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Whitby - North Yorkshire

The North Yorkshire town of Whitby is considered to be a top favourite northern coastal resort by many people. Laying claim to historical associations, atmospheric ruins and an attractive fishing harbour, its charms are said to be manifold. It has fine sandy beaches, good resort facilities, cobbled streets and a maritime heritage.

In fact, most tourists visiting Yorkshire are urged not to leave the area without first stopping at Whitby. The North Yorkshire coast is described as the southernmost stretch of a cliff-edged shore that extends in an almost unbroken line to the Scottish border. And Whitby is situated in-between Staithes – a fishing harbour on the far edge of North Yorkshire, and Robin Hood’s Bay- which lays claim to having once been both a fishing community and a successful smugglers’ den

The famous names that are associated with Whitby range from the national hero Captain Cook to the fictitious character of ‘Count Dracula’. In fact, it’s maintained that Whitby looks upon Captain Cook as being a former town resident, and a Captain Cook Memorial Museum has been set up to commemorate him. And a statue of Captain Cook, known as ‘Captain Cook Monument’ has also been erected on an area known as West Cliff, which overlooks the sea.

Captain Cook – James Cook – is said to have ‘taken his first seafaring steps’ from the town in the year 1746, when he served an apprenticeship under Quaker ship owner John Walker until the year 1749.

In fact, all four of Captain Cook’s ships of discovery – namely the ‘Endeavour’, ‘Resolution’, ‘Adventure’, and ‘Discovery’ – were built in Whitby. The Captain Cook Memorial Museum has been housed in the Quaker ship owner John Walker’s former home – in whose attic Cook used to sleep when he wasn’t at sea. And it contains what is described as ‘an impressive amount of memorabilia, including ships’ models, letters and paintings by artists seconded to Cook’s voyages’.

In the course of his apprenticeship – which he commenced at the age of eighteen – Cook took part in the coal runs between Newcastle and London. And he learnt his seafaring skills in flat bottomed craft that were called ‘cats’. And, being designed for inshore and river work, it was claimed that they proved to be the perfect experience for his ‘later surveys of the South Sea Islands and the Australian coast’.

The fictitious Count Dracula’s association with Whitby reverts back to the author Bram Stoker, who, while on holiday in the town in 1890, became interested in writing a story about vampires. He is said to have stayed at a house on the West Cliff – which is now marked by a plaque. And he created a story which, it is said, ‘mixed real locations, legend, myth and historical fact’.

The grounding of Count Dracula’s ship on Tate Hill Sands, it is claimed, was based on an event that was reported in the local papers Bram Stoker’s book was published in the year 1897, and it has since been filmed many times. But despite the fact that it’s considered that many of the early chapters’ settings are recognizable as being Whitby sites, no film version has ever been set in the town itself. However, Whitby’s Tate Hill Sands, Whitby Abbey, the church and steps, the graveyard and Bram Stoker’s house – all of which, it is claimed, are recognizable in the book – can be visited in the context of ‘Dracula’.

And the ‘Dracula Trail’ has even drawn members of the ‘Goth’ fraternity to the town, who visit Whitby regularly a couple of times a year – generally in the late spring and around Halloween – for ‘a vampire’s ball, concerts, and readings’. Whitby’s town is divided into two halves by the River Esk, and is joined by a swing bridge. The ‘cobbled old town’ lies to the east of the bridge while the newer, eighteenth and nineteenth century town, referred to as West Cliff, lies to the west of the bridge. And it is here that most of the shops and hotels are located.

On the harbour banks of the River Esk the local herring boats used to ‘land their catch’. And this was a practice that was maintained for a thousand years. Then the ‘whaling boom’ of the eighteenth century came into being, and Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ features some of the Whitby whalers, William Scoresby in particular.

Whitby’s ‘old town’ lays claim to a cobbled street known as Church Street as its main thoroughfare. And while it still evokes an image of the eighteenth century, it now has tea rooms and gift shops – the latter selling jewellery and ornaments made from jet.

Described as hard, black, natural carbon, jet was initially worn by the Romans, but after being displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851 it became popular as ‘mourning wear’. And during the nineteenth century more than a thousand people were employed by the industry in factories that were erected around Whitby’s Church Street. Now, however, very few workshops remain.

At the northern end of Church Street one can climb the 199 steps of the ‘Church Stairs’ which were built for pallbearers to carry coffins to the Church of St. Mary’s, which is situated up above. And from this summit the views over the harbour are considered to be exceptional.

The parish church of St. Mary’s dates back to the year 1100, and has a Norman chancel arch, some eighteenth century panelling, and box pews that are claimed to be without parallel anywhere else in England. The church also has a triple-decker pulpit. Whitby’s seventh century cliff-top abbey, which lies just beyond St. Mary’s Church is considered to be one of the main foundations of the early Christian period.

