Cleveland and the Cleveland Coast

Guisborough : Capital of Cleveland

Guisborough is perhaps a Viking name –  the borough or fort belonging to a Viking called Gigr. There is evidence of extensive Viking settlement in the vicinity. Guisborough is an attractive market town in rural surroundings and lies just outside the valley of the Tees on the northern edge of the Cleveland Hills south of Middlesbrough.

Anciently Guisborough was the capital of that part of Yorkshire known as Cleveland, a district which lay entirely to the south of the Tees that stretched as far south as Whitby. Guisborough is certainly one of the most historic towns in the area. Like so many towns in North Yorkshire and South Durham the town of Guisborough is centred upon a busy market street.

At Guisborough the main street is called Westgate in which we can find a a curious eighteenth century market cross decorated with a sundial and weather vane. Guisborough’s beautiful ruined abbey which is the most notable feature of the town can cause confusion to tourists who notice that the name of this building is spelled Gisborough without the `u’ that appears in the name of the town. Originating from the twelfth century, the abbey was built by Robert, a member of the De Brus or Bruce family who were important landowners on both sides of the River Tees. Robert De Brus of Skelton was an ancestor of the famous Scottish king Robert the Bruce (1290-1329).

Roseberry Topping – A Viking summit

Roseberry Topping is undoubtedly the best known natural landmark in Cleveland and is steeped in local folklore. It can be clearly seen from many parts of rural Cleveland and industrial Teesside and has a distinctive outline. Known as ‘The Cleveland Matterhorn’. Roseberry Topping was once used by sailors out at sea as an indicator of changing weather, as the following rhyme records;

“When Roseberry Topping wears a cap,
Let Cleveland then beware of a clap !”

Roseberry Topping was connected with the Vikings, as the word ‘Topping’, from ‘Toppen’, is one of a number of old Viking words for a hill, but the original Viking name for Roseberry Topping was Odins-Beorge meaning Odin’s Hill. Roseberry may have been a centre for the worship of the Viking god Odin in Pagan times. Over the years, the name changed to Othensberg, Ohenseberg, Ounsberry and Ouesberry. Association with the village then called Newton-under-Ouseberry at the foot of the hill led to the modern name Roseberry when the final ‘R’ of ‘under’ produced the initial letter of the modern name. Newton under Ouseberry is now called Newton under Roseberry. Roseberry Topping also has an association with Osmotherley.


Much of the district around Guisborough was known as Langbaurgh a name that has ancient origins. It takes its name from the long ridge-like hill called Langbaurgh, a few miles south west of Guisborough in the Cleveland Hills. The name has two parts ‘Lang’ meaning ‘long’ and ‘Beorge’ meaning ‘hill’. Langbaurgh was a place of significance in historic times when it was the central meeting place of a Wappentake, or Viking settled district.

The ridge was a meeting point where the Vikings of the district assembled to discuss local affairs. In this respect Langbaurgh was similar to Sadberge on the north side of the Tees. Wappentakes continued as administrative districts into medieval times when some new wappentakes were created. These included Whitby Strand, annexed from part of Langbaurgh. Later, Langbaurgh wappentake was divided into two parts called East and West Langbaurgh with Roseberry Topping and Ayton Moor on the border between the two. For many centuries the whole wappentake was known by its other ancient name – Cleveland.

Captain Cook

Great Ayton, near Roseberry Topping is the place where the budding young sailor James Cook went to school when he lived as a boy at the nearby Aireyholme Farm at the foot of Roseberry Topping. On Easby Moor to the south east of Great Ayton there is an imposing monument to his honour. James Cook was actually born a little further north at Marton, now a suburb of Middlesbrough on the 27th October 1728 and late moved to Staithes, but it was as a young man that he began working for a Whitby shipowner employed on Colliers shipping coals from the River Tyne to London. After learning basic seamanship, he joined the navy at the age of 27 and soon gained a reputation for his chart making skills.

Cook had a desire to explore new lands and in 1769 he was asked to command HM Bark Endeavour on an expedition that took him to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia where he named the territory of New South Wales. On his return to England in 1771, he was promoted from lieutenant to Captain and set sail the following year in search of the great southern continent, voyaging as far as the Antarctic Circle. This was a journey that took him further south than anyone else had ever been before. He then returned home to England.

