Where the low, rolling hills of the Yorkshire Wolds culminate in an imposing battlement of chalk cliffs, you will find Flamborough Head pointing accusingly out to the North Sea. This is the most northerly outcrop of chalk in England and the only point where the Yorkshire Wolds meet the coast. It is also the setting for Europe’s largest chalk reef, extending 6km underwater. The battle between land and sea has been fought out at Flamborough Head for millennia, leaving a jutting promontory that tells us much about humanity’s relationship with the sea as the land. The recent discovery of a Palaeolithic hand-axe from the clay deposits close to the Dane’s Dyke here (Griffiths and Mysercroft 2021) provide tantalising evidence of early occupation in this region but humans have certainly been living, and utilising the natural resources, at Flamborough from the Mesolithic to the modern day, a period of around 10,000 years.
Mesolithic people led mobile lives, moving between different parts of the landscape as the seasons influenced their lives and the resources they could access. This lifestyle meant that little trace of their activities was left behind, isolated flint scatters are often the only evidence we have. The Mesolithic story of Flamborough echoes the pattern of activity seen across the Wolds. Worked flints have been found across the headland, providing insights into the daily life of people living in this landscape. Flint debitage produced during the knapping process gives us an indication that people were making worked flint tools in this area, possibly utilising the flint nodules found within the chalk cliffs and washed out, as nodules along the shoreline. The flint tools, such as scrapers and bladelets, would have been used for hunting related activities. Scrapers were used for cleaning animal skins in the process of making leather, and bladelets were used as knives or were broken down to make microliths, which would have been used as barbs for arrows and other composite tools.
The gradual adoption of a more settled lifestyle can be seen in the archaeological record from approximately 4000 BC, when the first farming techniques and processes started to reach Britain and Ireland from northern France. People cleared woodland to create spaces to live and farm, and used the rivers and coasts to move around the landscape. Across the Yorkshire Wolds there is relatively little evidence for Neolithic settlements, the most commonly recorded sites from this period are funerary and ceremonial monuments; however, at Flamborough it is the reverse. There is no evidence for funerary or ceremonial monuments, but excavations at Beacon Hill Quarry revealed two hearths, identified by areas of burnt flints, charcoal, burned stones and accumulated soil. No other structural features were present, but these hearths may be all that remain of the houses that the Neolithic community living on the coast resided in. Sherds of pottery found during the excavation included Towthorpe Ware, a regional variation of Early Neolithic Grimston-Lyles Hill Ware. Some Towthorpe Ware vessels had perforated or solid lug handles, possibly for suspension over a hearth during cooking.
Neolithic people were also living in the area of what is now Hartendale gravel pit during the Later Neolithic. A shallow pit containing flint flakes, cores, broken nodules, a gritstone anvil and a flint hammerstone, as well as a thick layer of charcoal was present. Nearby, Grooved Ware pottery was also found close to a hearth with associated burnt stones (potboilers perhaps, for rapidly heating water). We do not have any evidence for the style or size of the structures that the Flamborough hearths may have been associated with, but based on other structures found in Britain they would likely have been constructed from timber.
Numerous worked flints have been found across the Flamborough headland, possibly related to hunting animals and clearing wooded areas to create space for living and farming. The flints also provide an insight into the trade networks that were established during the Neolithic. Greenstone axes manufactured at Great Langdale in the Lake District were found at Beacon Hill and also around Flamborough. A stone axe manufactured at Whin Sill in County Durham was found at South Landing, where there is also evidence of a flint knapping site. The first farmers in Britain kept in touch with a network of local and regional trading routes which may have been established through social and kinship ties.
Towards the end of the 3rd millennium BC new groups of people came to settle in Britain from Europe, and brought with them a characteristic style of pottery that archaeologists have called Beaker pottery. The evidence for Bronze Age settlements on the Wolds and the interactions between these newcomers and the older communities is scarce; however, as with the Neolithic, Flamborough does have evidence of where communities were living. At Beacon Hill an Early Bronze Age building was found. The floor of the building had clusters of small stones set in the ground, potentially indicating where timber posts had been, enclosing a small oval area 4.6m wide. Beaker Ware pottery and evidence of an extensive flint industry was found at this site. No organic remains survived, which could have told us more about their lifeways but the flint tools provide a clue. Arrowheads would have been used for hunting game, birds, and fish; scrapers for skinning animals and cleaning their hides, as well as for woodworking, and flint fabricators may have been used as a pick or digging tool to help with the cultivation of their crops. Flint blades and knives may have been used for cutting meat, gutting fish, or used as a saw for wood, and micro-awls would have been rotated against leather to make clothing. Fish nets may have been made from plant fibres or animal sinew. Bronze Age pottery has also been found at Hartendale, and worked local flints have been found across Flamborough headland, suggesting that the communities who lived here during the Bronze Age were utilising the Flamborough landscape and the North Sea for resources.
