Strange markings in the rocks on the North Yorkshire coast are the starting point for an investigation into a forgotten story from Britain’s industrial past. Aubrey discovers that at the beginning of the 17th Century, long before the industrial revolution, the now deserted coastline south of Whitby was dominated by Britain’s first chemical industry.
Aubrey discovers how in the 16th Century dyeing textiles permanently with vivid colours depended on the use of alum, but supplies from overseas became expensive and uncertain. A search in Britain - including places such as Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight - eventually ended in Yorkshire where the shales proved to be a rich source.
The scale of the industry on the Yorkshire coast was remarkable. The quarrying changed the landscape for many miles and the cliffs were dominated by the alum processing works.
The purpose of the rutways on the rocky foreshore now became clear – they were to allow horses and carts to negotiate the uneven rocks as they took fuel and raw materials from the ships, and then returned with the processed alum. In Whitby, Aubrey sees a particular type of flat-bottomed boat which could be safely beached on rocky shores. In some places, rudimentary docks were cut into the rocks. Mooring posts guided the boats in at high tide and as the tide retreated, they settled down on the rocks.
Aubrey could now imagine what this deserted coastline might have looked like two hundred years ago – teeming with ships, horse-drawn carts, and thousands of workers servicing an industry which has now completely disappeared.