Magnificent sea views: another what might have been

At the very end of the 19th century a number of gentlemen including MPs and a Fellow of the Royal Society formed a company (Ravenscar Estate Limited sometimes called Peak Estate Limited) which purchased the 800 acre Raven Hill Estate on the North Yorkshire coast between Whitby and Scarborough. Their purpose was to transform their renamed property, Ravenscar, into a first class seaside watering place.

The location had a number of attractions – ‘between sea and moor’, ‘romantic situation’, ‘bracing air’, ‘elevated position’, ‘magnificent sea views’, ‘splendid cliffs’; all of which Ravenscar Estate Limited were keen to promote. The site had an existing railway station to bring people in, and also included the old Hall which was soon sold off and turned into a Hotel. The plan was to develop the resort at the same time as selling plots and parcels of plots to other gentlemen to invest in. The plots would be built on adding up to shops, marine villas and lodging houses ‘for which there is a great demand on this favourite and fashionable coast’. Over the next few years these plots were sold on gradually through auctions (often with a free luncheon and sometimes even with a special train laid on) so as not to deflate the price by offering too many at one time. By showing that other gentlemen had confidence in the scheme, the intention was to entice others to get involved too and make sure they didn’t miss out.

NEW WATERING-PLACE FOR YORKSHIRE. Important Property Sale. (BY OUR OWN REPORTER)
The first practical steps towards the creation of a -new watering-place on the Yorkshire coast, near Robin Hood’s Bay, were taken yesterday, when an estate known as Ravenscar was offered for sale in building lots, at the Raven Hill Hotel about half a mile from Peak Station. The site is a picturesque one, and access to it is obtained by the Scarborough and Whitby Railway, which brings the visitor to within a couple of hundred yards from the summit of the cliffs. Standing on the pretty castellated garden terraces in front of Raven Hall, one obtains a charming view. .. Immediately beneath the terraces at Ravenscar, and extending away south as far as Hayburn Wyke, are gigantic cliffs, the highest, with one exception, on the Yorkshire coast. To the geologist many an interesting problem is presented by the dislocation, of the strata, especially on the line of the great fault, where there is a three of fully four hundred feet. The undercliff extends for several miles along the coast, and gives to it an unusual appearance of rugged grandeur. About these cliffs hundreds of sea-gulls have their homes, and foxes and rabbits by scores have also chosen to make their burrows here. Ravenscar, which now consists of little save pastoral land, has a history of its own. The commanding situation of the Peak Hill was seized upon by the Romans for a military outlook camp in the days of Constantine, and later it was occupied by the Danes. Indeed, the names Raven Hall and Ravenscar have been chosen from the fact that the Danes here set up their standard, the national emblem of the Danes being a raven. It was a happy conception that led a number of public-spirited and enterprising gentlemen to form a company for the purpose of conversing this charming spot into a watering-place, and, judging from the keen competition there was amongst the bidders yesterday, their opinion that the place was capable of development was evidently shared by others. A visage standing high up on the cliffs, with the sea on the one side and hemmed in on the other by an extensive tract of moor- land, ought to be a healthy spot. Indeed, few places can boast the combined luxury of refreshing winds from the sea and exhilarating breezes scented from the moors…When their scheme is completed, there will be an esplanade running along the summit of the cliffs, and abutting upon this will be thirty or forty villas. Other houses will also be erected upon roads to be constructed in the proposed village. At present a few long piles of sods, which have been cut out to mark the roads, and a number of staked-out lots for building sites, are the only visible signs of the great transformation about to take place…
Leeds Mercury, 8 July 1896

There is a lot of mention of Scarborough and the idea of creating a rival or complimentary resort nearby, and also how resorts have been created successfully on the south coast of England. There is much talk of ‘inland’ residents especially in growing towns wanting to access the coast and its special qualities, and an expectations that this demand will grow.

It’s clear from the regional newspapers of the time that gentlemen with money to invest from industrious West Yorkshire were one of the a target audiences for the company. By 1899 the roads were laid out, reservoirs were built to provide a water supply from moorland springs, a drainage scheme was drawn up, and exclusive on site brick making rights had been sold to Whitaker Bros from Leeds. There was hope in the development, so much so that a Curate was appointed to the existing isolated Church with the expectation of growing congregations. However early on the company had to lower expectations of a quick investment win.

A good start is sadly needed. It is exactly three years ago this week since the first sale at Ravenscar took place. The estate during that time has been well laid out in streets, and paths have been made. A few houses have been built, but still things have hung fire. Speaking on Friday the estate auctioneer, Mr Stansfield, of Bradford, said he had seen it stated in some quarters that the sales had been bogus, but he assured the company present on his professional honour that such was not the case, and that he had personally sold upwards of £10,000 worth of land since he had been appointed auctioneer. At the commencement of anything progress and development was necessarily slow, but in the future of the estate the company have the firmest confidence, and they were determined to do all in their power to open up its resources and give to Yorkshire another watering-place which in its health-giving qualities, its picturesqueness, and its popularity, would view with the best of those the county already possessed.
York Herald 11 July 1899

Auctions continued.

