England's Historic Seascapes: Scarborough to Hartlepool

Cornwall Council, 2007

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Cornwall Council (2007) England's Historic Seascapes: Scarborough to Hartlepool [data-set]. York: Archaeology Data Service [distributor] https://doi.org/10.5284/1000201

Introduction | Seascapes Character Types

Navigation Routes and Areas

Introduction: defining/distinguishing attributes and principal locations

The Type Navigation Routes and Areas include the following sub-types:

  • Navigation routes
  • Anchorage areas
  • Harbours and harbour administration areas
  • Restricted navigation areas and shipping and ferry routes

This Type identifies areas of navigation activity as opposed to those areas that have been actively dredged or managed and in this sense the archaeological potential, apart from known wrecks, is inferred rather than certain.

From the 18th until the mid-20th centuries, the territorial waters of the British were three nautical miles (5.6km) wide. Originally, this was the length of a cannon shot, hence the portion of the sea that could be defended from the shore. Today territorial water extends to 12 nautical miles (22.2km) from the shoreline and is regarded as sovereign territory.

The coastal and offshore waters of Britain have been navigated since prehistory. It seems likely that early mariners circulated round the periphery of the North Sea, rather than directly across it, such as over the Dogger Bank. Linear routes are essentially an early-modern invention. Nevertheless the whole area can be considered to comprise 'navigation areas and routes', both historic and modern, to a greater or lesser degree. Historically vessels generally 'coasted', that is, hugged the coastlines they were navigating on their journeys. This is likely to be true for most craft up to the 14th century and even later into the early modern period. The distribution of wrecks clearly demonstrates this tendency with the overwhelming majority being recorded within 12 or so miles (20km +) of the coast in this HSC mapping. More ephemerally distributions of artefacts lost or thrown overboard can indicate anchorages, shipping routes or battle sites.

Historic anchorage areas occur all along the coast usually in sheltered bays or in the lee of headlands (Figure 9.39). Vessels and craft mooring in these areas will have dropped anchor potentially disturbing or revealing archaeological material on and within the seabed. Associated artefacts and debris, from all periods though most likely from the post-medieval onwards, may also be found including the anchors (stone weights or cast metal) or other artefacts lost or cast overboard and dumped. Some anchorage areas may also have been dredged or cleared of sediment to provide enough draught for safe harbour. Principal historic anchorage locations include Hartlepool Bay, Tees Bay, Mouth and Estuary, off Skinningrove, Staithes, Sandsend, Whitby and Scarborough Bay.

Historic anchorage  areas charted at Runswick Bay, Pickernell (1791) (© UKHO)

Figure 9.39.  Historic anchorage  areas charted at Runswick Bay, Pickernell (1791) (© UKHO)

Other landing places and are also found, small cuts for landing cobles, such as at North Bay Scarborough, or for docking and loading for ironstone such as at Saltburn. The place name 'wykes' and 'goits' may also indicate a former use as a landing place. See also page 68 for a better account of the place name element.

Today Tees and Hartlepool is the largest port authority in the North East and the second largest in the UK, including the ports of Middlesbrough, Billingham, Redcar and Hartlepool. At the beginning of the 21st century port traffic was in excess of 51 million tonnes (9% of UK total). There is a major oil and gas terminal on Teesside as well as an oil refinery and tanker terminal and in 2000, Tees and Hartlepool was responsible for handling 11.7% (32.4 million tonnes) of the UK's foreign and domestic oil and gas traffic and 6.8% (19.1 million tonnes) of the UK's non-oil traffic. Tees and Hartlepool was visited by a total of 5,214 ships in 1999 and of these, the majority were tankers (1-20,000 tonnes) and cargo vessels (1-20,000 tonnes). Tees and Hartlepool also received a relatively large number of vessels over 100,000 tonnes - 30% of the UK's total number of large dry cargo vessels and over 10% of the UK's total number of large tankers (DTI 2002).

The large amount of foreign and domestic traffic handled by some of the ports in the region, and the regular ferry services, means that the density of ships in and around these ports is significant (5,000-20,000 ships per annum). Offshore areas of the region experience lower shipping pressures of between 1-5,000 ships per annum. The main shipping routes are plied by oil and shuttle tankers between the Teesside oil terminal and other ports in the UK and Europe (DTI 2002).

