WHITBY has four piers and their stories are told in a new book, Whitby in 50 Buildings by Colin Wilkinson. Indeed, Tate Hill Pier may be the oldest non-religious building in the town as it was first mentioned in 1190, when it was made out of fallen cliff rocks to protect boats in the harbour.

The West Pier, which juts out into the sea on the opposite side of the river, was properly constructed in the 1630s under the direction of the local MP, Sir Hugh Cholmley, of Abbey House.

During the Civil War of the 1640s, Sir Hugh initially sided with the Parliamentarians and in January 1643 dashed his army of 500 men, plus cavalry and dragoons, across the snowy moors to the Tees Valley as he had heard his distant cousin, Colonel Slingsby Guildford, was amassing a Royalist army of 700 men at Guisborough and preparing to march on Whitby.

Sir Hugh descended from Birk Brow on January 16, 1643 – by happy coincidence, 378 years ago this very day – and fought the Battle of Guisborough. Despite the gruelling dash, Sir Hugh defeated the Royalists and captured Slingsby, who was so badly injured that both his legs had to be amputated.

Then he died.

Within a month of this terrific victory, Sir Hugh switched sides, became a Royalist and then found himself besieged inside Scarborough castle by the Parliamentarians. He was forced to flee to Holland, but later returned to Whitby and recovered his position.

His pier, though, continued to take a battering from the elements, and in 1710 it was in need of reconstruction, and an East Pier was added, stretching into the sea from beneath the abbey.

Among the taxes levied to pay for the work was one on every ship passing Whitby carrying coal. “This may seem unreasonable,” says Colin in the new book, “but Whitby was a port of refuge, providing shelter from storms and privateers.” The passing ships paid for the piers as a kind of insurance policy, in the hope they would never have to seek safety in the harbour, although how the Whitby authorities collected their monies from boats sailing by is unclear.

The fourth of the town’s piers is the Fish Pier, built in 1796 to service a fish market on the east side of town – the lifeboat station is now beside this pier.

However, while the two seaward piers protected the harbour from waves, they created a new problem: the sea swirled in and dropped sand at the harbour entrance. To prevent this from happening, the piers were extended.

“Work started in 1909 and was completed in 1914,” says Colin. “The ‘walking man’, which was the name given to the framework that moved along as the works extended out to sea, became a visitor attraction for a few years.”

Another of the buildings featured in the book is Whitby’s famous Swing Bridge, just down from the piers. A bridge has crossed the Esk at this point since at least the 14th Century, but there has always been a conflict between land and water traffic. In the 17th Century, a remarkable-looking drawbridge was created with a system of ropes and pulleys that raised the centre of the bridge so boats could still sail beneath.

The swing concept was first employed in 1835, and the current bridge was built in 1909. “The new bridge was designed to give a wider channel into the upper harbour in the hope that (shipbuilding) trade would be attracted, but it was not to be,” says the book.

L Whitby in 50 Buildings by Colin Wilkinson (Amberley, £15.99). One of the book’s best facts is that in 1794, the stagecoach from the White Horse & Dragon in Church Street took 14 days to reach London, and the journey was so dangerous that passengers were advised to make a will before leaving.

Inspired by the book, and locked down near Darlington and so desperately missing the sea, we decided to delve into the Echo’s picture archives to find some pictures of Whitby as it used to be – and, in the process, discovered the story of a curious hedge-creating ceremony.