North-East facing, Saltwick Bay looks out over the rugged North Sea whose coastline encompasses some of the UK’s most charming and raw countryside. Tiny fishing villages, rocky cliffs, hidden bays, and stretches of golden sand are all part of its innate and sublime charm, and Saltwick Bay is no different.
At first glance, Saltwick Bay appears to be a beautifully sculpted bay that offers glorious views out to sea but little more. However, this could not be further from the truth. Saltwick Bay is actually packed with history and astounding geological features that make it a place you must visit and see for yourself.
Saltwick Bay is approximately a 6-minute drive from Whitby (1.8 miles). Click here for directions.
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A walk to Saltwick Bay
If you’re going to visit Saltwick Bay, and you should, take my advice to forget driving and walk. It is only a short 1.5-mile walk away from Whitby and the rewards of doing so are magnificent. There are many picturesque views for you to take advantage of such as Whitby Abbey, the harbour entrance, and the remarkable North Yorkshire coastline.
Access to this breathtaking walk is via Whitby Holiday Park where there are steps leading down to the beach. You should, however, check tide times to ensure you don’t get cut off and be wary that the steps can get slippery in winter.
It is also good advice to be very careful at the base of the cliffs as rock falls are common, with loose fragments of shale falling regularly. However, if you look hard enough, you just might find some fossils amongst the scree and shingle.
Fossil hunting fun at Saltwick Bay
Saltwick Bay is a renowned site for the discovery of ammonites, reptiles, shells, and also jet, the gem which Whitby is most famous for. Most discoveries are made along the foreshore and it is here that you should be looking. Ammonites, for example, can often be found between rocks and boulders, whilst reptile fossils lurk in the cliff face about one metre above the beach level. Please note, however, that Saltwick Bay is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and therefore hammering the bedrock is not permitted.
Over the centuries Saltwick Bay has yielded many amazing finds such as in 1824 the almost complete skeleton of the Teleosaurus Stenosaurus Bollensis. This was in simple terms a Jurassic marine crocodilian which now resides in the Whitby Museum. Ichthyosaur, Plesiosaurus, and dinosaur footprints are also amongst the finds.
Certainly not as ancient, but definitely as interesting, if not more so, was the discovery of a horse skeleton in 1764. This was found around 30 yards underground into the alum mines. Alum mines that also play a huge part in the history of Saltwick Bay.
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The Saltwick Nab alum quarries
Interestingly, if it wasn’t for the alum mines in Saltwick Bay, we probably would not have had access to the fossils that we do there. Digging into this area has left behind a coastline rich in fossils that would have if not for the mines remain buried within the cliffs.
The first alum mine on the East coast was opened by Thomas Challoner in the 16th century due to the good old Henry VIII’s famous reformation! Why? Well, because before this Britain had sourced this essential chemical compound from Italy, and the industry was under papal control. On breaking with Rome and the Catholic church our supply of alum was halted.
It wasn’t until 1649, however, that a supply of alum was discovered in Saltwick Bay. This discovery was thanks to Sir Hugh Chomley who subsequently opened a mine there with the help of highly experienced Italian Alum workers.
In 1673 permission was given for a harbour to be built to aid in the transportation of alum. It would mean that no longer would they have to transport their wares to Whitby before shipping it out. Soon after in 1770, an alum house followed, being built on the southeast side of the quarries.
In 1791 the mining ceased at Saltwick Bay, probably due to alum being replaced by the creation of aniline dyes. These dyes contained their own colour fixative making alum redundant. Though the mining ceased, proof of the existence of the quarries and harbour still exists in Saltwick Bay today.
You may, for example, notice a ramp going out to sea, remnants of the harbour, and patches of deep red shale. These are all reminders of the alum industry which was prevalent along this coastline centuries ago. As a hint, if you want to witness these things in their most beautiful light, you should be there at sunrise or sunset.
Saltwick Bay’s superior sunrise and sunset
Everyone can appreciate a really beautiful sunrise or sunset, and we have probably all witnessed one at some time or another. However, not all sunrises and sunsets are created equal and some really are more spectacular than others.
Recommended reading: Summer Solstice At Saltwick Bay; See The Sun Rise And Set Into The Sea
Saltwick Bay is one of the few places that can offer a really special sunset and sunrise experience. Mirror-like pools make for breathtaking reflections here, for example, and rock formations portray textures to perfection.
