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Environment| Environment

The Bay Hotel in Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire

MAs we travel the steep maze-like alleyways that pass as streets in Robin Hoods Bay, idwinter dusk begins to fall. It’s the stuff you see on Instagram, but it is also a reminder of how locals used the warren at their doorsteps 250 years ago. This tiny community was one of the most active smuggling hubs on the North Sea coast. Under the watchful eye of a clifftop viewout, contraband was seen rafting ashore and disappearing into a network passages, interconnected homes, tunnels, and houses, including one that leads directly to the slipway. Jen, my friend, told us that I had been there at least a dozen other times before she said it led to somewhere. We are now able to surprise our children with the same surprise.

They are initially cautious. They are wary of the dark, the rushing waters, and the dank, although they are not necessarily welcoming. Although it is a bit too much for the small ones, the older two can still play. They will first crawl along the shelf on one side and then hop rock to rock, agile as ship rats. One side of the tunnel is smaller. It is steeper, rockier, and more difficult than the main tunnel. The roof is boarded and beamed, which suggests that we are underneath a building. It would take only seconds to pass a packet over a board that has been lifted, from which it could be whisked hand-in-hand, house to house, to a safe hiding spot.

The Bay Hotel in Robin Hoods Bay, North Yorkshire
Later, the children form a conspiratorial huddle in the Bay Hotel bar. Photograph: Amy-Jane Beer

It was that simple. It was risky but the profit on one parcel of tea, silk, or a Dutch gin bladder was greater than a week of legally earned wages. And with geology and topography on their side, the whole community, as close-knit and tight-knit, was in it. This place was not intended to be a hub for smuggling. Instead, it was a haven for smugglers.

The tunnel leads into a steep valley, its sides green with woodrush, mosses, and ferns. Above, Christmas lights sparkle in the fog-furled night, but seem to be a world away.

Later, the children form a conspiratorial group in the Bay Hotel bar. The littlest one has gained her courage and they return to the tunnel together, their rebellion burning hot.

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