Cook’s last voyage was to prove fatal. Leaving England on the 25th June 1776 on board the Resolution and accompanied by the Discovery, Cook went on to discover Hawaii and the Cook Inlet of Alaska. On return to Hawaii where his ship stopped for provisions, Cook unfortunately lost his life on the 14th February 1779, following an affray between local tribesmen and members of his crew. There is a legend recited by local tourist guides on the island of Hawaii that the place where Cook met his death is the only part of the United States of America which still belongs to Great Britain, a mark of respect to the great explorer.

Stewart Park, Marton, Middlesbrough, is today the site of the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, which has a number of displays connected with the life of the great sailor and the places he visited. A vase made of Granite from Point Hicks, Australia stands close to the museum marking the site of the thatched cottage where Cook was born.

Redcar and Coatham

Redcar  began as a little fishing village which grew as a coastal resort in the nineteenth century with the extension of the railway here from Teesside. Like Saltburn, Redcar is still frequented by day trippers in search of the scent of the sea but the biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Race Course around which the town seems to encircle. This opened in 1872 and ensured that day-trippers continued to flock.

Redcar seems to have been named from neighbouring red-coloured rocks or carrs or perhaps from the same word carr which can also mean poorly drained land, so it could be the ‘reedy carr’. This is possible as nearby Marske-by-the Sea has a boggy name that comes from the  Scandinavian pronunciation of the English word marsh.

Old names for Redcar include Redker in 1165, Ridkere in 1407 and Readcar in 1653. It was only a ‘Poore Fishing Toune’ in 1510 as most activity in the area was was centred on its then more important neighbour, Coatham which held a market and fair from 1257.

Coatham’s name derives from Cot -Ham and means ‘the shelters’. Fishing boats probably took shelter from the stormy seas. Coatham was one of the most important fishing villages in the area and in 1801 it had a population of 680 people. Comparable population figures in the district show that 993 people lived at Hartlepool, 167 at Thornaby and only 25 people lived at Middlesbrough.

Redcar rose from obscurity in 1846 when an extension of the Stockton and Darlington Railway brought industry and seaside day trippers to the area. Redcar quickly expanded and soon absorbed Coatham.

Industrial growth in the late eighteenth century came in the form of ironworks and later steelworks of which the most prominent were those of Dorman and Long. In the following century Dorman and Long built a new town in 1918 called Dormanstown right on Redcar’s doorstep to accomodate the expanding workforce of the district and add further to the population of the Redcar area.

The town of Redcar is less known as the home of the world’s oldest lifeboat called the Zetland which is displayed in the museum of that name in King Street. It was built around 1810 by Henry Greathead of South Shields and originally worked at Spurn Head until it was bought by Redcar fisherman in 1802. The Zetland was built twenty years after the first ever lifeboat which was also built at South Shields.

Kirkleatham, Upleatham and Yearby

Kirkleatham in the countryside on the southern outskirts of Redcar has a name of Viking origin. It comes from the Old Norse ‘hlith’ meaning ‘slope’ which in a plural form was lithum. It was once called West Lidium or West Leatham to distinguish it from Upleatham to the south east.

Around 1181 it became Kirkleatham because of a medieval church or ‘kirk’ that existed here. Kirkleatham is best-known today as the site of the Sir William Turner Hospital and Turner Mausoleum. Both were associated with the alum mining family called the Turners.

Kirkleatham Hall, a seventeenth mansion was the home of this family but the hall was demolished in 1954 and replaced with a school which is now the Kirkleatham Old Hall Museum. Sir William Turner’s Hospital was founded in 1676 as almshouses for the poor but was almost entirely rebuilt in 1742.

The pretty little rural village of Yearby just south of Kirkleatham seems a world away from the chemical industries of Wilton that lie close to its doorstep. It’s another Norse name from the Viking ‘Efri-by’ meaning upper village.

Further south still, Upleatham is on the Guisborough to Marske road south of Redcar. The name means ‘the upper slopes’.  Here we find St Andrew’s, a twelfth century church measuring 17 feet 9 inches by thirteen feet. It is reputedly the smallest church in England.

Upleatham church
Above: Victorian illustration showing the church at Upleatham near Redcar


Saltburn to the north of Boulby was an important Victorian bathing resort and we are reminded of this by the presence of the North East’s only pleasure pier (1868) which juts out 600 feet from Saltburn beach. Originally the pier was 1400 ft long but its length was severely reduced during a storm in 1924 when it was rammed by a ship called the Ovenberg. Another intriguing feature related to Saltburn’s role as a Victorian resort lies directly above the pier where we find the oldest working water balanced inclined tramway in Britain.