LAND SALE. Messrs W G. Stansfield & Co., auctioneers, Bradford, held a sale yesterday at Ravenscar, the new watering place in the process of making on the cliffs between Scarborough and Whitby. This was the first sale of the season, and there was large attendance of bidders from Bradford, Leeds and other places. Ideal weather prevailed, and the visitors were privileged to see the place in its most charming aspect. The hot sunshine was tempered by a cooling breeze, and there was scarcely more than on the broad expanse the North Sea. Mr W Stansfield, after luncheon proposed the health of the King, and the sale then commenced. Mr Stansfield, in his prefatory remarks, pointed out that already £49,000 worth of land on the estate had been sold. The Ravenscar Estate Company had, he said, developed the undertaking wonderfully. Every element needed for success was to be found on the spot. Messrs. B Whitaker & Sons Limited, of Horsforth, had put down an expensive brick making plant, and would be able give a quotation for bricks in June; there was good sand and stone on the estate. There was also a good supply of pure water, the company having themselves provided two reservoirs; and there could be no difficulty with regard to sewage at Ravenscar, where they were close to the sea and 600 ft. above it. In short there was no reason why this should not be unique seaside place.
Bradford Observer, 21 May 1901

Image of an 1903 Auction Poster

As sales continued so did the optimism, despite the slow pace.

Ten years have passed since the auctioneer first flourished his hammer in the Assembly Rooms of the Ravenscar Estate, Limited. People came from all parts the country to buy “eligible building sites” and the transactions were so numerous that it was thought this City of the Peak, six hundred feet above beach, with magnificent outlook over sea and moor, was going to put Scarborough in the shade. Ravenscar, however, is still unspoilt. The old hall, whose carriage on the Roman Road, is flanked with pillars bearing effigies the Danish raven, or the Roman eagle, has been extended or converted into a modern hotel and year by year many holiday makers climb the hill enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of the scene. It is an ideal spot for people who would escape from the distractions of the modern seaside town, and as well worth visiting at any time, if only for a peep at the terraces and gardens that have been formed and planted on the face of the precipitous cliffs. Within the last few years shelters have been erected here and there, fenced, of course, to keep the cattle off; and zig-zag paths have been made from the summit to the beach, making the journey much easier that it used to be for ladies and children…People familiar with this lovely district have a good deal of faith in its future. One gentlemen, who is able to speak with some authority, believes that the builder will be busy here within the next few years, for the demand for country and seaside residences in such situations is likely to increase among people of means who feel that they are crowded out of so-called popular resort.’
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 August 1907

Image of a North Easter Railway (pre 1921) Poster

Then in 1909 the short lived Ravenscar Estate Limited Company went into receivership, leaving Ravenscar behind.

Why not try Ravenscar? I remember when this of city of the Yorkshire “Peak” was planned and boomed as likely to jostle Scarborough out of favour as the Queen of the North. But the builders have not made much progress during the last ten years, and, as for the pegged out claims, it takes a mighty fine eye to spy out the pegs, while the claims are still undistinguished by boundary of hedge or wall…somewhere about 1897 the parcels of land were first offered for sale on easy terms. In the course of a couple of years about 700 building plots were knocked down at public auction, and by August 1899, no fewer than twenty one sales had been held on the estate, each sale being largely attended by people chiefly from London and the West Riding. Some plots in “choice positions” were sold in August, 1899, at the rate of £1,100 [approx. £140,000 today] per acre, the sale realising a total (as it appeared in the newspapers) of £2,252 10s, and it was then announced that £34,000 [approx. £4.3 million today] worth of building plots had been disposed of. But the tranquillity of the place is undisturbed. When I saw it a few days ago men were making hay on the building sites between the Crescent, the Esplanade and other roads and avenues, whose names are painted on little wooden posts…The wonder is that the spot was not covered with houses and hotels years ago…All the accommodation at present consists of one hotel, a boarding-house or two, and a few cottages scrambling on the hillsides.’
Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 10 August 1909 

A few years on and Ravenscar makes an impression, and at last gets compared with Scarborough although not in a good way.

The UNBUILT COAST TOWN OF RAVENSCAR – Roads that Wait for Houses. By a Peripatetic.
…”Yon road I enter upon and look around, I be-
lieve you are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here”
Those lines of Walt. Whitman sprang to my lip as I walked along. Yes, there must more in this trim road than meets the eye. This road that leads – where? Other neatly-made roads branch off – roads which frankly admit that they lead to nowhere in particular. The place spreads out before one like a huge draught or chess board, but without the pieces. Here a town has been planned and left unbuilt. One could imagine that was intended to be sort of smug Suburbia-by-the-Sea…It was almost uncanny to stand there alone on the cliff and survey the land that waits for the town that yet to built.’

