Whitby, Yorkshire

Sitting in the cosy bustle of Elizabeth Botham and Sons’ tea rooms (established 1865) on Whitby’s West Side, beside towered plates of Yorkshire curd tarts, ginger cakes and lemon buns, I said to my waitress: ‘This is as good as Betty’s in Harrogate.’ ‘Madam: she replied, ‘it’s better.’ Whitby’s pride is bursting, and justly so.

Between high hills, the town is set in a deep cleft where the River Esk widens towards the sea, secreting an upper harbour full of boats and clinking masts in the town’s midst, and ending its twenty-mile journey in the lower harbour. Two lighthouses stand on the claw-shaped breakwaters to guide ships in between the treacherous cliffs. On Fish Quay there is a bandstand, a fish market and the white stucco Magpie Cafe, which serves the best fish and chips in the world.

WhitbyWhitby’s West Side is the younger side of town. A statue of Captain Cook commands the cliff top, looking out across the harbour where his ships Endeavour, Resolution and Adventure were built. There is an arch made of a whale’s jaw bone which is testament to the town’s history as a whaling port and to its famous son, William Scorseby, who landed 533 whales and invented the ‘crew’s nest’. (Whitby’s street lamps used to be lit by a gas made from whale oil.) West Cliff, with Whitby Sands below, developed apace through the nineteenth century: elegant resort hotels and terraces looked to the sea, and streets of red-brick villas spread around Fishburn and Pan nett parks. In the latter, the Whitby Museum displays the gruesome severed hand of a murderer, which was used by local burglars as a charm to send their victims into a deep sleep.

Whitby’s famous visitor, Bram Stoker, described the town in Dracula, elaborating on the real wrecking of a Russian ship when only a dog survived, somehow scrambling ashore. Stoker made the dog head straight for St Mary’s graveyard on the treacherous wind-blown eastern cliff top, as dramatic as any in the country. Connected to the West Side across a swing bridge, the old town huddles below the cliff. Cobbled Church Street leads slowly up the hill, past the old market house with its bulging Tuscan columns, past the Whitby Friendship Rowing Club, past ginnels sloping riverwards giving glimpses across the low-tide mud to Fish Quay, to shops selling crabs and navy-blue jerseys called ‘ganseys’, and to backyards full of washing, and on up the 199-step climb to St Mary’s, ‘the Sailors’ Church’.

The view of Whitby from this high bluff is terrific, and so is the inside of the squat and ancient church, chock-a-block with monuments, beautiful box pews, a three-decker pulpit, galleries and stairs made by shipbuilders – a moving testament to a sailors’ community, to which the graveyard further testifies. Beyond the church, the gaunt Abbey ruins rise up – perhaps once the most spectacular and venerable holy site in the kingdom. The house beside the Abbey became a roofless shell after interminable storms – but there is now a museum behind its hauntingly beautiful Renaissance facade.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / RevDave 

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