Hob Hole Cave – Runswick Bay

Hob hole engraving
Engraving of Hob Hole Cave (Rev. Young, 1817)

 The Hob Holes are a group of small caves located in the cliff face half way along Runswick Bay, 6 miles to the north-west of Whitby.

 In folklore circles, the Hob Hole cave is famous for being the dwelling place of one of those short, dwarf-like beings known as a Hob. The first reference to the Runswick Hob appears to be in the early 1800’s when the cave was described by the Rev. George Young in his History of Whitby (Young, 1817) ….

 “Curious caverns are sometimes formed in the alum-rock by the operation of the tides. Hob-hole in Runswick bay once presented a most romantic appearance, the entrance being divided by a double pillar, as in the annexed drawing. This cave is still 70 feet long, and 20 feet wide at the entrance; but the pillar is now gone. “
“Another aerial being, which we may suppose to have been a hobgoblin, had his dwelling in Hob-hole, near Runswick. He was more benevolent than Jeanie; for his powers were exercised in curing young children of the hooping- cough. When any child in Runswick or the vicinity was under that disease, one of its parents carried it into the cave, and with loud voice thus invoked the demi-god of the place: “Hob-hole Hob! my bairn’s got kink-cough: take’t off; take’t off!” It is not very many years since this idolatrous practice was dropt.”

 The Rev. Young’s illustration (above) shows the Hob Hole cave as it looked in the late 1700’s, although the constant action of the waves seems to have caused the central pillars to collapse around that time. His measurement of 20 feet for the width of the cave entrance also suggests that the human figures in the drawing are not to scale.

Looking out from the main Hob Holes Cave today – 2021 (enter at your own risk!)

 Later writers pretty much repeated Rev. Young’s description, but in the 1852 edition of Notes and Queries, a J.L.R. noted that ……

 “In Runswick Bay, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, is a cave called Hob-hole, which is said to be named after a spirit called Hob, who once dwelt there. The fishermen of the neighbourhood still regard the place with superstitious dread, and are unwilling to pass it by night.”

 H.D. Rawnsley mentions Hob Hole Cave in one of his poems published in Sonnets Round the Coast (Rawnsley, 1887). The note attached to the poem adds …

 “Hob Hole is more difficult to find. A cavern excavated by the action of the waves among the jet-holes on the beach is shown by some ; others show a cavern in a ravine below the coastguard’s house, but some way above the shore. It was tenanted of old by Hob, the Norse Robin Goodfellow. He was called Hob Thrush, and whilst shepherds and fishers invoked his luck, the wives took their bairns who were suffering from whooping-cough to the cavern, and used the following prayer : — ” Hob Hole, Hob, My bairn’s getten t’ kink cough, Tak’toff! tak’toff!”

Mam and bairn

 A little more information appeared in The English Illustrated Magazine for May 1913 …..

 “A goblin named “Hob” was said to live in a cave known as “Hob’s” or “Hop’s, Hole,” near Runswick. He was supposed to wander round the cliffs on wet stormy nights with a lantern to decoy travellers into the ‘pots’ among the rocks, offer them shelter in his cave, and drown them, as the tide fills it at high water. The mothers of Runswick, however, revered him as he was thought to cure whooping-cough. They brought the children at low water to Hob’s Hole and thus invoked him: “Hob! Hob! Hob! ma bairn’s getten kink-cough! Tak’t off! Tak’t off!” Some say a cave in the alum rock between Runswick and Kettleness is Hob’s Hole, others declare that it was in a part of the cliffs torn down by men quarrying for jet.”

  These references begins to paint a fuller picture of the Runswick Hob as a supernatural being with healing powers, and able to bestow good luck upon those he favoured, but also with a darker side, bringing injury or death to the disrespectful or unwary. It is interesting to compare this with the Jeanie of Biggarsdale folklore at Sandsend (3 miles further down the coast), where Jeanie was also described as a Hob living in a cave. That folklore only records the harmful side of her character, when she chased and attacked a drunken man who had approached her cave shouting a challenge to her. The above references also seem to highlight a belief that the Runswick Hob made use of several caves around the bay. The Hob holes cave, and possibly another cave in the cliffs further towards Kettleness, and a third in the ravine next to the old Coastguard’s House, where Runswick Beck flows into the bay.

