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A Day in ………..Whitby
Whitby – a name synonymous with a number of cultural events and iconic characters. I will endeavour to write this short piece without referring to the obvious. I shall try but it will be difficult. You see I go to Whitby for none of them. I also am not a fan of that deep black gem so beloved by Queen Victoria and her slavish Victorian devotees. Let us see what else Whitby has to offer the discerning visitor – yes, I will mention fish and chips.
The finest and certainly the most atmospheric way to arrive in Whitby is by steam train on the North York Moors railway from Pickering. A summer service now takes the preserved train all the way rather than terminating at Grosmont. Coming slowly into the station gives time to take in the surroundings, the estuary, the abbey ruins on the hill and the scent of lunch coming from the fish and chips being eaten by the waterside. The train takes you right to the heart of the town and you emerge with a view of the century old swing bridge over the River Esk. Depending on the time and incoming or outgoing vessels you may have to wait before taking the first steps up to the abbey. It is worth the time spent as the bridge always attracts a crowd and is remarkably quick in getting the boats to the other side.
The abbey is the place to start on your visit to Whitby. There are many distractions along the narrow streets that must wait until later before you arrive at the foot of the Church stairs, a climb of 199 steps. Depending on your age and fitness level you may find that you feel every one of them by the time you reach the summit. If you can manage the climb, it is well worth the effort, even if only for the view.
St Marys Church, parts of which date to the 12th century, is the landmark you come to first and has an interesting churchyard to stroll around. An air of sadness envelops this meander through the headstones as you become aware of the high price paid by the families of Whitby in search of the seafood that the town is famous for. Whitby fish and seafood is still as fine a delicacy and although still a highly risky industry to be involved in the fisherman today are kept far safer than in these times past.
Whitby Abbey dates to the sixth century and although ruined now it is an impressive sight, attracting many visitors. A good number come with an obsessive interest in that cultural icon we will not mention. Now owned by English Heritage, you can visit the ruins, but you may feel that it photographs more to your liking and for dramatic effect from a distance. The original abbey must have been a stunning building set on the headland, before Henry VIII had it suppressed by his right-hand destroyer Cromwell. What an effect that had on this tight knit community can only be imagined but it has left Whitby with an incredible monument that still dominates the town either from approach or from the harbourside.
The view from the church gives a clear outline of how the town is set out around the harbour. Although not terraced streets in the style of the Yorkshire mill towns, Whitby does make the most of every available space on the hillsides. Like the mill towns it is set in a valley, this one with the Esk river running at the foot of the two steep sided parts of the town. In one of these terraced streets, now beautifully restored Henrietta Street, you will find that star of every celebrity chef tour of Britain – Fortune’s Kippers. For 150 years the all-pervasive aroma of smoked kippers has drawn people to this small building. I suspect for some the pervasive smokiness may be an issue but maybe they rather should be thankful that the intensive whaling industry that made Whitby famous is no longer processing those monsters of the sea for oil. Mind you they would need a larger building than Fortunes. You would have to love the smell of smoking fish to live around this thriving business but it a famous part of this fishing town and intends to remain so. Kippers for lunch – they are happy to oblige.
It may take some time to make your way back to the swing bridge. Plenty of shops along the way and there may be a market around the old town hall. Once back over the swing bridge you have a couple of choices. As a keen photographer I would normally head up Flowergate just to the right from the bridge to check out the Victorian photography of Frank Sutcliffe. Sadly, the gallery is now on-line only so let us continue our tour along the harbourside. Do check out his photography however for a taste of how Whitby used to be.
A busy harbour is to your right, and you will have seen many children excitedly searching for crabs or any other crustacean they can snare in their tiny nets. The harbourside is a curious mix of attempting to be a mini tourist trap with an arcade or two but also catering to the seafood lover or those in search of a Yorkshire pint of beer. Oh, and there are references to those ubiquitous tourist attractions that again we will not refer to. This lane along the harbour delights however and is a thriving part of town as well as giving excellent views across the harbour leading your eye to the abbey ruins.
Now, ever since the visit of a certain Rick Stein, there is always a long row of people to negotiate a path around as you make your way to the harbour mouth. Magpie Café serves what he described as his favourite British dish and ever since this café has been a mecca for the lover of fish and chips. You can argue long and hard as to whether Magpie Café serves the very best, but they are always busy, so the queue may have you searching for easier pickings. We will come to the establishment that served me the best I have had in Whitby.
The harbour entrance is a dramatic feature of Whitby with the dual lighthouses giving a firm indication of the way in for returning vessels. Taking a stroll to the end gives you a sense of how it must have been for those sailor’s wives as they waved their menfolk off on a perilous journey to the fishing grounds. Do not try this in a raging storm.
Retracing your steps, it is a steep climb to the top of the headland on this north side of the harbour. As you make your way up a lesser-known feature of Whitby is spread out on the seaward side – yes, Whitby has a fine beach stretching northwards along this North Sea coast. Most visitors stay in the town around the harbour and estuary, but this beach is a lovely spot to bring the children. It has all the features you expect of a seaside town including donkeys of course.
At the top of the headland is a reminder of Whitby’s whaling past. A whalebone arch frames the view back over the harbour to the abbey ruins. On top of this headland are several terraces and crescents that contain architecture that give a sense of grandeur to the hotels and guesthouse that populate this part of town. It takes very little imagination to see in the mind’s eye the Victorian bustle of this area as people arrive in Whitby with their horse and carriage to stay on the North cliff hotels.
A short stroll along these terraces leads you back into town. Along Silver Street you will find the imaginatively named Silver Street Fisheries. I have tried a few fish and chip restaurants in Whitby over the years, but this is my favourite. To be fair you would struggle to be overly disappointed in Whitby, but I can recommend this one with confidence.
Silver Street has Flowergate running along the end of the street. Flowergate can be explored for its many shops and cafes before you wind your way back to the harbour and swing bridge. With a nod to Captain Cook across the harbour it is time to take the steam train back to Pickering. A grand day out indeed.
So, I managed to cover a day in Whitby without mentioning Dracula, Jet, Goths, or Steam Punk – Oh, sorry!