Unlike the Neolithic period there is evidence for the Bronze Age people burying their dead in Flamborough. Several potential round barrows have been recorded on maps or aerial photographs, although they are no longer visible at ground level. A round barrow at Cross Bow Hill was excavated by a farmer in 1822. It was constructed over a vault of chalk blocks which contained a Beaker urn. This would have held the cremated ashes of the person buried there. Although this is the only round barrow that has been investigated in the area, it is evidence that the Bronze Age communities who lived here also buried their dead here.
Across the Wolds in the later Bronze Age, a large-scale reorganisation of land occurred. Large linear earthworks of banks and ditches were constructed. These may have been used to divide up areas of land or to control the water supply as people became more reliant on livestock and crops as the main source of their food. At Flamborough, the construction of Danes Dyke may have occurred during this period. An excavation in 1879 by Pitt-Rivers close to the Bempton-Flamborough Road found 827 flints, including Bronze Age flints. The dyke is 2.5 miles long and consists of a single bank and ditch, although in some places stretches of parallel bank and ditch also exist. Triple banks in the section between the modern B1255 and B1229 roads are thought to indicate the existence of an original entrance across the dyke. The ditch varies between 8-12m wide and the bank between 18-23m wide. The bank is constructed of chalk blocks, rubble and earth, with the upper part covered in turves and a foundation of compacted stones. The dyke effectively cut off the Flamborough peninsula from the rest of the Wolds, creating a well-defined space that would have been able to support a sizeable community though the notion that this is a territorial boundary might be misleading. (It is also possible that parts of this earthwork were monumentalised in the early medieval period so caution is needed).
Danes Dyke was probably reused during the Iron Age period by the communities living at Flamborough, as other linear earthworks on the Wolds were. An evaluation near Lily Lane revealed a ditch, postholes and a pit from the Middle-Late Iron Age, and Iron Age finds have been found near Wold Farm. Cropmarks seen on aerial photographs reveal possible Iron Age farming settlements across Flamborough, comprised of ditches, trackways, enclosures and roundhouses, although these have not been investigated and cannot be firmly dated.
On the northern coast of the headland is Briel Nook: a Late Iron Age promontory fort which was excavated by J. Dent in 1980. Aerial photographs show the earthwork with a path or road leading to the fort. The creation of such forts raises intriguing questions about identity, threat and defence. Did the people living in Flamborough Head feel the need to create a defendable space at this time, akin to the small hillforts and enclosures inland such as Staple Howe? Or was this earthwork meant to demarcate a special place for gathering and ceremony close to the sea?
As with the Bronze Age, there is some evidence that the Iron Age people living here were also burying their dead on Flamborough Head. The cropmarks of one square barrow are visible on aerial photographs and at least one upstanding square barrow has been ploughed away in the last century.
There is plenty of evidence of human activity across the Wolds during the Roman period but Flamborough’s story during this period is less clear. The cropmarks of enclosures, ditches, trackways and roundhouse (discussed in the Iron Age) may also relate to settlements dating to the 1st-4th centuries AD, when houses would be next to, or enclosed within, fields which were used for livestock or crops. Stray finds of pottery and horse fittings around Flamborough indicats that people were living, and harnessing the power of the horse, in this area during the Roman period, but no definitive evidence has yet been found of firmly dated Roman settlements. Late 4th century pottery and six large boulders found at Beacon Hill could mark the site of a Roman signal station on Flamborough Head. Signal stations were built by the Roman army for military observation and used smoke or fire for the signal. During the mid-4th century AD, stone signal stations were constructed along the Yorkshire coast, at a time when the north of England was being invaded from across the North Sea by Anglian groups. The boulders at Beacon Hill have since been destroyed by quarrying, but they may have been similar to those found at the signal station at Filey.
Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian settlements are sparse and appear to have been mainly located on the wold-edge and Great Wold Valley. Most of the archaeological information we have for this period is from funerary evidence. There is little archaeological evidence for settlement or funerary activity across Flamborough during the 5th-11th centuries AD; however, the place-name of Flamborough provides us with a good indication of Scandinavian influence. The first element of Flamborough is derived from the Old Scandinavian Fleinn ‘hook, barb’, which could relate to a personal name. There are records of Fleinn used as a personal name in England in the early 13th century AD, as the surname of Hugo Flain of Ormesby. Possible links may exist between Flamborough and Scarborough, which was founded by Icelandr Þorgils Skarði c.967 AD and featured in Kormáks Saga. The story of Scarborough is also told in two lost romances summarised by Robert Manning of Brunne, in which reference is made to Scarthe’s brother Flayn. There is the suggestion that Flayn may be equated with Kormak, brother of Þorgils Skarði; however, there is no evidence to connect him with Flamborough, apart from the coincidence of names. Flayn may have been created in the Medieval romance as the eponymous hero of Flamborough, to complement the more renowned Scarthe of Scarborough, up the coast. Rather than a personal name Fleinn may represent a topographical element, evoking the distinctive chalk outcrop and headland on which the village stands. The Danish place-name Flenǿ is an example of Old Danish flēn ‘spit of land, tongue of land’. Flamborough’s place-name could either mean ‘Flein’s fortification’ or ‘fortification on the promontory’. Danes Dyke may possibly have been reworked again during the late 9th-10th centuries AD as indicated by its name, although it was called Flaynburghdyk in the 14th-15th centuries AD.
The medieval village stands in the centre of Flamborough Head and is mentioned in the Domesday Book, with a recorded population of 0.5 households in 1086, putting it in the smallest 20% of settlements recorded in the survey. It is listed under two owners in 1086: Earl Hugh of Chester and Clibert. The lands of Earl Hugh and Clibert were possibly partially waste, as the annual value of Earl Hugh estate was only 10s in 1086, compared with £24 in 1066. Estates described as waste would have not paid tax. About 10% of all the estates in Domesday were recorded as waste, most in the north of England, where they may have been destroyed in fighting after the Conquest.
There are several good landing places around the headland, nestled between the otherwise inaccessible cliffs, including North and South Landings and Thornwick Bay, which allowed the village to develop as a fishing centre. Flamborough was a port of some significance from at least the early 14th – later 16th centuries AD, first mentioned in 1323 AD, when the port keepers were ordered not to permit a Master John de Stratford to cross the sea without the King’s special consent. The earliest mention of the port structure was in 1400-01 AD when Robert Constable Lord of Flayneburgh bequeathed £40 for the maintenance of one ‘kay’ in the sea. The possible remains of the medieval harbour have been investigated at South Landing, where they lay on a ground surface made up of sand and shingle with underlying chalk bedrock. Shipwrecks would have been a common feature of the medieval fishing community at Flamborough and would have been either disastrous or beneficious. The earliest recorded shipwreck at Flamborough is La Katerine in 1348 AD. La Katerine was an English cargo vessel on its way to Newcastle-upon-Tyne when it was driven by violent waves to Flamborough Head. It seems that this particular shipwreck may have benefited some of the villagers in Flamborourgh, with the Calendar of Patent Rolls of Edward III recording that a “number of evildoers broke up the ship, broke open the chests, and carried away 200 florins with the shield belonging to the king and 100 marks of the money of the mariners, as well as much goods and the king’s timber of the ship”.
Flamborough Castle was constructed as a fortified manor house in the early 14th century by the Constable family, who were a prominent family in the East Riding throughout this century. There may have been an earlier castle on the site in 1180-1193 AD when a ‘constabularius’ was documented. The 14th century manor house was constructed of chalk blocks, the local building material for structures until the post-medieval period, and occupied an almost square platform in the centre of the field that is now behind the war memorial in Tower Street. Around the manor house was a series of earthwork banks and ditches which defined and subdivided a series of enclosures and access trackways. These may relate to stock yards and enclosures in which barns associated with the manor were located. In 1315 AD, William the Constable was licensed to have an oratory, and in 1351 AD, Marmaduke Constable received a licence to crenellate the house. The manor house was abandoned in the 16th century when the focus of the manor was moved, probably to the site of the 18th century Constable Hall.