Hob Hole and the relentless Sea.
 The tides and winter storms of the North Sea seem to have washed away the pillar at the entrance to the Hob Hole Cave, sometime during the early 1800’s. When Walter White visited the cave during the 1850’s, its depth was half that noted by the Rev. Young 50 years earlier. White mentions that men digging for Jet were pulling down the cliff face around the cave and slowly destroying it, while the sea’s constant erosion would have also taken its toll. With the pillar supporting the cave entrance gone, the roof probably collapsed, as appears to have happened at Boggle Hole, further down the coast.

The Hob Holes today

  The cliffs at Runswick are partly composed of Shale layers, which are easily eroded by the sea, and it is this erosion that has created the bay over thousands of years. The’ Hob Holes’ visible today are thought to be the old hollows where Jet stone has been removed, but there also appears to be vertical seams of weaker fractured rock that is easily washed out by the sea. The sea’s erosion of these weaker seams is likely to have been how the original Hob Hole cave was created – as described by Rev. Young. This process is still ongoing, as the Hob Holes are slowly pushed back further into the hill which forms the cliffs at this point.


Randy Bell
  The section of cliff where the Hob Holes are located is actually the end of a narrow hill-ridge running back inland. The ridge is flanked on either side by two deep stream gullies, Claymoor Beck to the east and Calais Beck on the west. The first edition OS map names the ridge as ‘Randy Bell’, and of course the end of the ridge is called Randy Bell End! (stop sniggering at the back). Brockett’s Glossary of North Country Words (1825) lists Randy as “a vulgar, brawling woman. A coarse fiery virago”. Interestingly, in local folklore ‘Bell’ is the name of the wife of the giant Wade, whose hill and Standing stones are located on the higher ground a mile or so to the south of  Runswick Bay. Bell the giantess was also known as the Old Wife or the Carlin, and there just happens to be an area called ‘Carlin Close’ on the hillside sloping down into the bay alongside Runswick village. It is worth noting that “Calais Beck” and “Calais Green” might also hide the Carlin name, if the local accent confused the OS map makers back in the 1850’s (calais – carlin?). The presence of a Carlin site in the bay ties in with Gavin Parry’s map of  the Old Wife – Carlin – Cailleach place names, which shows that a large percentage occur in coastal locations. This points to a strong link between the Old Woman figure and the sea, but the nature of this connection is unclear.

Fairies too
  Eighty metres to the east of the Hob Hole Cave, Claymoor Beck flows out of its stream gully, and runs across the beach to the sea. A footpath crosses the beck and climbs up the hillside onto Clay Moor on the cliff tops above. Another piece of folklore records that the local fairies used to do their washing at Claymoor Well during the night, and the sound of them beating the clothes with a bittle could be heard in Runswick, down in the bay below. Claymoor Well appears to have been a spring on the cliff top over looking the bay, and as the Runswick Hob was said to occupy a number of caves within the bay, and also “wander round the cliffs on wet stormy nights with a lantern”, the location of these two pieces of folklore actually overlap. So it might be the case that originally these were two stories about the same Faerie Hob being.

How old is the Runswick Hob?
 The Rev. Young mentions other superstitious practices at Runswick, such as the women would kill all the cats in the village if there was a suspicion of witchcraft directed against the men who were out at sea. Their children would also dance around bonfires on the cliff tops in order to send a good wind to their fathers out in their boats. In the years after Rev. Young’s account, Runswick seems to have become something of curiosity, attracting visitors to observe these rustic folk and their strange beliefs. One account mentions that the Runswick fishermen were embarrassed and angry that they had gained a reputation as fearful, superstitious and backward, and so it seems likely that they felt no great loss as the cliffs around the Hob Hole cave were pulled down.

 But why had this belief in a cave dwelling spirit continued at Runswick for so long? This type of folk belief only survives if it serves a purpose, as with the Lapstone boulder at the Baysdale Hob Hole, which was believed to protect the health of mothers and their children. The Hob at Runswick was also believed to have health giving powers, and could also grant the fisher folk good luck. This second power perhaps points towards the real origin of this coastal hob spirit.