From Tinmouth to the Teese or Hartlepoole the course is south south-east eight or nine leagues. Hartlepoole is a Peere or Head, behinde it at lowe water you may lye drie with your ship. Right south from it the Teese goeth in, it is a great wide and deepe river and reacheth in west southwest, with fourteene eighteene or nineteene fathome water, and there is nothing in the way that can hurt or hinder you, you must sayle in through the middle of the chanel and ancker before the castle of Wisten. In the innermost part of this hauen, that is before the towne of Stockton, it is but foure fathome deepe.' 'From Teese to Scarborowe the course is southeast and by east 11 leagues. Betweene them both lyeth Whiteby, which is a Peere or Tyde hauen, which at lowe water is drie, so that as then you may there lie drie. On the east side thereof there shooteth off a stone banck, which you must shunne. If you will goe into Whitby you must sayle in betweene the two beacons, till you come betweene both the lands. Betweene Whttbye and Scarborowe lyeth Robbenhoods baye: it is a faire rode for a south southwest and west windes, there you may ancker at seven or eight fathome. Skarborowe hath two peeres or heads, you may go behinde them at high water, and at lowe water lye drie; you must sayle in south from them.' [transcription of a description of 'England, from north of Newcastle to Yarmouth' in 'The Light Of Navigation' by William Johnson 1620. Original documents held at National Maritime Museum, London.]

Modern ferry routes include the Newcastle to Ijmuiden and Rosyth to Zeebrugge crossings.

Historical processes; components, features and variability

Historically in the absence of metalled roads and railways, rivers and the sea provided the easiest means of transport. There is evidence for long-distance seafaring in the first half of the 2nd millennium BC alongside more local or regional activity. Ten sewn-plank boats have been found in the British Isles hinting at the existence of long-distance exchange networks during the Bronze Age. Three boat fragments have been found at North Ferriby, in the intertidal Humber and more recently a single boat-fragment has been recovered from Kilnsea on the East Yorkshire coast. A possible eleventh plank boat is represented by a 'wooden lid' found in 1969 in the submerged forest of Hartlepool (Van De Noort 2006, 267).

The sewn-plank boats of the Bronze Age remain unique to Britain and it is likely that this type of craft was used principally for seafaring. They are usually built of oak planking with bevelled edges, the planks stitched or sewn together with withies of yew, with cleats and transverse timbers provided rigidity to the hull. It has been estimated that these craft were crewed by about 20 individuals. Their distribution appears to show a distinctive and significant pattern, especially when compared to the locations of log-boats of prehistoric date. Whereas the log boats are predominantly located on inland rivers all the sewn-plank boats have been found within coastal and estuarine environments, or in the lower reaches of rivers near estuaries (Van De Noort 2006, 267).

A log-boat of possible prehistoric date was found in c1852 during construction of the railway at Yarm (NMR: 874047) and a possible prehistoric dugout canoe was also found in the 19th century in Middlesbrough (NMR: 874059).

This area of the North Sea was almost certainly traversed by vessels during the Iron Age and Romano-British periods. Indeed a number of Roman Signal stations along the North Yorkshire coast are testament to the importance of navigation and communication at that time. In the Tees Valley finds demonstrating trade and exchange have been found. Luxury Roman items imported included pottery and glassware whilst grain, jet, lead and cloth were exported. Seaton Carew is likely to have been a prime trading settlement (Tees Archaeology, 2004).

Between the 5th century and 9th century the North Sea was a veritable highway of invasions, immigration but mostly trade. The withdrawal of Roman control from Britain left an administrative and defensive disorganisation that was quickly exploited by successive waves of people, initially Germanic (the Jutes, Angles and Saxons) but later including Scandinavians and traders from the Baltic and Mediterranean. England's eastern seaboard was at the forefront of these changes. The ships used were probably of the open, clinker-built type propelled by oars and without sail. Unfortunately little is known of the size or carrying capacity of the ships in use at the time of the main Anglo-Saxon immigration. It is also difficult to estimate the numbers of ships needed to transport people or accurately identify the sea-routes most favoured, although coastal routes with the shortest possible open-sea crossings were most likely (Clarke, 1985).