And its current cliff-top ruins are described as being ‘amongst the most evocative in England’, with its nave, soaring north transept and its eastern lancets evoking a vision of its former splendour.

Founded in the year 657, by the year 664 it had become important enough for the ‘Synod of Whitby’ to be staged within its confines. And one of the brothers at the abbey during its earlier years, who was known as Caedmon, has a twenty foot cross that has been erected in his memory which stands at the top of the steps in front of St. Mary’s Church. For it was he who composed the nine-line ‘Song of Creation’, which is claimed to be the earliest surviving poem in English.

Whitby Abbey therefore is not only regarded as the cradle of English Christianity but also as the birthplace of English literature. The original abbey is said to have been destroyed by the Danes in the year 867, but it was re-founded by the Benedictines in the year 1078.

Whitby developed into a holiday resort during the nineteenth century. And this came about following the introduction of a railway into the town. Streets, crescents, hotels and boarding houses soon stretched across the area of West Cliff. And a Whalebone Arch was erected to commemorate Whitby’s former industry, which stands alongside the statue of Captain Cook.

A Fish Market occupies part of Pier Road, the road that borders the harbour front below, together with several arcades and chip shops. And the same road leads to the twin piers and lighthouses. Pier Road is also the departure point for short boat trips and cruises. And when the tide is out, the clear sands to the west stretch across a three mile expanse.

Situated within an expanse of verdant terrain known as Pannett Park stands the Whitby Museum, which is described as being ‘gloriously electic’. On display at this museum are more ‘Cook memorabilia’, including a variety of objects and stuffed animals brought back as souvenirs by his crew members. There are also numerous other exhibits on display which relate to Whitby’s seafaring tradition, particularly its whaling industry. Preserved here too are what are described as some of the best and largest fossils of Jurassic period reptiles that have been unearthed on the east coast.

Whitby is claimed to be ‘at the centre of the local music scene’, with a number of ‘folk nights’ being staged at some of its pubs. The first ‘festival’ of the year is known as ‘Moor and Coast’ which takes the form of ‘a week-end of traditional, music, song and dance’ held over the May Bank Holiday. Considered to be the top event in the ‘popularity charts’, however, is the ‘Whitby Folk Week’ which precedes the August Bank Holiday Monday. And it’s claimed that this particular musical occasion results in the town’s streets, pubs and concert halls being filled day and night with singers, bands, traditional dancers, storytellers and music workshops.

October too sees an annual musical festival being staged in the town, which is known as the ‘World Music Festival’. In addition to Whitby’s popular musical events, a Regatta also takes place in the town every August. And this event is described as ‘a noisy week-end of fairground rides, spectacular harbour-side fireworks and boat races’. Whitby has a number of pubs within its confines. One of them is known as ‘The Duke of York’, and it is situated at the foot of the ‘199 Steps’, and not only does it command great harbour views but it also provides occasional music. And described as the town’s ‘real ale haunt’ is the pub known as ‘Tap and Spile’, which is situated in New Quay Road, which provides live music almost every night.

Restaurants and cafes, likewise, abound within Whitby’s confines. And these include ‘Greens’, which is described as ‘Whitby’s finest restaurant’, and is claimed to have a ‘daily changing blackboard menu of local produce’ – ranging from fish to game. And ‘The Magpie Café’ has been described as being the provider of ‘the best fish and chips in the world’. Regarded as the traditional fish-and-chips choice in the town for more than forty years, during the summer months it’s said that one has to queue to get through the doors of the café! The town also offers accommodation of every kind, ranging from hotels, to hostels, bed and breakfast establishments, guest houses, and self catering holiday cottages. The main bed and breakfast accommodation is said to be found within the West Cliff area, while in the ‘old town’ several pubs also offer rooms.

And it’s claimed that some of the holiday cottages on offer in the town are considered to be most superior. Regarded as a particularly popular ‘day trip’ from Whitby is a visit to nearby Robin Hood’s Bay, which lies a short distance south of the town. Robin Hood’s Bay is described as ‘the best-known and most visited spot on the west coast’. Once a fishing community and a successful smugglers’ den, the village of Robin Hood’s Bay has narrow streets and pink tiled cottages, which extend down the cliff-side. And it’s claimed that, the buildings being situated so close together, in the past the ‘smuggled ill-gotten booty’ could be passed up the hill from cottage to cottage without being detected by the pursuing king’s men!

I myself visited Whitby on one occasion when I was staying with friends in the vicinity. And at the time the town represented the most northerly coastal resort that I’d visited in Britain. And, as well as its interesting sites, the one thing that I recall most clearly was its beautiful bracing sea air……..

Ricki Crookes has worked as an actress in the film and television business throughout most of her life. She has appeared in numerous commercials which have been shown on television and cinemas world-wide. She has also worked as a model and been in many prestigious photo- shoots which have featured in magazines and bill-boards. In addition she has written articles for both newspapers and magazines and is an award winning poet.