Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:23 am
Whitby, one of Yorkshire’s go-to seaside towns, conjures up so many images: the ruined abbey, dominating the skyline and old harbour, tales of Captain Cook, Dracula, the semi-precious Whitby Jet, days by the seaside – and, of course, fish ‘n’ chips. On the other hand, maybe you are familiar with the place from the evocative sepia-toned pictures taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941)?
Nestled on the edge of the North York Moors National Park at the mouth of the River Esk, Whitby is flanked by two headlands, West Cliff and East Cliff. The latter was settled by the Iron Age and it is possible that the Romans had a signal station there, long-since washed into the sea. By the 7th century, it was part of the Anglian Kingdom of Northumbria and known as Streaneshalch – which either means ‘Streane’s headland’, or ‘the bay of the beacon’, depending who you want to believe. Streaneshalch was the site of the first abbey and sacked by Danish raiders in the 9th century. Whitby is a name of Danish origin; the common -by suffix denoting ‘settlement’ or ‘farmstead’, so it probably means something like ‘White farm or village’, or maybe ‘village of a man called Hviti’. We assume the raiders became settlers, who then developed the fishing port below the headland. In addition to fishing, especially herring, Whitby became known for its whaling and shipbuilding. Tourism developed from the late 18th century, given a boost by the arrival of the railway in 1839. The older, medieval, part of town huddles round the foot of East Cliff, whilst the top of West Cliff hosts innumerable elegant hotels and guesthouses.
OK then – ten things to do or look at in Whitby:
Everyone that can should climb Whitby’s famous 199 Steps from Church Lane to the top of East Cliff, then on to St Mary’s church and the Abbey beyond. The proper name for the steps is the Church Stairs and they have been there for centuries, stone replacing wood in 1774. Alternative methods of ascent are available, but there are benches along the way to help you out and the view from the top is terrific. Console yourself with the fact that coming down will be easier. However, as you make your lung-bursting way skyward, imagine what it would have been like carrying a coffin up to the parish churchyard, before it was closed to burials in 1861. Are there really 199 steps? Try counting them.
Caedmon – England’s first known poet
Just before you get to the top of the 199 Steps, you will see a 20-foot high richly-carved Anglo-Saxon cross, right on the edge of St Mary’s churchyard. This is a Victorian memorial to Caedmon, a 7th century illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetry in a vision. As well as being known as England’s first identifiable poet, he is sometimes called ‘the Father of English song’; and you thought it would be someone like George Harrison or David Bowie, didn’t you? You can read a bit more about Caedmon’s story here.
St Mary’s church
Whitby’s 12th century parish church is extraordinary. Its oldest parts are older than the abbey ruins that overlook it; indeed, St Mary’s is Whitby’s oldest building. Externally, it is somewhat ugly and fortress-like, seemingly made up of a hotch-potch of different buildings. Internally, superficially, it is mostly 18th century and one of the most unusual churches you will ever see, very large, galleried and packed with box-pews. It can apparently seat two thousand people and they can all be seen from the top of an unusual three-tiered pulpit. The church is full of fascinating curiosities and memorials, including the remains of a stone Saxon baby coffin, 19th century doodles in prayer-books and ear trumpets used by the partially-deaf Rector’s wife so that she could hear her husband’s sermons. Outside, the churchyard displays an array of often elaborate gravestones, most of them weathered so greatly by time, wind and sea-spray as to be illegible. Some stones are engraved ‘in remembrance’, suggesting that the souls commemorated were lost at sea, their bodies never recovered. At the east end of the church, you’ll find a memorial to the Huntroods, Francis and Mary, both born on the same day, 19 September 1600; they married on 19 September, had 12 children, and died on the same day – 19 September – in 1680. Part of the churchyard near to the cliff has been badly eroded, as recently as 2013 exposing human remains during a landslip. It is a spooky place and it is the churchyard that is most often associated with the fictional figure of Dracula. Needless to say, he is not buried there; at least, I don’t think so…