The arrival of Roman Catholic Christianity in the late 6th century saw a new phase of contact between Britain and continental Europe. Political stability stimulated commercial activities and the 8th and 9th centuries saw the greatest resurgence of European trade since the fall of the Roman Empire. Much of this trade relied on water transport and urban settlements began to grow up along rivers and close to coasts. Merchants journeyed from the Rhine in their cogs to trade goods in the British Isles and documentary sources record Frisian merchants in York in the 8th century (Clarke, 1985).

The sea routes of the Vikings contrasted to those taken by the Anglo-Saxons and give an indication of their improved ship-building techniques. The basic design was an open, clinker-built vessel which could be propelled both by oars and sail. Modifications of the hull shape and the addition of a sail meant that by the 9th century the Viking ship was capable of sailing long distances on the high seas and not limited to coasting. The North Sea shipping routes of the 11th century involved great distances. The Northern route ran from west Norway between Bergen and Stavanger to the Shetlands and thence via the Western Isles and down the Irish Sea to the French Atlantic coast, or more rarely down the east coast of Britain to the Humber. The southern route ran from Denmark, through Limfjord and down the coast via the Frisian Islands and the Rhine delta to the Thames Estuary. (Binns 1985, 50). There was variety however in the types of craft used by the 'Vikings' including merchantmen, warships, coasters and it would be easy to imagine similar types of vessels plying the North Sea in the 9th century, some carrying raiding soldiers, some carrying passengers who were to colonise, others coming peacefully, laden with goods for exchange in markets such as York (Clarke 1985, 45).

Most of the routes followed by the English mariners in the medieval period involved either a comparatively short journey across open sea or coastal sailing. Medieval coastal shipping and coastal trade flourished despite the threat from piracy and warfare. The only route that required long-distance oceanic navigation, using a magnetic compass, was the Icelandic cod trade. England's trade with Iceland appears to have begun in the early 1400s and was first developed by east coast ports but later dominated by Hull and Bristol (Friel 2003, 67).

It was during the later medieval period that the north-east coal trade began to rapidly expand alongside that of the alum industry. Coal was being shipped from Newcastle from at least the early 1290s and probably earlier. Some of the coal was unloaded in both the east and south coast ports of England, the rest went to Scotland, Holland, Zeeland, Flanders and France. Newcastle customs accounts of the period 1377-91 suggest that much of the export trade at this time went in ships from Holland, Zealand, Flanders and the Baltic. It is likely that the vessels engaged mainly plied coastal waters (Friel 2003, 68).

Piracy was endemic in medieval Europe. The dividing line between pirate and sea trader was sometimes blurred or non-existent. It was often the case that the people who committed piracy were often also traders in their own right and usually the same people that medieval governments relied on when waging naval war. Part of the problem lay in the distinction between piracy and privateering. Privateers were individuals licensed by a government to attack the ships of state enemies. Piracy was a civil, not a criminal offence in England until the 16th century, despite the fact that piracy was essentially theft, often accompanied by threats and violence or sometimes murder (Friel 2003, 82-3).

The River Tees provided an important trade route from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards. There were at least three different main channels, however, each pursuing an erratic course to the sea: "they were of an erratic nature too, these channels, and given to suddenly picking up their bed and moving to a fresh position without the slightest warning" (Le Guillou 1975, 1). Navigation from Stockton to Yarm was possible only for vessels of 60 tons or less; even then four tides were often necessary to complete the journey (Le Guillou 1975, 2-3).

Whitby's share of ships grew steadily throughout the 18th century due mainly to the fact that at high tide it possessed one of the best harbours of refuge on the East Coast. Even in 1696 Whitby was said to be able to hold '500 sail of ships' and up to one hundred vessels were known to have entered on one tide alone. As many as 600 are said to have passed Whitby in one day in1846 (White 2004, 103).