Dating from the 1870s this was specially designed to transport visitors back and forth from Saltburn town to the pier and beach. Although the town’s most obvious features are of Victorian origin, its history goes back much further as we know that in the thirteenth century it was inhabited by a hermit and in even earlier Roman times it was the site of a fortified Roman signalling station.

The earthworks of this fort are situated on Hunt Cliff, a vertical sea cliff 365 ft above sea level, a mile to the east of Saltburn. Huntcliff was one of a number of Roman signaling stations situated along the Yorkshire coast which were built as watchtowers against the threat of barbarian from Denmark, Germany and Pictland, Dating from around 369AD the station was eventually overrun by the raiders in the later fourth century A.D. when its occupants were murdered and reputedly dumped in a nearby well.  In a 1923 excavation in 1923 the victims were discovered when the skeletons of fourteen people – men women and children were found. They were clearly the victims of murder.

The Anglo-Saxons  who would later settle Cleveland and give Saltburn its name may have been responsible for the murderous raid. The name ‘Sealt-Burna’ salty stream, perhaps from its salty water or because of the salt-like alum found in the neighbourhood.  The stream still flows through the town cutting a deep wooded ravine before making its way into the sea after cutting through the middle of Satburn beach.

When the Vikings came three centuries they changed the name of the stream from burn to beck but the village of Saltburn retained its retained its name, but the stream became the Skelton Beck.

The little fishing village of Saltburn grew beneath the prominent Cat Nab hill near the beach and its still there beneath the Victorian town which towers above. This small place, was famed for smuggling and fishing until 1860, when the Stockton and Darlington Railway was extended to the site and Henry Pease of Darlington set about the development of the wonderful Victorian coastal resort of Saltburn-by-the-Sea.

Highlights of this charming town includree some lovely Victorian buildings including the former Zetland Hotel, the pleasure pier, the Valley Gardens, the beautiful beach and the cliffs that tower above the coast to its north and of course Saltburn Cliff Lift – a funicular railway of 1884 that can carry people from the cliff top to the beach itself.

Vikings and Smugglers on the Cleveland Coast

Cleveland is an ancient district of Yorkshire with a name that historically called ‘Cliffland’ and seemingly a reference to the coastal cliffs of the area. In fact it could mean ‘hilly district’, the word cliff in its old sense referring to rolling hills rather than steep-faced cliffs. The word ‘cleve’ in Cleveland may also be related to the modern word cleavage. Cleveland is often thought to be a modern invention, but although the County of Cleveland, abolished in April 1996 was not created until 1974, the real Cleveland is much older.

Historically Cleveland was a district of northern Yorkshire situated entirely to the south of the River Tees. The earliest record of the name was in Viking times when Harald Hardrada is said to have landed in that part of Yorkshire called Cliffland. Unlike the present county, old Cleveland did not include places like Billingham, Stockton, Egglescliffe and Hartlepool which were part of County Durham.

Guisborough was in Yorkshire but was also the ancient Cleveland capital, while Yarm was the main place of industry and commerce in old Cleveland until Middlesbrough rose to prominence in the nineteenth century. Old Cleveland stretched further south than then now defunct Cleveland county, almost as far south as Whitby and included Egton, Stokesley, Great Ayton, Staithes and Carlton in Cleveland. Ironically Carlton in Cleveland and most of the Cleveland Hills were never part of the modern county of Cleveland

Cleveland’s sea cliffs at Boulby to the north of Staithes are 679 feet high, which makes them the highest on the whole eastern coast of England. Their rugged recesses once provided shelter for smugglers who were especially active on the Cleveland coast during the eighteenth century.

The steeple of a nearby church was one of the places where illicit kegs of wine, gin and whisky were once hid. Smuggling was a highly profitable business and was once a common activity on the coasts of Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire. The naturally secluded shelters of Cleveland’s cliffland coast once frequented by the smugglers may have been used in even earlier times by Viking longships, as the Vikings seem to have settled this area in particularly large numbers.