Although Flamborough was a fishing village, it also relied on agriculture and livestock to feed its inhabitants. The large areas of ‘ridge and furrow’ cultivation earthworks and cropmarks, visible on modern aerial photographs crossing the headland, indicate how much of the land would have been under the plough during the growth of the medieval period. Documentary evidence of a watermill in 1260 AD suggests that flour was being produced on the headland, securing the direct supply of the key ingredient in bread making.
The majority of the buildings seen in Flamborough today were built between the 17th – 19th centuries, when houses, pubs, chapels and farmhouses were constructed from the local chalk as well as bricks. There was also a common bakehouse in the 16th century, which the villagers would have used to bake their bread. At this time Flamborough was still a main port, and in 1531 AD Sir Robert Constable reaffirmed his accustomed right of way between his manors of Flamborough and Holme upon Spalding Moor, in particular for carts carrying timber to repair the harbour pier. Ships anchoring at the pier paid a toll to the manor, which was still in the custody of the Constable family until 1537 AD, when Sir Robert Constable was executed for his role in the Pilgrimage of Grace. The harbour pier was destroyed by the sea in 1551 AD, and was substantially rebuilt after 1562 AD, when the ruinous harbour was leased to villagers with the proviso that all repairs be made good. The newly rebuilt pier was destroyed around 1569 AD, and no further documentary references about a harbour are recorded. The lack of a harbour after this date meant that vessels were launched off the open beaches at North and South Landing.
Flamborough Head’s promontory position on the east coast created a natural lookout point. In 1588 AD there were three beacons at Flamborough, one at the north end of Danes Dyke, one at Beacon Hill and the third at [placeholder]. The beacons were manned by watchmen, who were to light them if enemy ships were seen off the coast, passing a warning message to the villagers and to other beacons stationed on the east coast. The use of the headland as a lookout point continued during the Napoleonic Wars, when a Flag Signal Station was constructed in 1796 AD as part of a national chain of coastal warning stations. The first lighthouse at Flamborough was constructed by Sir John Clayton in 1674 AD as a business venture, but it was short-lived as voluntary donations from passing ships were inadequate. Despite its failure, the lighthouse was used as a navigational landmark for vessels entering Bridlington Bay, and from 1840 AD until c.1900 AD it was used as a marine telegraph station. It is still standing today. A new lighthouse, Keepers’ House and Office were constructed in 1806 AD, designed to act as a waypoint for ships as well as marking the dangerous rocks of Flamborough Headland for vessels heading to nearby ports. Thirty-three recorded shipwrecks, mainly cargo vessels, are known off the coast of Flamborough. These date between the 16th-20th centuries, although this does not include local fishing boats, so the real number is likely to be a lot higher. A fog signal station was built in 1859 AD and the lifeboat stations at North and South Landing were both constructed in 1871 AD to come to the aid of the crews of ships damaged off the coast.
References to the fishing industry at Flamborough provide us with information about the lives of the villagers during the 19th century. Fishermen used donkeys to carry their kit and fishing gear back up to the village during the winter fishing season and rhymes were used to avoid the rocky coast. “Flamborough Head as you pass by, Filey Brigg you must not come nigh, Scarborough Castle stands over the sea, and Whitby rocks lie northerly”. Another fishing poem from Flamborough evokes the image of the fish market: “And then I saw the fish market began, Numbers of fishing boats on shore had run; Large fish they threw in scores upon the beach, Spread on the sand, and where the waves can’t reach. One values it, if that he cannot get, He lowers it – the buyer calls out ‘Het’ “. In 1863 AD, the Royal Commission investigated the coastline between Filey and Flamborough Head and made reference to depleted fish stocks. This was in relation to the decrease in line fishing and the increase in fishing vessels. Similarly, the method used for catching crabs and lobsters before 1850 AD was called ‘trunking’, where netted cases containing bait were left in the water at night. By the mid-19th century the increase in crabbing meant that the crabs and lobsters caught were getting smaller in size. In 1817 AD there were no crabbing vessels registered in Flamborough but by 1876 AD stocks seem to have recovered to support 20.
