The Yorkshire coast of England is approximately 110 miles long, stretching roughly north-east to between the River Tees in the north and the River Humber in the south, and abuts the North Sea. The coast from the Tees to Flamborough Head, has some of the most magnificent scenery on the English coast. From Flamborough Head to the Humber, the coastline is less dramatic, being one long, gently curving bay with high cliffs in tapering down to sand dunes in the south.
Situated at the mid-point of the Yorkshire coast is Filey Bay, shouldered on its northern extremity by peninsular headland known as Carr Naze, the seaward extremity as Filey Brigg. On the southern extremity stands the promontory of Flamborough Head. The overall Filey Bay study area extends from a line from the eastern tip of Carr Naze to a point three miles due east of the Filey Brigg light and bell buoy and from thence on a straight line 13.8 miles southeast to a point three miles due east of Flamborough Head light, and from thence shoreward, incorporating the entirety of Filey Bay to the 16 fathom line.
The coastline is largely composed of Oolitic limestone overlying Oolitic sandstone deposits, which covered by limestone and sandstone erratics, and extremely small elements of basalt, ironstone, lava and bottom of Filey Bay is largely sandstone, with exposed outcrops running along the ten to fifteen fathoms covered by sand and fine silts. [Clark and Robinson 1997]
Filey Brigg is a reef of calcareous grit, which projects more than a half mile from the foot of the promontory. In calm weather the Brigg is not easy to discern, for it is low-lying and submerged in areas known as Spittals, but in rough seas huge white waves break over it with considerable violence. On these occasions it is a serious hazard to maritime traffic, and has caused many shipping losses. At the seaward end of the reef a bell buoy has been in place since 1871. However, as early as 395 A.D. a Roman signal station had been erected above the Brigg on the Carr Naze promontory. Recent archaeological investigation suggests that the Brigg itself may have been enhanced by the construction of a Roman pier or jetty. [Godfrey; Ottaway ; Clark and Robinson]
South of the Brigg and the Carr Naze, and protected by them, is Filey Bay, an expansive, gently sloped embayment. The wide, sandy shore of the bay extends southward of the Brigg for several miles until it meets the white chalk cliffs that lead to Flamborough Head. Nestled in the northern lee of Filey Bay is the town of Filey, which not only benefits from the shelter offered by the Brigg, but also owes its existence to it. Filey has been extant since at least fourteenth century, when it was known as Fyvely or Filo. Documentary evidence indicates an ancient pier, Roman origins, graced the waterfront of the bay, probably at or near Filey Brigg, as early as 1326 A.D. There is no harbour here, or anywhere in the bay, but for generations a small fleet of fishing cobles has worked from the town, as it still does today, with vessels launched across the expanse of sandy beach manually, by animal power or, in modern times, by tractors. Over the centuries, many schemes for building a harbour of refuge at Filey have been put forward but none, with the exception of a possible Roman construction at the Spittals on Filey Brigg, ever came [Godfrey; Chris Robinson, p.c. 23 November 2000]
Situated just inland and to the south of Filey, is the village of Hunmanby. Since 1311, the Lord of the Manor has held rights over the wrecks of the sea in Filey Bay. [Godfrey,] Two miles south of Filey, lies a former Holiday Camp and approximately two miles further is the village of Reighton. The village of Speeton is situated a mile to the east-southeast of Reighton, and overlooks Speeton Cliffs, below which lay the King and Queen Rocks, site of several marine disasters. Three miles southeast of Speeton are the twin villages of Buckton and Bempton, overlooking Buckton and Bempton cliffs.
At the southern lip of Filey Bay is the chalk headland that is the best known geographical feature of the Yorkshire coast, Flamborough Head. It is the largest and most imposing promontory on the east coast, and as such was a maritime signpost since the earliest times. Ensconced on the central neck of Flamborough Head is the village Flamborough. In the fourth century A.D. the Romans erected a stone signal tower here as part of their coast guard system, and as an early warning system in case of attack. Indeed, the very name Flamborough is said to the flame or beacon that has burned on this dangerous headland since the Roman occupation, or even earlier. In 1588, three beacons were held in readiness here for the Spanish Armada's expected arrival. In 1674, an octagonal tower was built on the Head.
The chalk cliffs of Flamborough Head rise to a height of 450 feet, but are riddled with gullies, tiny beaches and inlets at the foot, and honeycombed with caves that serve as habitats to countless seabirds, and once as hiding places for smugglers. A man-made ditch known as Danes Dyke cuts across the Head from north to south, a distance of 2.5 miles, and may have been built as a defense line against attacking Danes. Thornwick Bay, one of the inlets on the north side of the Head is thought to be named after Thor, the Danish God of Thunder.
Fishing from Flamborough Head has been carried out for generations using, as at Filey, the traditional Yorkshire Coble a small vessel type derived from the Viking longship. Cobles are launched directly into the sea from the beach from two places on the Head; North Landing, where they are hauled up a very steep incline by a winch, and South Landing (or South Sea Landing) which was once known as a port, where, as early as 1323 there was a pier.
Flamborough Head and the cliff shores that shoulder it have caused innumerable shipwrecks over the centuries for the simple reason that they were aiming for the Head. "Vessels from the other side of the North Sea steered for the Head," as Godfrey and Lassey note, "because it was impossible to fail to recognize it; when they saw the white cliffs they knew exactly where they were. Similarly, Flamborough Head was the perfect 'guidestone' for coasting vessels traveling between the north-eastern industrial areas and the Thames or beyond." Even today, the coast from Speeton Cliffs to North Landing, on the north coast of Flamborough Head, is considered one dangerous sectors of the coastline, and its waters have yet to be surveyed by the British government.
The terrain of Filey Bay itself, to the 15 fathom line, consists of a very gently sloping slab stone bottom, generally covered by sand, which is in turn overlaid by a thin lens of silt. Little vegetation exist here. Beyond the 15 fathom line the bottom begins to descend slightly, but the sand cover gives way to open exposures of stone.
The tide splits at Flamborough Head. Half the flood, running from north to south, sweeps off a sandbar called the Smithics. The other half, running between the Smithics and the shore, makes a great "boil" over a reef jutting the Head, known as the Flamborough Steel. just before low water, a strong inshore current sets northerly current outside the Smithics starts two hours later than the ebb inside. Within the greater Filey Bay study area, a total of fifteen charted wrecks appear on Admiralty Chart 129, England, East Coast, Whitby to Flamborough Head (1998), but a total of 104 vessel losses have been recorded.
References are made to works by local authors Peter J Lassey, Arthur Godfrey, Chris Robinson and Chris Clark in addition to Patrick Ottaway.