Out & About …

… on the North York Moors, or wherever I happen to be.

Hummersea Bank

Another vernal day. Parked at Skinningrove and went on an exploration of the Loftus Alum workings. Jogging along the Cleveland Way along Hummersea Bank the dog became agitated at something on the rocks far below. It’s not the first time she has behaved this way and I usually discovered there were seals about. I looked over the cliff but could not spot anything. It reminded me of a tale I have recently read about the merman of Skenegrave, a bygone name for Skinningrove. It’s from a mid-19th-century document which I’ll cut and paste verbatim as the archaic spelling as it gives it a bit more authenticity.

“Ould men, that would be loath to have theer credytes crackt by a tale of a stale date, reporte confidentlye, that sixty yeares since, or perhaps eighty or more, a Sea-Man was taken by the fishers of that towne, whome duringe many weekes they kepte in an oulde house, giveinge him rawe fishe to eate, for all other foode he refused. Insteede of voyce he skreaked, and shewed a curteous acceptance of such as flocked farre and neere to visyte him; fayre maydes were welcomest guestes to his harbour, whome he would behould with a very earneste countenance, as if his phelgmaticke breste had bin touched with a sparke of love. One daye, when the good demeanure of this newe gueste had made his hoastes secure of his aboade with them, he privily stoale out of doores, and ere he could be overtaken recovered the sea, whereinto he plonged himself; yet, as one that would not unmanerly depart without takinge of his leave, from his mydle upwards he raysed his shoulders often above the waves, and makinge signes of acknowledging his good entertainment to such as beheld him on the shoare, as they interpreted yt, after a pretty while he dived downe, and apeared no more.”

So the old men of Skinningrove would have been recounting a story already over 60 years old, which would put it well into the 18th-century. The fishermen kept the merman in an old house and fed it fish since that was all it would eat. It only spoke in shrieks but was courteous to visitors, particularly the ladies. It seemed quite happy in its situation but once left alone one day it just went out the door and returned to the sea. It is obvious to us that the Skinningrove merman was just a seal but it makes you reflect that to the uneducated villagers of long ago, even though they must have encountered the creatures fairly regularly on fishing trips, seals were mysterious inhabitants of the deep.

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