In the days of sail getting a ship into or out of a harbour could be one of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the voyage. Most larger vessels put out boats to tow them down harbour by oar, while capstans and rubbing strips on the piers were used for warping vessels out. Coming in it was equally bad, for ships often had to enter narrow gaps between piers. Frequently, if the tide was running across the gap, they would misjudge it and hit the end of the pier or run aground. In the harbours themselves there were other obstacles such as bridges and it was common for ships to foul their rigging or topsails on these. The arrival of paddle steamers made things much easier, however, since they were independent of the wind and could tow sailing vessels in and out of a harbour in relative safety. Thereafter paddle steamers carried out dual work, acting as tugs in the harbour and carrying parties of holiday-makers out to sea or along the coast when this was more profitable (White 2004, 107).

By the mid-19th century the trade of the Tees began to reflect more and more the characteristics and trends of the industries on its banks. As the exports of coal tended to fall after 1850, those for iron and (later) steel increased rapidly. Middlesbrough's pig iron exports easily surpassed those of any other UK port averaging over 100,000 per month during the Edwardian period. Scotland remained Tees-side's best coastwise customer, whilst the leading foreign markets were Germany and Holland, Belgium, France, Italy, North America, Scandinavia and the Far East' (Le Guillou 1975, 91).

By the First World War, the River Tees ports were handling a considerable volume of trade; besides the shipments of pig iron and steel, large quantities of coal fields, coke, manufactured iron and steel for railway bridges and shipbuilding machinery, and engines of all varieties were exported. Pipes and tubes, heavy forgings and steel castings, steel wire, salt, chemicals, sulphate of ammonia were all manufactured products which benefited from the sound navigational channel provided by the Tees. Into the river came large quantities of foreign ores (iron, manganese and chrome), iron and steel, chemicals and chemical products, timber and various building materials. There were very few UK ports that did not have vessels in the coasting trade with the Tees, and an extensive foreign trade was carried on with most countries throughout the world. Considerable trade markets had grown up with places as far afield as India, Japan, South America, Australia and Africa (Le Guillou 1975, 90).

The stretch of water between the Humber and the Tees was a particularly dangerous place for shipping during WWI, because up to 42 U-boats operated in this area. Between them they sank no less than 120 ships with torpedoes, over 100 by mines and many more that are suspected. At least another 80 merchant ships were also lost between the Tees and the Tyne (Young 2000, 19).

Since WWII North Sea shipping has been dominated by six nations: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany and Britain. In terms of tonnage the importance of North Sea shipping has however declined both relatively and steadily since the mid 20th century (Thowsen, 1985). Shipping engaged in ocean transport may be divided into short sea and deep sea trades. Of all short sea trades the North Sea trade may be considered among the most important and representative, serving one of the world's most densely populated and industrialised areas. The North Sea trade is predominantly small-ship trade (craft no smaller than 100 gross tons and no larger that 2000 gross tons). (Thowsen, 1985).

Ships employed in North Sea shipping are, more than any other vessels in the ocean-going merchant fleet, closely linked with the export and import industries of the country of registration. (Thowsen, 1985).

Today the main shipping routes off this area of the North East coast are plied by oil and shuttle tankers between the Teesside oil terminal and other ports in the UK and continental Europe. The movement of bulk cargoes between Tees, Hartlepool and continental Europe as well as the ferry routes from Tyneside to northern Europe are also major shipping routes (DTI 2002).

Values and Perceptions

Most people, viewing from land, are unlikely to directly perceive the scale of navigation and shipping that goes on offshore. Most vessels will only be perceived as small specks on the horizon (Figure 9.40). Inshore fishing activity and leisure craft however will be more readily perceived as they sail in and out of the harbours and ports along the coast, the most direct link between the coastal communities and their ties to the sea. Specific areas will be known to fishermen as being particularly rich fishing grounds for lining, netting or potting and wreck sites will be favoured by anglers and recreational divers alike.

Perception of the coastal shipping lane viewed from Marske Sands

Figure 9.40.  Perception of the coastal shipping lane viewed from Marske Sands

Nevertheless for some the sea will always hold special meaning and evoke important feelings of sense and place, often encouraging creative and artistic responses. In the past it was equally, if not more so, the case. In prehistory long-distance journeys may have been essential for aspiring members of the elite classes, a rite of passage during which the necessary foreign knowledge was accumulated. The sea may have acted as a liminal space, a long-distance journey where one would disappear from view and enter different worlds was a leap of faith. The activity of seafaring would have had the power to create specific social identities, binding crews into closely knit groups. When understanding long-distance exchange and its socio-political significance the process of navigating and the product traded were indivisible (Van De Noort 2006, 284).

