Homeworkers revive seaside economy

London, August 22:

There could hardly be a more exciting place for a child to grow up — a warren of smugglers’ cellars, dinghies in the harbour and rocks on the beach that crack open to reveal fossils dating back millions of years.

But in recent decades, the picturesque tumble of houses at Robin Hood’s Bay in north-east England had been all but written off as a ‘real’ community, with non-tourism jobs heading for extinction and wholesale conversion of fishermen’s cottages into holiday lets. Not any more. A quiet revolution on the Yorkshire coast means that local children are back in ‘Bay’, with a gang hurtling round the streets and skateboarding by the dock. In at least six homes, working parents and school-age children are settling in and helping to give the village the prospect of a varied working future again.

“Who wouldn’t want to live and earn a living here if they had the chance?” says Paul Whitestone, whose home and office windows look straight out over the North Sea. After years running a PR consultancy in Leeds, he and his wife, Jackie, realised that broadband and quick road and rail links had suddenly made the coast a practical alternative. “No commuting, no stress -not much garden but who cares when you’ve got a beach?” he says. Up a steep flight of stone steps, Tim and Kate Smith feel the same about their new 12-year lease to run the field studies residential centre at Bay’s old school. Their nine-year-old, Iona, like the Whitestones’ 10-year-old son Charlie, has only a short walk to the replacement school at the top of the hill.

The new, young life in Bay is striking backing for a report this month from the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), Under the Radar, which reveals how ‘almost surreptitiously’ Britain’s rural economy is being reinforced by arrivals working from home. The survey finds that one in nine wage-earners in the countryside is now a homeworker or manager of a ‘home business’, many sustained by IT resources that were a daydream 10 years ago.

“A lot of villages lack an active daytime economy,” states the report, “Agriculture is in decline, second homes and commuters are prominent. Can home-based business offer a sustainable alternative?” It certainly can, says Samantha Glaysher, a banker taking a partial break to bring up three children in Bay. While her husband, Toby, boards in the week at Canary Wharf, she runs a holiday business as well as using her expertise as voluntary treasurer of the RHB tourist association. “It’s a misconception that there’s no way you can settle somewhere like this and make a living. That’s been proven by the people moving in here,” she says. Another couple with two children have taken on the fish-and-chip shop at the bottom of the old town’s giddily steep hill.

And a former London taxi driver and his wife, also with children, came north to run a deckchair business in neighbouring Sandsend but now supplement their earnings with the former cabbie staging Austin Powers promotional appearances at big company functions all over the country. The newcomers emphasise that Robin Hood’s Bay wasn’t dead when they arrived; it had plenty of community livewires, especially in ‘Greater Bay’, which includes post-18th century housing just inland and the large neighbouring village of Fylingthorpe. Three cricket teams were part of the attraction for the new young dads; and Iona and her friends quickly found the chance to start a small trade supplying crabs to the Old Coastguard Station visitor centre, which attracts thousands of tourists by the old fishing slipway.

“There’s plenty going on: lectures, meetings, get-togethers,” says Tim Smith, who came from an estate in Lancashire, where he worked for a national charity. But the community had faced two dangers: it was ageing without enough of a new generation; and the old port — one of the prettiest townscapes in Britain — was at risk of being Disneyfied into a tourists’ museum. The CRC report calls for the government to help the revival with support for home-based business on a scale matching start-up facilities in towns.