Superstition, the supernatural and the sea.

It’s Halloween, the time of year when thoughts turn to stories of the supernatural, and given that The Little Church by the Sea has at its heart a ghost story,  it seemed like a good day to consider the ghosts, myths and legends that surround the Yorkshire coast.

Some stories are heard in many places. Robin Hoods Bay and Runswick Bay both have “hobs”, mischievous spirits that live in caves (the one at Runswick Bay isn’t entirely mischievous, but is said to cure children of whooping cough if asked nicely). Then there are the barguests,  terrifying ghostly dogs, who haunt the moors and the cliffs of North Yorkshire, heralding death.

black wolf

The life of a fisherman was hazardous at the best of times, and any number of local superstitions grew up around the sea – boats would not be launched if the fishermen met a woman or a pig on the slipway, so unlucky was that considered to be. Whistling on board ship was considered to be an ill omen, but tying a stone with a hole in it to a boat would ensure good fortune (further inland, such stones were said to protect against witches). Seagulls were said to be the souls of drowned sailors, and if one flew into the window of a house, it was bad news for the family inside that house, as it was a portent of death …

One cottage in Runswick Bay is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl, who was locked into a cupboard for a punishment, and sadly died. The sound of her ball tapping on the inside of the cupboard is still to be heard there.

Robin Hood’s Bay is haunted by a headless farmer, who fell drunkenly onto the railway track one night, only to be killed by an oncoming steam train. Though his mangled body was buried, his head had disappeared and no trace of it was ever found – but some say that the ghost of the headless farmer is still searching …

Whitby has many ghost stories. Most famously, the bells of the Abbey are said to have been stolen and then lost at sea – and if you listen carefully, the bells can be heard ringing under the waves. St. Hilda herself is also said to be seen in ghostly form at one of the high windows of the Abbey ruins. Brown Bushell, turncoat during the English Civil War, was beheaded for treason but his ghost is still said to haunt his ancestral home at Whitby, Bagdale Hall. The story that haunts me the most is one of a beautiful young girl who was very fond of her appearance, and used a particular hair oil to make her hair shine. unfortunately the hair oil was extremely flammable, and one day the inevitable happened, her hair caught fire and she was horribly burnt. But the young girl’s ghost still haunts Whitby – sometimes to terrify passers by, and sometimes to warn others of an impending fire and save them from sharing her terrible fate.

morning ghosts

There is no real story of a “Maiden’s ghost” searching for her drowned lover, lost in a storm at sea, I made that up entirely … but if you walk through the twisting yards of Robin Hood’s Bay or Runswick at night, it’s easy to imagine that there could be …


Images used:

Featured image, of Robin Hood’s Bay, is my own photo.

Morning ghosts by Andris, licensed under creative commons: link to original image:

Rare New Jersey Black Wolf by Nosha, licensed under creative commons: link to original image:

Bering Sea in mist foggy scenics, Wikimedia commons 


Bob Woodhouse, author of many local history books about the North East of England, provided me with several tales of superstitions, and I also used “The Haunted Coast” and “13 Ghost stories from Whitby” by Michael Wray, Chris Firth and Anne Marshall published by Caedmon Story Tellers. ISBNs 0953640531 and 0953640507. (These books have some lovely illustrations too).

Little churches (1) – St. Stephen’s, Fylingdales near Robin Hood’s Bay.

I come from a religious family and every Sunday my parents would take me to church. As my father was also very interested in architecture, wherever we went on holiday we were church tourists. I probably visited hundreds of churches in my youth, so when I came to create a church for The Little Church by the Sea I had plenty of examples to draw upon.

The biggest inspiration for Cass’s church was the church of St. Stephen, Fylingdales. Built in 1822 and largely unchanged since it was replaced by an even newer church in a more convenient location the 1870s, this little old church was left behind. Walking into old St. Stephens is like stepping back in time, as if the congregation of 150 years ago have just left.


It’s a church of almost puritanical simplicity compared to the colour and richness of many Victorian churches of my experience. It’s light and bright, packed with box pews and a gallery, as well as a huge triple-decker pulpit. The seats in the pews all face towards the pulpit in the centre of the church rather than towards the altar, which intrigued me – the small altar almost feels like an afterthought rather than the focus of the service.