This is especially true during late May to late July when the ‘double sun’ effect occurs here, but experiences are good all year round. Sunset is especially good for picking out the whale-shaped silhouette of Saltwick Nab, whilst sunrise highlights the Black Nab rock stack and the tragic wreck of the Admiral Von Tromp.
The wreck of the Admiral Von Tromp
Throughout history, the sea has proved to be a cruel mistress time after time claiming ships and lives in abundance. However, in the case of the trawler the Admiral Von Tromp this may not have been the case. You see, the sinking of this ship has proved to be a bit of a mystery that the sea herself may not have been responsible for!
On the 30th June 1976, the Admiral Von Tromp left Scarborough Harbour with a course set for Barnacle Bay. However, tragically this ship would never make its destination, instead, it would run aground on rocks at Saltwick Bay.
Before retiring for the night Frankie Taal made a check on his trusted seaman John Addison who was a man more than experienced in steering a boat. Satisfied with what he observed Taal drank a coffee and went to sleep, happy, or so he thought, that when he awoke, they would have arrived at their destination.
Rather than being awoken by his crew to tell him they had arrived at Barnacle Bay, Taal was roused from sleep by a bumping sensation that felt like the ship was heeling. On deck, he found to his horror that they were heading straight onto Black Nab at Saltwick Bay. Though Taal attempted to save the boat, his efforts proved to be futile, and the ship ran aground.
After the shipwreck, an investigation was launched to try to find out what had gone wrong, but no rational explanation could be found. The weather had been reported as fine, and according to a senior nautical surveyor, if the boat had been left to its own devices, it would have been fine.
This clearly, however, wasn’t the case as the Admiral Von Tromp was 90° off course. A skipper also stated that he had asked John Addison ‘what the hell was going on?’ but though Addison had looked back at him he made no reply.
The only conclusion that could be reached was that the Admiral Von Trump had been purposefully driven into the rocks. This couldn’t, however, be proven as certain since the only man who could have confirmed it, John Addison, drowned!
The remains of the Admiral Von Tromp can be found by bearing right on the beach (facing the sea) and clambering over the rocks. They should not be confused with the remnants of the HMHS Rohilla which is located right underneath the Whitby Holiday Park.
The wreck of HMHS Rohilla
Unfortunately, Saltwick Bay is not a site where you can witness just one shipwreck, but rather two. The HMHS Rohilla also made its final resting spot here in just as tragic, but altogether different circumstances to the Admiral Von Tromp.
At 4 am on the 29th October 1914 the HMHS Rohilla struck rocks at Saltwick Nab with 229 people onboard. It had been headed for Dunkirk on a route that would take her down the East Coast, a route that could be fraught with danger. German subs and mines were scattered along this coast, and to make things even more difficult the captain was new to navigating the rugged North sea.
As the HMHS Rohilla made its way along its route, a coast guard on duty in his shelter located on the cliffs noticed that she was heading for Whitby Rock. This was a treacherous section of reef system that would be the end of the Rohilla.
Under normal conditions, this hazard would have been marked by a permanent bell buoy. But this was war, and the bell had been silenced and its light extinguished. Still, the coast guard tried to warn the ship for thirty minutes that they were headed into danger but to no avail. The HMHS Rohilla maintained its dangerous course and ran aground 600 metres from shore.
Although the HMHS Rohilla was fairly close to the shore, the horrendous weather conditions made any rescue attempt perilous. This did not, however, stop rescue attempts being made which in the end lasted several days. An amazing 149 passengers on board the HMHS Rohilla were saved, but tragically 80 perished.
Of those passengers saved, one, a stewardess named Mary Roberts had astonishingly also survived another disaster at sea. For she had also been a stewardess aboard the most famous sinking ship in history, the Titanic. When asked about both events subsequently, Mary Roberts stated that the sinking of the HMHS Rohilla had been far more traumatic.
Care should be taken when visiting the few fragments of the HMHS Rohilla to the west of Saltwick Nab as access is very much dependent on the tides. You can also see more of this wreck by diving as like another famous Saltwick Bay shipwreck, the SS Brentwood, much of it is under the waves.
The wreck of The SS Brentwood
The SS Brentwood was a trawler that was struck by a German mine on the 12th January 1917. It sank in just an astounding four minutes due to the amount of damage sustained by her fore.
The Master and thirteen of her crew survived this sinking whilst just two people, the 2nd mate and fireman, who were on watch at the time went down with the ship. Those rescued were picked up by the SS Togston and taken to Sunderland.
The SS Brentwood can only be reached by those able to dive competently. It is upright at the bottom of the sea but broken into two sections.