This article then turns to describing the limited amenities the anonymous writer found in 1913 Ravenscar including a lack of any available food, a savage sounding farm dog, an abandoned ship, a locked Bar, and a wild wet wind. The writer also suggests he met one of the owners of a plot, although this might be artistic license  – ‘I helped to pay for this road. Why? Because I one lunched not wisely but too well. I saw visions of stately mansions standing there…Would you, he added wistfully, like to buy a bit of land? You can have it at your own price”.’ The somewhat louche writer concludes ‘I will not roam o’er Ravenscar again until they have erected winter gardens which extend a mile or so. Gardens where lamps ape the sun, and where the soft, sweet music of a string band soothes one, and where pretty girls sit alone in cosy corners playing “wallflowers”. Then, and only then, will I take a second glance at Ravenscar, the romantic’.
Yorkshire Evening Post, 14 August 1913

A week later there is a robust reply to the anonymous critic, exalting in the delights of Ravenscar and its environs.

THE UNBUILT TOWN OF RAVENSCAR.
Sir, l surprised at your correspondent’s account re Ravenscar. First of all, he arrived on a rainy day. Why did he not remain one night, and would have beheld the very next day glorious with sunshine, pure air, and a magnificent view, and, above all, unlike Scarborough, room to live. He complains that he could get nothing to eat. Why did he not come on to the hotel, where could have had an excellent dinner. He complains of the dullness of Ravenscar. No pretty girls! No string bands! says your blind correspondent. There are many pretty girls in the hotel, both from your home country and America, but even pretty girls like a rest and holiday from admiration and dress occasionally!. And we hope you will keep your string and brass bands to Scarborough, and leave in peace and solitude, from “that madding crowd,” to enjoy the magnificence of Ravenscar…But the less I say of Ravenscar the better, as I want to keep it as it is. We do not want your Scarborough crowds. It seems the only spot left on the East Coast free from commotion…by Ravenscar Visitor
Yorkshire Evening Post, 18 August 1913. The Editor agreed diplomatically that the fashionable resort e.g. Scarborough and quiet Ravenscar each serves a purpose.

Indeed a glance over local papers around that time reveal that Ravenscar had all sorts of things going on: illustrated lantern slides, Yorkshire folk dancing, on-foot fox hunting foxes on the cliff sides, classes at the Vicarage, archaeological discoveries, recitations, shipwrecks, tennis, sailplane flying, sea water bathing, billiards, wild fires, whist drives, disappearances from the beach, house breaking, patriotic songs and comic duets, an air crash, bloodhound trials, golf, fan drills, snow storms, mines washing up on the beach, gliding, accident deaths by being run over by a train and being blown off the cliffs, egg production, a report of spies signalling out to sea in WW1, picnic parties, landslips, meetings of the Yorkshire Federation of the Junior Imperial and Constitutional League, the ‘Famous Terraces and Hanging Gardens’ (admission two pence), and a wager over whether someone could carry a 10 stone weight up the cliff (he could).

Ravenscar Estates Limited did feature in a number of legal cases in its early years – a failure to pay local rates and breaches of contract over the sewers development – but in the end the development just didn’t take off rather than it being the subject of fraud or conspiracy. One big problem that might have dampened enthusiasm was that the magnificent cliffs providing sea views were also a barrier to reaching the shore and the shore itself is particularly rocky – interesting and exciting to explore, but not like Scarborough. Around the time (as dissected in the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer in August 1921) it was noted that by accepting payments by instalments a lot of plot purchases weren’t completed, leaving plots not built on. Another issue was the condition the plot holders could only build houses above a certain value e.g. marine villas, no doubt in order to maintain the ‘first class’ aspect and avoid the expanding working class holiday market, but for the small investors targeted this was a block to reaching development.

The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer in 20 August 1938 who had been so optimistic previously, now presents a different doom laden view worthy of the times.

The Phantom Resort. The lost town of Ravenspurn now lies beneath the waves off Flamborough Head. Something akin to it is the lost town of Ravenscar, further up the coast, which I visited this week. But Ravenscar is more of a phantom than Ravenspurn, its only existence was its own imagination. Under the grassland one can still trace macadamised roads, kerbstones, a sea front and , in fact, all the ground plan of the town, but that is all there ever has been of it. Ravenscar is the ruin of a town that never was. It is many years now since the abortive attempt to develop this breezy spot – a scheme which never got further than this making of roads and drainage. To walk there now is to feel the eerie sensation of being in a Wellsian world from “The Shape of Things to Come”. Ghosts of all the unbuilt Marine Terraces and sea views seem to hang in the air. It is a good place to brood for those extreme prophets of woe who like to think in another century or two all our towns will present the same sort of picture…

Sources from The British Newspaper Archive

Ravenscar is in the distance on top of the headland. Credit Ebor Images.

Ravenscar did not return to being Raven Hill. It is left with designed street plans you can still trace, the large Cliff House Bed and Breakfast, and the Ravenscar Hotel with its Italian terraced gardens. The village still has its many attractions which interested the developers so much over one hundred years ago.Image of front of National Trust leaflet - Ravenscar: 'the town that never was'

The National Trust also have a Visitor Centre at Ravenscar. They have a leaflet for a fascinating 2 mile walk around Ravenscar: ‘the town that never was’, tracing what you can still make out of the planned resort and imagining what would have been.

 

 

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