Rough seas

 Putting out to sea has always been a dangerous activity, even more so in the past. Portents and omens were carefully observed, with talismans and charms used for protection against drowning, while favourable winds could be bought from the local wise woman. Elsewhere, shepherds left a coin for a Hob in exchange for good luck, and this seems likely to have been the case at Runswick, with the fishermen leaving an offering of some kind to the Hob in exchange for ‘luck’ – either for their catch or for protection while out at sea. A common folklore theme is the annual tithe required by the spirit of a river, or the sea claiming the lives of a certain number of people each year. This belief even led to sailors being left to drown as it was believed that their life had already been claimed, and no good would come from cheating the sea of its victim. The reference to the Hob leading unwary people into the cave so that they would be drowned by the incoming tide may be a memory of such a belief, or even of a time when a person was deliberately left there as the ultimate appeasement of the spirit of the sea.

Ran & Daughters
Rán and her daughters (Alkuna, 1831)

 For the pre Christian Norse and Scandinavian settlers on this coastline the goddess of the sea was called Rán. She was of the Jotunn race (a giantess), and with her net she pulled down those who were destined to be drowned. Her name was used as a kenning for the sea – such as ‘Rán’s land’ for the sea itself, or ‘Rán’s daughters’ for the waves, and the sea floor was ‘Rán’s bed’ etc. In the Viking era, men offered tribute to Rán before they set out to sea in their boats to either trade or raid on distant shores.

 As noted above, the Hob Hole cave is located in the end of a hill ridge called Randy Bell, which seems to refer to a ferocious, possibly supernatural female (Bell?). Is it possible that this name is an old reference to Rán?
If this was the case then perhaps at one time the hill (and cave) formed a ‘haugr’ or hill shrine dedicated to Rán, where offerings were made to placate the sea goddess. Eventually this tradition may have dwindled to the simple belief in a lucky spirit (Hob) inhabiting the cave, and the children dancing on the hill top to send a good wind to those out at sea.

 Pushing further back in time, Runswick Bay might actually be one of the oldest settlement sites in the region, possibly Neolithic or even earlier. In the past the bay has provided a sheltered location for launching boats out to access the fish stocks and other sea food which once existed in abundance along the coast. This ‘sea harvest’ would support a large community, and perhaps explains the significant number of prehistoric burial mounds and standing stones on the rising ground to the south of the bay. Did these people also venerate a spirit of the sea? giving thanks for safe passage and the sea’s bounty? It seems likely, but we will probably never know for sure. These early settlers also prized the rare black Jet stone which can only be found at a few locations on this coastline, including Runswick Bay. From the Jet they created prestige objects such as elaborate necklaces, decorated rings, beads and buttons etc. which were gifted or traded to distant parts of the British isles. The Jet stone can still be found washed up on the beach at Runswick bay, and is collected by local crafts people, so this may have been another element in the past that marked the bay as special.

 It is possible to speculate that the folklore presence of a Hob Thrush marks the last incarnation or remembrance of powerful spirits who were believed to have long existed in the landscape. Each wave of settlers adopting them into their own beliefs, when and where they found evidence of their veneration. Who knows what secrets the cave at Runswick bay may once have held?

 One final thought that occurred while writing this piece, and something that is perhaps staring us right in the face is the name Runswick. Wick means bay, so this is Run’s Bay. But who was Run?
Was this perhaps Rán’s Wick? – Bay of the Norse sea goddess Rán – ‘Gymir’s spray-cold spae-wife’?

previous arrow
next arrow
previous arrow
next arrow

After Thoughts
Rán’s husband was the giant Aegir. Bell’s husband was the giant Wade – both connected with the sea.
Carlin Close was alongside the area where boats were hauled up and fish dried for the winter months. The Old Wife overseeing the sea’s harvest?
Jet was known as black amber to the Vikings. Amber was said to be the tears of the goddess Freya. Was Jet the tears of Rán?
If the cliffs have been pushed back enough to remove the 70ft long cavern described by Rev. Young, when you stand in front of the Hob Holes today you are standing within the original cave?
Are the present Hob Holes the back of the original cave?
The original cave as Rán’s Hall ?

Brockett, J.T. (1825) A Glossary of North Country Words.
Rawnsley. H.D. (1887) Sonnets Round the Coast.
Young, G, (1817) History of Whitby.

The Lay of the Land


Blogs and websites

Get new posts alert by Email:

Folklore in the Landscape

Text and images copyright 2024