It’s a church of words rather than images, the words of the preacher and the words of the ten commandments on either side of the altar. There are no stained glass windows, no carvings, no paintings of saints. The only “art” that I noticed were the maidens garlands themselves and two coats of arms – the King’s and the arms of local gentry which would be carried, like the maiden’s garlands, in a funeral procession.

It’s a church of names, a church of the community – names of those who donated money to the church, names of those who served in the village lifeboat. I had hoped to find the names of the families who prayed there painted on the doors of the box pews, but these pews are numbered. Outside, the churchyard is crammed with gravestones, tumbling over each other like the cottages in the village, memorials to those who lived and died in the village – or out at sea. And in the summer, rather than try and cut the grass between the gravestones, sheep really are employed as lawnmowers!


But more than anything, it’s a church of memories.


Old St. Stephen’s Church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.

The Little Church by the Sea – cover!

Here is the first chance to see the beautiful wintery cover for “The Little Church by the Sea” which will be published by Manatee Books on 23rd November. I’m so thrilled with the design, it suits the book absolutely perfectly. It even reminds me of this little church:DSCN0639

which is Old St. Stephen’s Church at Robin Hood’s Bay, one of the main inspirations for the “Little Church” of the title.

I hope you like it as much as I do!

Maidens’ Garlands

One of the curious things I discovered when I was researching the location for The Little Church by the Sea was a small collection of what are called “maidens’ garlands” which hang in the Old Church of St. Stephen at Fylingdales, near Robin Hoods Bay.

The  maidens’ garlands in St. Stephen’s consist of a frame or hoop, covered with material and decorated with ribbons or strips of cloth and paper gloves. In other parts of the country they were more conventionally crown shaped and covered with rosettes. They would be carried with the coffin of an unmarried girl, and then hung in the chancel of the church as a memorial to the young woman.


A replica garland made by artist Mandy Patullo, hanging in St. Stephen’s Church.


The tradition of carrying a garland with the coffin of a young girl who dies unmarried was once widespread, but now only a few of them remain throughout the country.  The garlands were also known as “crants”, coming from an Old Norse word for garland, and Shakespeare mentions them in Hamlet:

Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home of bell and burial.

(I wish I had noticed that myself, but I have to credit that knowledge to Wikipedia!)

Given that my fictional village of Rawscar has a Viking heritage, once I found that out it seemed even more fitting to include the maiden’s garlands in the story, and so in my novel, just as in the church at Fylingdales, the garlands hang in a case at the back of the church, a melancholy reminder of the harsh lives and early deaths of many young women.


The original maidens’ garlands, safely kept in a glass case.

In The Little Church by the Sea, one of the garlands bears the name of Polly Allinson who died about 150 years before the story begins, and the tragedy of this young woman is interwoven with the stories of the modern inhabitants of Rawscar.


Old St. Stephen’s Church and its maidens’ garlands are in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.


Opening doors.

Thank you to Angela Harrison for the stunning images of Robin Hood’s Bay used in this post.

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s a common question authors get asked, though nobody has actually asked me yet, but I’m expecting that at some point somebody will! So I’ve been preparing my answer and here it is.

Places. For some reason, with everything that I have written so far, an idea of place has been strong and has started the story. A single image began this one – I was writing something entirely different, when I took my characters in that plot to a seaside village for a day out in the winter. I found myself thinking about the little fishing villages on the Yorkshire coast near where I live – Runswick, Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, Staithes … and an image popped into my head. A small cottage in one of the crooked alleyways, with an anchor door knocker and a Christmas wreath. In the original story my characters walked past the cottage and commented on how pretty it was, but my imagination started asking, who would live in a cottage like that? The first novel never got written, but from that one simple image the whole village of Rawscar and its inhabitants grew. angela rhb cottage

People. The other main inspiration for The Little Church by the Sea was the character of my heroine, Cass, the vicar of Rawscar. Like Rawscar itself, Cass sprung from one very simple moment – her opening words. “Shit,” said the vicar. From the start, I knew that Cass had an inner conflict between her religious ideals and the reality of the world she lives in and that she doesn’t always know how to deal with it – and she doesn’t always get it right.

At the heart of this is Cass’s ideal of celibacy. All her life she has believed that sex outside marriage is wrong – and as she has never been married …. So when she falls for Hal, an attractive man who has “slept with half the women in the village” what should she do?

Well, you’ll have to read the book, coming out in November, to find out!

Angela RHB red door