We know this from the evidence of Viking place names which are abundant in the area. Examples include Skinningrove, Carlin Howe and Loftus meaning `Skinner’s Pit’ `Witch’s Hill’ and ‘House with a Loft’. A mix of Viking and Anglo-Saxon village names can be found just inland from the coast. The Viking names include Stanghow, Moorsholm and Boosbeck which translate as Pole Hill, Moor sland or moor houses and ‘cow shed stream’. Brotton, Liverton and Lingdale are likely Anglo-Saxon and all named from the valleys of little streams. Brotton is thought to mean brook-farm, Liverton a stream name (as with Liverpool) and Lingdale from ling a word for heather.

Staithes – Captain Cook’s Coast

Staithes, situated in a deep narrow creek formed by the Roxby Beck which cuts its way through the steep cliffs ten miles north of Whitby, is undoubtedly one of the prettiest coastal villages in England. Originally it was settled by the Vikings who gave the village its name which means `The Landing Place’ but romantics argue that the village owes its origins to a French shipwreck whose survivors settled ashore. Staithes is very popular with visitors who come primarily for the excellent scenery. Perhaps some also come in search of the headless ghost of a young girl who reputedly haunts the coast hereabouts.

More often than not visitors to Staithes are on the trail of Captain James Cook  who worked at Staithes as a boy apprenticed to a local grocer. It was here at Staithes that he acquired the love of the sea that set him on course for his long and eventful career. Indeed upon leaving Staithes Cook headed straight for Whitby and from 1775 he worked for a Whitby shipowner employed on colliers shipping coals from the River Tyne to London.

Cook’s knowledge of the sea went from strength to strength and upon joining the navy he quickly progressed to the rank of Captain. In his voyages as Captain many important discoveries of new land were made in journeys that took him to Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Tahiti and Hawaii, where he eventually lost his life on the 14th February 1779 after a disagreement between local tribesmen and members of his crew.

Whitby – St Hilda and the Synod

Whitby in Yorkshire also has links with North Eastern England north of the River Tees. Before Viking settlement fell upon Yorkshire, Whitby lay within the Kingdom of Northumbria and was the site of an Anglo-Saxon abbey founded in 657 A.D. The abbey stood on the site now occupied by Whitby’s ruinous Norman abbey overlooking the River Esk and was dedicated to a Northumbrian princess called St Hilda, who moved here from Hartlepool and was the first abbess. In later years the abbey was destroyed by the Vikings who raided Whitby in 870 A.D.

Vikings eventually became peaceful settlers at Whitby calling it `Hviteby’ – `the White Town’ In 664 A.D Whitby abbey had been the setting for the Synod of Whitby , an important meeting held to decide if the people of Northumbria should adhere to Celtic or Roman teachings of Christianity. The meeting was chaired by Oswy, King of Northumbria, who listened to the arguments of St Wilfrid (of Ripon and Hexham) and St Colman who spoke respectively for the Roman and Celtic causes. In the end it was St Wilfrid’s highly persuasive oratory skills that won the support of King Oswy and determined the outcome of the synod. The Celtic christianity introduced by St Aidan thirty years before was abandoned in favour of Roman practices. Roman Catholicism thus became the primary religion of northern England for centuries to come.

Caedmon the Saintly Poet of Whitby

In the time of St Hilda, Whitby was the home of an Anglo-Saxon called Caedmon who has been described as the man “who laid the first great temple of English poetry”. Caedmon was originally an illiterate cow herder with an embarrassing inability to sing and according to legend his problem was such that he would hide away in a cow shed while his working friends entertained each other with music and singing.

One evening while hiding in the shed Caedmon fell into a deep sleep and dreamt that an angel sent from heaven taught him how to sing. The following morning Caedmon awoke to discover that his dream had come true and that he now had a marvellous gift for singing phrases from the testament in the form of verse. St Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, was greatly pleased with Caedmon’s discovery and encouraged him to utilise his talent in spreading the word of God.


Eskdale is a beautiful valley with a name that probably goes back to Viking times. Indeed many of the names in the valley are Viking. These include Ainthorpe a place near Danby which signifies a small Viking farm or ‘thorpe’, that was isolated or ‘on its own’. The name means one thorpe or ‘lonely farm’. Danby itself is also a Viking name meaning village of the Danes. The name Goathland may mean Goda’s land – again, probably Viking name, but Grosmont is Norman French and means ‘big hill’. These last two places are closely associated with the famous North York Moors Railway – a preserved steam railway. A train journey is one of the best ways for seeing the lovely scenery hereabouts.

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