The skeletal ruins of the 12th century Whitby Abbey church are the only significant, visible, remains of the great medieval Benedictine monastery that once dominated the town. They still impress and are every bit as large as a respectably sized cathedral. The ruins inevitably conceal the headland’s even older past, the abbey founded in 657AD by the Abbess Hild and King Osuiu, or Oswy, of Northumbria. It was here that Caedmon lived, and where the Synod of Whitby, in 663 or 664AD, determined that the Roman Catholic Church gained ascendancy over the native British, or Celtic, brand of Christianity – thereby also settling the date of Easter. The ‘new’ abbey at Whitby is said to have been founded by a wandering Norman soldier, Reinfrid, amongst the ruins of its predecessor. The magnificent Gothic abbey church whose ruins we admire now was constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, and was – appropriately – dedicated to St Peter and St Hild. When the Abbey was dissolved in 1539, the property was acquired by the Cholmley family, who proceeded to demolish most of the buildings. In the 17th century, the old abbot’s house was refurbished into a family home, which was repaired and extended by the Stricklands in 1857. Part of this now forms a visitor centre and museum and the largely Victorian wing is a youth hostel. Naturally, the ruins are haunted. The ghost is known as the White Lady, or Lady Hilda, and she appears, in a rather fetching shroud, at the higher windows on the north side of the abbey church. Oh – and on 16 December 1914, Whitby Abbey, clearly identified as a strategic target, was shelled by battle cruisers of the Imperial German Navy. Whitby Abbey is looked after by English Heritage. For more about Whitby Abbey and Easter, see Whitby Abbey and the Easter Problem.
The novel Dracula was published in 1897. Its eponymous protagonist comes ashore, in the form of an enormous dog, and runs up Church Steps after his ship is beached on Tate Hill Sands during a violent storm. And, really, he’s been there ever since.
Bram (Abraham) Stoker (1847-1912) arrived in Whitby for a holiday in July 1890, staying at 6 Royal Crescent, on the West Cliff. He would sit in a favourite seat in St Mary’s Churchyard, looking out to sea; the seat appears in the book. Indeed, Stoker was inspired by the town, its local stories and, apparently, a visit to the library (now a fish and chip restaurant), where he was introduced to tales of a 15th century ruler of Wallachia (now in Romania), Vlad III, Vlad Tepes – or Vlad the Impaler. Vlad, in turn, partly inspired the fictional Count Dracula and Stoker’s imagination created one of the most powerful and enduring tales of terror ever conceived.
“For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church and all around it. Then as the cloud passed, I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible…it seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.”
You cannot escape Dracula in Whitby; there are little bits of him and the whole bloody vampire business in various emporia throughout the town. If you’re a sucker for that kind of thing, you should try the ‘Dracula Experience’, a cautious walk through one of Whitby’s historic houses which has been specially kitted out to retell the dreadful story using dummies, special effects and actors. Or, if you dare, you could take a guided Dracula walk; after dark, of course.
This might also be a good moment to mention the normally biannual Goth festival, the Whitby Goth Weekend, founded in 1994.
James Cook (1728-79) was an explorer, navigator, cartographer and officer in the Royal Navy. He was a remarkable man. Though regarded by some now as a controversial figure, Cook was of course a man of his time. Among his many achievements as a commander was battling the deadly disease of scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C, by forcing his crew to eat sauerkraut. But Cook is most famously known for his three voyages of scientific discovery, during which he charted New Zealand and the east coast of Australia, claiming both in the name of His Majesty, King George III while he was about it. He was killed by islanders on Hawaii. Cook was born in Marton, near Middlesbrough and at the age of 16 was briefly employed by a grocer in the fishing village of Staithes, just north of Whitby. It was possibly in Staithes that young James fell in love with the sea, but his career as a sailor began as an apprentice to Whitby ship-owners John and Henry Walker, in 1746. The Walker brothers were engaged in the tough coastal coal trade with London. Cook had to be a fast learner, and he was, staying with the Walkers until 1755, when he enlisted in the Royal Navy and rapidly worked his way up to command his own ship by sheer ability. According to local tradition, when he was in Whitby, Cook lodged in the attic of the Walkers’ house in Grape Lane, which is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. There is also a very grand statue of Cook on the top of West Cliff.