As well as utilising the resources of the sea, the villagers also looked to the chalk cliffs that housed large colonies of nesting seabirds. The process of climbing down the cliffs to collect their eggs was known as ‘climming’ and the people that did this as ‘climmers’. There are no references to this practice in the 18th century, but in 1893 AD, ‘climming’ at Bempton was said to have dated “further back than time of the grandfathers of George Wilkinson and Henry Marr” who were both ‘climming’ in 1893 AD. The earliest documentary report was written by Charles Waterton, a Yorkshire naturalist, in 1834 AD. “The usual process of seeking eggs is generally carried on by three men, though two will suffice […] Having propped themselves with two ropes of sufficient length and strength, they drive an iron bar into the ground, about 6 in. deep, on the table land at the top of the precipice. To this bar is fastened the thickest of the two ropes, and then it is thrown down the rocks. He who is to descend now puts his legs through a pair of hempen braces which meet around his middle, and there form a waistband. At each end of this waistband is a loophole, through which they reeve the smaller rope. Sometimes an iron hook and eye are used in lieu of this loop. A man now holds the rope firmly in his hand, and gradually lowers his comrade down the precipice. While he is descending he has hold of the other rope, which was fastened to the iron bar; and. With this assistance, he passes from ledge to ledge, and from rock to rock, picking up the eggs of the guillemot and putting them into two bags, which he has slung across his shoulder […] When he has filled these bags with eggs, he jerks the rope, and the motion informs his friends at the top that it is now time to draw him up. [On returning] the eggs are taken from the bags, and put into a large basket, prior to their being packed away in hampers and carried off in a cart by wholesale dealers, who purchase them from the climbers for sixpence the score.” The ‘climmers’ were an attraction for tourists visiting the coast. A 1901 AD article in the Hull News stated that visitors were permitted to descend the cliffs, while leaflets were distributed around Bridlington and Filey in 1909 AD advertising the 23rd ‘climming’ season of William Wilkinson ‘The Old Cliff Climber’. ‘Climming’ continued until 1954, when the passing of the Wild Birds Protection Acts made taking birds’ eggs illegal.
During the 20th century, Flamborough continued its role as part of the east coast defences. Flamborough Head Wireless Station was established near the lighthouse by Captain Round of the Marconi Company. It was taken over by the Admiralty in 1914 to create a wireless system across the Western Front and England, and played a significant role in England’s success during WWI. Flamborough’s Wireless Station was located near the newer lighthouse and consisted of two small structures and several masts. The men working there lived on site in basic accommodation – within bungalows which contained eight beds, four chest of drawers and two showers.
In February 1940 a Chain Home Low Station was opened, which provided an early warning of low-flying enemy aircraft approaching the central east coast and York. Coastal defences were established across Flamborough Head which included anti-tank cubes, tank traps, weapons pits, air raid shelters, bombing range marker and pillboxes. Between June 1944 and March 1945, Operation Diver was established along the east coast to combat attacks from German V1 flying bombs. The layout of the Flamborough Head Diver site is remarkably complete and is the only site known to survive with significant remains on the Diver Fringe (between the Thames and Flamborough Head). The site includes the standing, earthwork and buried remains of a pair of Heavy Anti-Aircraft gun sites. At Flamborough the only action seen during WWII was on 4th March 1945 when the battery fired on an enemy aircraft, and the site was abandoned after 21st June 1945.
Throughout the latter half of the 20th century and up to the present day, Flamborough has continued to thrive as a coastal tourist destination. Caravan parks and campsites host families that flock to Flamborough during the holidays, many enjoying simply being at the seaside, whilst others come for the stunning wildlife that is present. Flamborough Cliffs nature reserve is comprised of three areas, Breil, Holmes and Thornwick, each important for the seabird colonies nesting on the chalk cliffs. During the summer months the cliffs are host to vast numbers of breeding seabirds, including fulmars, herring gulls, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and puffins. The grassland fields are also important and host nesting skylarks and meadow pipits, while gorse attracts breeding linnet and yellowhammer, and the reed beds host reed warblers, sedge warblers and reed bunting. Wildflowers are profuse within the nature reserve, which attract butterflies. Pods of harbour porpoises, dolphins and minke whales can occasionally be seen off the coast.
Recently the Flamborough Fire Festival has marked New Year’s Eve with a celebration of the village’s Viking heritage, which includes the burning of a Viking longship, a torchlight procession, an invasion by the Viking god Thor and a firework display at midnight. The event attracts more than 15,000 visitors from across the country and is held to raise funds for local community groups and charities.