Ravenscar, the Victorian seaside resort town that never was, sits high on the cliffs of the North Yorkshire coast about 8 miles south of Whitby. It’s a place that has always fascinated me since I learned of its history. But, my first visit was for a different reason. The seals.
The rocky beach at the foot of the cliffs below Ravenscar is home to a growing colony of both common grey seals. According to North York Moors National Park, you have a great chance of seeing common seal pups in June and July and grey seal pups in November. We visited in early June and were not disappointed.
A brief history of Ravenscar
I couldn’t write a post about Ravenscar without addressing the town that never was.
Back in the early 20th century, ambitious plans were set out to create a seaside resort to rival neighbouring Scarborough and Whitby.
The interesting thing is that it never happened. Only a handful of the plots you see on the plans were even built upon. The Raven Hall Hotel sits on the clifftop with a 0-hole golf course below. The railway station is long since closed after the line was shut down in the 1960s. The former railway line is now part of National Cycle Route 1 and known as the Cinder track.
I find it fascinating that such plans never came to fruition. There are clues in situe that give a ghostly insight into what never became. Kerbstones laid on the once planned streets and drainage system built to serve them. One thought as to why is the realisation that the access to the beach was down steep-sided cliffs. But that beach was not the sandy beach depicted on the plans and brochures shown to potential investors. It is a rocky beach with no sand to speak of.
I’ll leave the history there for now as this is, after all, a post about the seals that reside upon that rocky beach. But I do recommend further reading at thetownthatneverwas.co.uk.
The seals of Ravenscar
Taken our Covid-19 pandemic induced home learning outdoors is something I wish now that I had done more. But, I didn’t. That said, once I learned of the seals at Ravenscar on a wet Wednesday plans were quickly formed to visit the very next day – whatever the weather.
It wasn’t raining much but it was a cool and windy Thursday when we made the drive to this remote hamlet on the cliffs. It was in the afternoon and I’d not paid enough attention to the tide tables and it was clear the tide was high.
However, as we made out way down the path (past the Raven Hall Hotel and across the 9-hole of course) that does get very steep in places and not once did I wonder if we were going the correct route, we realised we could still access the rocks and some beach area.
There were a couple of other hardy families down there and all social distancing was observed. There was a distinct lack of seals.
Then we realised on one of the other families were looking at something. A seal. A young seal alone on the beach amongst the rocks.
We held back while they watched this cute little creature not doing very much, and once they had left we moved in a little closer.
I have to admit I was in awe of seeing this young seal. We kept a safe and respectful distance from it, as you should always do with wildlife, and just watched for a while.
The girls asked questions, such as “where’s it’s mum?”, “is it okay?”, “why isn’t it in the sea?” and my favourite, “what does seal poo look like?”.
For the record: seal poo is about the same size and constancy as dog faeces but a lot stinkier.
We moved away from the seal cub and found a patch of ground that sat above the beach where we observed more seals in the sea. It was then we realised just how many there were.
According to the tide chart, the tide was just about at it’s highest. Were the seals returning from their hunting trip to take up a position on the rocks?
A camera dilemma
I had with my Canon EOS M50 camera with me and two lenses; my trusty Sigma 17-50mm and my Canon 75-300mm. The Sigma is a fantastic lens, but hardly a zoom capable of capturing the seals from a distance. The 75-300mm isn’t the best lens but used correctly I can still make some fantastic shots with it.
I found myself switching the lenses more often than I would have liked. It’s very rare I will switch a lens on my camera outdoors, let alone on a beach near the salty sea. So, I made a mental note that if we came back I would bring my spare camera body with me – the Canon EOS 50D.
We had also brought a pair of Pentax binoculars with us. They’re not particularly powerful but were good enough for the girls to view the seals out at sea a little better. These binoculars have huge sentimental value to me as they were my Dad’s.
A swift return trip
After the arduous climb back up the 600 foot cliffs to the car, the girls were keen to plan a return trip when the tide was out and more chance of seeing the seals on land.
I joked that we could come back tomorrow. And we did!
With Helen working a night shift and thus being in bed on Friday, getting us all out of the house to allow her some quiet sleep was ideal. So we packed a picnic and returned to Ravenscar.
This time we arrive at low tide. It was quite dramatic to see the exposed rocks that had been covered by the sea less than 24 hours earlier. It was even more dramatic to see a large group of seals on the natural jetty of rocks that my OS Map labels as Peak Steel.
It was incredible to get so close (while staying a safe distance) to so many seals. From pups to very large males, they came in all sizes. As well as those lazing in the sunshine, there were a large number in the sea and channels close by the rocks.
This time I’d brought both my camera bodies so could quickly switch between the wide-angle and long zoom lenses.
After an hour watching the seals, we moved down the beach to hunt for fossils as we’d been told they were common here. And they are.
We enjoyed our picnic sat watching the waves, hunting for more fossils and spotting a few seals that were coming ashore away from the main group. It was soon time to pack away and head back up the cliff.
Obviously, during the semi-lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic, the National Trust visitor centre and the cafe at Station Square were not open. But they are there and once places can open up again I’ll be sure to visit.
Just around the bay is Robin Hoods Bay. The Cleveland Way actually runs along the beach from there to Ravenscar but watch out as at high tide it’s impassable. If you do walk between the two you need to make sure you get the tide times right and watch the time.
As I mentioned, the Cinder Track is a multi-use path that runs from Scarborough in the south to Whitby in the north. There is the 9-hold golf course but that’s not a sport I have any interest in if I am honest.
Parking is limited and on-street but it is free so no complaints. There’s a myriad of public paths in the area so incorporating a visit to the seals as part of a day out walking would be a great stopover.
And if, like me, you love making great photos then this is the place to bring your camera.
Thanks for reading