Jet is a semi-precious rock beloved by jewellery fans all over the world. It has been formed from the petrified wood of a tree similar to a Monkey Puzzle millions of years ago and can be found at several places around the globe – although it is claimed (particularly by locals) that Whitby Jet is of the finest quality, being relatively hard and easier to work. It can be polished to a highly reflective shine and its colour has given us the expression ‘jet black’. The contrast when combined with metals such as silver and gold is really spectacular. Jet has been used in Britain since prehistoric times and was popular in Roman Britain for items ranging from hairpins to necklaces, but it became particularly fashionable in the 19th century, even before Victoria apparently wore it as ‘mourning jewellery’ after Prince Albert’s death in 1861.
Whitby Jet, and other fossils, can be found in the cliffs along the coast either side of Whitby, between Robin Hood’s Bay and Boulby. If you’re lucky, and know what to look for, pieces can be discovered washed up on the beach. Jewellers and Whitby Jet specialists W Hamond have established a Museum of Whitby Jet in the town’s Wesley Hall, which includes the world’s largest specimen of Whitby Jet at 21 feet (6.4 metres) long.
North York Moors Railway
The North York Moors Railway is a heritage railway, saved, nay, resurrected, by a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers in the late 1960s. From insignificant but determined beginnings, it now runs wonderful steam trains most of the year between Whitby and Pickering, 18 miles each way, through the heather, fields and woodland of the North Yorkshire Moors. In fact, the NYMR owns about a dozen steam and half a dozen diesel locomotives with a fulltime staff of about 100, supported by around 550 volunteers. So, if you have the time during your visit, let the train take the strain and hop aboard a piece of industrial nostalgia. The full trip takes up to 2 hours each way, so if you want to go all the way, so to speak, you need to start early. Pickering has a medieval castle, 15th century paintings in the church, and the Beck Isle Museum of rural life, as well as assorted cafes and pubs. Or you could compromise and take a short ride from Whitby to one of the smaller stations on the line. One of these is Goathland – the village featured as Aidenfield in TV’s Heartbeat; and the station was Hogsmeade station in the Harry Potter films. For a bit about this, have a look at an account of a trip to Goathland on the NYMR and visit the NYMR website for timetables and so on.
Up and down the Yorkshire coast
It would be a pity to miss exploring the coast either side of Whitby; it can be spectacular in places. About 11 miles to the north is the picturesque fishing village of Staithes, famous for its geology and the fact that Captain Cook (remember him?) lived there 1745-46, before moving to Whitby. The smaller old smuggling port of Robin Hood’s Bay approximately 6 miles to the south is equally picturesque and famous for its fossils. Robin Hood’s Bay is also popular as one end of the 182-mile-long Coast-to-Coast walk to/from St Bees on the Cumbrian coast. Whitby, Staithes and Robin Hood’s Bay are all on the Cleveland Way, a 109-mile official walking route connecting Helmsley and Filey, so there are waymarked routes to follow. Buses are available too – so you could walk one way, grab a pint, and catch the bus back. Other walks are available – of course. Here are a few from the Visit Whitby website.
Or you could simply wander around town…
One, final, radical suggestion: just walk about the town. If you are in need of some retail therapy, Whitby has plenty of interesting little shops – as well as the ubiquitous chain stores. The cobbled lanes of the old town are lovely and, assuming you have managed the 199 steps, you may as well make it a pair and heave yourself up West Cliff opposite too. At the top of the wonderfully named Khyber Pass, you will find Whitby’s famous whalebone arch, a set of whale jawbones that mark the town’s old whaling industry, when dozens of whalers operated from the port. Explore the harbour – and of course stroll along the beach, have an ice cream and build a sandcastle. Under West Cliff, there are colourful beach huts that can be rented out, for the day or longer. There is a good variety of pubs, cafes and restaurants in town, as well as those fish ‘n’ chip shops, where you can gaze in astonishment at those who really should have chosen for the boiled seafood with lettuce option.