

For communications at this time, a Roman road was probably laid to link the camp at Malton with Scarborough, possibly with a side-road leading to Filey, and stretches of paved or cobbled road have been uncovered outside Church School and on Station Road in Filey but their date is uncertain. A paved fragment possibly representing a road from Filey to Muston has also been found near the railway station which could date to any period from Roman to medieval.  


Central to the zone, the town of ‘Old’ Filey became established to the south of the Ravine, and grew up around the main thoroughfares of Town Street and Queen Street. The earliest recorded building is a timber framed house and outbuilding (34 Queen Street) dating to the tenth century, with further buildings on the same site dating to the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. In the eleventh century AD, the village formed part of the sokeland of the royal manor of Falsgrave and was subsequently granted to Walter de Gant in the twelfth century, who in turn enfeoffed it to Ralph Nevill of Muston (le Patourel et al, 1993).  There are also the remains of the seventeenth century Bucks family manor at Filey  but the study does not contain any further major country houses. 

North of the Ravine, St Oswald’s Church , constructed between 1180 – 1230, is probably built on the site of an earlier church and may have antecedents going back to the Roman period, and incorporates a decorated slab stylistically datable to the eighth century AD.  Filey’s Friday market and fair was chartered in 1221 and still operating by 1293 , the last surviving remnant of it being the stump of the market cross .

 In the 1930’s a field adjoining the Filey St Oswald’s Church was excavated and extensive foundations were discovered. It was concluded at the time that these foundations belonged to the Manor House of the Buck Family and it appears that the house had been built on earlier ecclesiastical property. Further investigations have revealed other new features and the site is a very significant part of
Filey’s history.


In addition to fishing, agriculture was practised at Filey which had three large open fields subdivided into long narrow strips running with the slope of the land.  These were located at Church Field and Great Field to the north and north-west, with ox pasturage beyond, Little Field to the south, and an area of common moor to the south-west) and there were rabbits taken from managed warrens at Hunmanby. Following enclosure (c.1800), ownership of the land around Filey passed into the hands of individuals including H. Osbaldston and the Foster family. 

Farming was equally important to the surrounding villages and prior to the enclosure acts and agricultural reforms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, much of the land was managed communally, with villages like Speeton surrounded by areas of common grazing and fields divided into strips cultivated by the local inhabitants. Traces of these ridge and furrow field systems occur at Reighton  and Bempton, where there are also crop-marks of uncertain date and the remains of a demolished barn likely to have been medieval to post-medieval . A rectangular earthwork and ‘ruin’ at Hoddy Cows Lane in Bempton may also represent the remains of a post-medieval barn. 

A pre-enclosure map of 1772 shows Speeton having four large open fields (Beacon Field, Cross Field, Mill Field and East Field) subdivided into long narrow strips running with the slope of the land.


   The  proof of the longevity of fishing in Filey is borne by accounts that boatbuilding was recorded some twenty years after the Harrying of the North by King William’s army in1679 -70, however,  Filey lacked a sufficiently sheltered natural harbour to support its development as a major port, hence its early fishing industry remained primarily of significance to the immediate populace and local economy. 

   Early evidence pertaining to the fishing industry consists of a post-medieval bait shed on Queen Street; a ‘breakwater’ at Spittal Rocks at the Bay side of the Brigg; a curvilinear boulder concentration, possibly a sixteenth/seventeenth century quay, at Old Quay Rocks in the corner of the Brigg; and three post-medieval breakwaters. Filey also had considerable value as a stopping point for vessels for hundreds of years to take on fresh water from the Ravine  and there are accounts of the Dutch fishing fleet using the wells in the Ravine for taking on  fresh water. 

   Filey’s fishing industry was supported by a range of ancillary industries including boat building, chandlery, rope and net-making, knitting of Gurnsey (‘Gansey’) sweaters, fish filleting and processing.

The principle vessel used in Filey’s fishing industry was the Yorkshire coble which has the roots of its design in Viking times. This vessel, superbly evolved for beach use were numbered in the 190’s in1890 but now they are reduced to single figures.

 The author of the report from which this article has been sourced  is John Buglass of John Buglass Archaeological Services,   to which all credits are ascribed.

© 2005

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