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Remembering the days of the climmers at Bempton Cliffs

Last modified: 14 September 2009

Climmers at Bempton Cliffs

Image: The RSPB

The days when local people abseiled down 400-foot cliffs to collect seabird eggs will be recalled at an event at RSPB Bempton Cliffs later this month.

Today, visitors go to the nature reserve between Bridlington and Filey for a family day out, the fantastic scenery, the marvellous wildlife spectacle and the warm welcome.

But, many years ago, they went for a very different reason. Men swinging precariously from the end of ropes, baskets in hand, collecting eggs from ledges along the sheer chalk cliffs was a regular sight.

For hundreds of years the intrepid Bempton climmers descended the cliffs to harvest the seabird eggs. Some of these were sold for souvenirs; some were used for sugar refining and some used in the manufacture of patent leather.  But most were eaten by local people cooking up guillemot egg omelettes and other such delicacies.

The RSPB's Alan Dalton has been researching this fascinating story.

'A couple of months ago, I began to read and talk to local people about the climmers. The more you look into it, the more fascinating it becomes'

'A couple of months ago, I began to read and talk to local people about the climmers. The more you look into it, the more fascinating it becomes, ' he said.

'These men must have been fearless. The only protection they had from falling rocks was a cloth cap stuffed with straw!'

Alan's research has revealed how conservation can work to benefit local communities.

The Seabird Preservation Act 1869 was passed to stop the slaughter of the birds by visiting Victorian shooting parties sailing out from Scarborough and Bridlington in boats. They passed under the cliffs and killed thousands of birds just for fun.

This took a huge toll on seabird numbers, which meant fewer eggs for the climmers, who for years had been careful not to over-harvest the cliffs. In fact they stopped climming altogether for a few years.

The East Riding MP, Christopher Sykes, advocating the Bill in Parliament described how the slaughter was affecting local people, many of whom relied on the yearly harvest of eggs for food and a small income from selling the eggs. He also told the house how many more ships had been wrecked on rocks as the calls of the birds for centuries in bad weather and fog had warned mariners that the cliffs were near.

He was supported by the Vicar of Bridlington The Rev. H.F. Barnes Lawrence and wildlife societies opposed to the senseless slaughter. Their action helped passage of the Bill, which was to become an important milestone in wildlife protection, to become law.

In the years that followed, seabird numbers on the cliffs increased and climming resumed, continuing until The Wild Birds Protection Act 1954 made the taking of wild birds' eggs illegal.

Local people have helped Alan gather together a number of artifacts linked to the climmers, including old photos, postcards and other memorabilia. These will be on show at the RSPB visitor centre on Saturday and Sunday, 19 and 20 September.

He added: 'If you want to learn about the climmers, then come up to the spot where it happened. I have only started to learn myself, so anyone with a story to tell or interesting memorabilia to show will be most welcome.

'We want to learn more about the absorbing history of Bempton Cliffs and have planned other events over the coming months, so we can share the knowledge we gather with other local people.'

How you can help

RSPB reserves are great places for a day out