On the day that Bernardo Bertolucci died, one of the articles I read contrasted his and Marlon Brando’s behaviour on the set of the notorious Last Tango in Paris, with a present day pairing of comparable stature; Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis. Coincidence of course, but I’d spent a gloomy morning in Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the Victoria Hotel is the setting for the protagonists meeting in Phantom Thread, ostensibly Day-Lewis final film and one written and directed by PTA.
For a film set in the world of 1950’s Haute Couture, the choice of North Yorkshire for the designer’s “place in the country” seemed a strange one (300 miles away?) but perhaps Anderson’s location scouts were concerned with the look rather than the practicality. I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t say where this location is supposed to be, other than on some wild and windswept coast. It certainly lived up to the billing when I was there.
Now despite the name, Robin Hood’s Bay has no proven links to Robin Hood. (How could it when there’s no evidence that he actually existed?) The locals make little or no reference to archer of Sherwood and in fact refer to the town simply as Baytown or Bay despite the fact that Robin Hood has been part of the name for seven centuries!
There’s been human activity here since the bronze age, but the activities that made the town were nautical; fishing and smuggling, the latter benefitting from that remote location. In fact this tiny place was economically more important than Whitby in the 17th century. Perhaps though I should say tiny places, for RHB is a town in two halves; one down by the sea and sheltering behind a solid sea wall, the other atop the cliffs, windswept but safe from stormy seas.
Interestingly the two halves have different personalities. Originally the lower town was home to the fishermen and smugglers; small houses, stacked tightly on the steep contours either side of the beck that bisects Baytown. This creates a network of narrow alleyways that were perfect for hiding from excise men or press gangs. The town’s own website claims that “a bolt of silk could pass from the bottom of the village to the top without leaving the houses”.
In contrast, those who lived on the cliff tops were the sea captains and ship owners. Men of greater wealth and influence whose houses were larger and spread further apart, but nowadays there has been something of an economic inversion. Robin Hood’s Bay is now a tourist trap; the smaller dwellings are mostly holiday cottages and second homes, whereas the upper town, being more remote from the beach is less attractive B&B territory, with cafés and bistros. And that hotel.