Historically the North Sea has served as a unifier rather than a barrier. The peoples living around its coasts exploited the sea as a means of communication and were linked closely together culturally, economically and to some extent even politically (Clarke, 1985).

Research, amenity and education

There is considerable potential for further research into possible unknown and undocumented wrecks from various periods dating back to the Iron Age or earlier throughout the North Sea. This may be initially documentary-led followed and corroborated by targeted field work.

Current research sponsored by English Heritage, 'England's Historic Shipping' (Wessex Archaeology, 2002) aims to identify historic routes and courses taken by vessels, out of ports and harbours, as a means of identifying those areas of likely archaeological potential for wrecks and associated material culture resulting commercial shipping activity.

Condition & forces for change

Inevitably navigation practice and areas change through time as vessel construction, type and size evolve. Navigation areas and routes can be expected to reflect the dominant industries, fishing and recreational activities of any given time and place. As such, documenting these activities is key to understanding the navigation areas and routes associated with them.

Tees Bay is now dominated by huge tankers and ships associated with the hydrocarbon, steel and chemical industries. A restricted navigation area and harbour administration areas traffic the shipping in and out of the estuary.

Wreck conditions vary considerably depending on the materials and construction techniques used for the original construction. Local environmental conditions also impact considerably on the survival state of wrecked vessels. Anchoring by large craft may impact on any archaeology resting on the seabed. Un-seaworthy vessels also represent a considerable threat to the marine natural and historic environment with pollution and lost cargoes potentially damaging.

Some areas will be less favoured for navigation and can be expected to have less potential for wreck archaeology. Obviously obstructions, underwater rocks and areas of swell will be hazardous under certain conditions.

Rarity and vulnerability

Wrecks are numerous in the waters off the River Tees and North Yorkshire coasts. Most derive from the early-modern period (1750-1900) of coastal trade and fishing. Further offshore they become increasingly dispersed although clusters occur in some areas over foul grounds and off the Dogger Bank in particular.


The distribution of wrecks clearly shows the principal areas of navigation activity, being that of coastal waters. As such there should be a presumption that wrecks and associated material will be present in any area on the seabed in the coastal waters out to approximately 12 nautical miles.

The products of this HSC project also aim to play a role in public awareness raising, in order to engage people with the scale of navigation and shipping that goes on offshore and that often goes unnoticed from an onshore perspective.



Binns, A 1985. Towards a North Sea Kingdom: Viking Age incursions and later attempts to establish a Scandinavian rule "west over the sea" in A Bang-Andersen et al (eds), 1985, The North Sea. A Highway of economic and cultural exchange. Norwegian University Press, 49-62

Clarke, H, 1985. The North Sea: A Highway of Invasions, Immigration and Trade, Fifth to Ninth Centuries AD, in A Bang-Andersen et al (eds), 1985

Department of Trade and Industry, 2002. Strategic Environmental Assessment Area 3.

Friel, I. 2003. Maritime History of Britain and Ireland, c400-2001. The British Museum Press.

Johnson, William, 1620. England, from north of Newcastle to Yarmouth' in 'The Light Of Navigation. Original documents held at National Maritime Museum, London.

Le Guillou, M. 1975. A History of the River Tees: 1000-1975.

Tees Archaeology, 2004. Roman Teesside: Archaeology Booklet No.3.

The English Pilot of Northern Navigation, 1752 (sailing directions) (Whitby Museum).

Thowsen, A, 1985. New Trends in North Sea Shipping (1945-1980) in A Bang-Andersen et al (eds), 1985, 245-266

Van De Noort, R, 2006. Argonauts of the North Sea - a social Maritime Archaeology for the 2nd Millenium BC, Proc Prehist Soc 72, 267-287.

Wessex Archaeology, 2002. Area 466 North West Rough Archaeological Assessment: Technical report.

White, A. 2004. A History of Whitby. Phillimore, Bodmin

Young, R. 2000. The Comprehensive Guide to Shipwrecks of the North East Coast. Volume 1 (1740-1917).

Young, R. 2001. The Comprehensive Guide to Shipwrecks of the North East Coast, Volume 2 (1918-2000).