Every year, without fail, I am informed that the family is embarking on a bank holiday trip to Whitby because you know, “Get the grans out” and “it’s better than sitting in the house all day”. Which is fair enough. Growing up I’ve never quite connected with and embraced the micro-culture of Whitby. Perhaps incessant holidaymakers blockading the streets and rather aggressive verbal exchanges with bikers has only compounded the eye roll that greets the proposed plan. Or maybe growing up in a seaside town such as Seaham, the novelty of going to the beach for the day has quickly withered.
Driving into Whitby always invokes memories. After an incredibly monotonous drive down the A19, one is informed rather swiftly, that Whitby is fast approaching as the phone signal drops as the ascent into the North Yorkshire moors begins. It’s a blessing in disguise that mankind still hasn’t tamed this part of the world and that there is no other choice than to look out the window. The view is spectacular. Incredibly vivid lavender align the single carriageway as small farming houses are sporadically littered across the fields. Dramatic, grey clouds caress the top of hills and cause one to question whether they have worn adequate clothing.
Having parked right outside the train station. A imperious grade II building that has come along way since it’s inception in 1836. Back then, a single track horse worked between Whitby and Pickering before it was developed into a double-tracked steam powered route. There’s something charming about leaving behind the ferocious modernisation of city life and staring straight into a building that relied on solely on the efforts of animals.
I turn and face the harbour, crab boxes and fishing equipment are all neatly stocked as two small fishing vessels gently cooperate with the waves. Both boats are quite dilapidated and tired. Paint wearing, rust ubiquitous and the rope lines doing just enough to keep them secured, for now at least. For someone, a lifetime of memories and emotion are piled into these objects, more than likely a few scares somewhere along the line too.
Manoeuvring myself past ramblers and dog owners is an art in itself in such a small town, nipping in and out of small spaces is a practice usually associated with small children, not someone of 21 years. I ‘accidentally’ stumble into the renowned “Quayside’. This chippy come restaurant was officially named Britain’s best fish shop in 2014 and is regularly mentioned in competitions. The street in which is situated is perfect for business. A 15-yard walk from the front door and you’re met with the merciless North Sea, that being said, watch out for those tour buses whizzing past every 10 minutes.
After a rather filling meal, I drag myself back along to the new town, a narrow footpath causes for several stoppages in walking, allowing just enough time to gaze upon the quirky gift shops that keep coach travellers bemused and locals feeling rather benumbed. The immersive ‘Dracula experience’ is closed as it licks its wounds from the battering the beast from the east unleashed on it. Not even count Dracula could conquer mother nature. Take note movie directors.
For a mere £3, one can place themselves in an open top fishing vessel and head out 1 nautical mile into the North Sea. Typically, it starts raining as we enter a rather unnerving swell at the harbour entrance. I remember the face of a particular onlooker, who looked quite perplexed and worried as the “Summer Queen” crept into rather aggressive waters. One gentleman looks particularly excited by the sight down the end of his binoculars. A row of jet-black Cormorants have perched themselves on the west lighthouse. They seem quite sinister in their manner. Very little noise and exert a watchful gaze on the fools who are now gripping the handrails at this point.
The extreme courage shown by all on board is swiftly rewarded with an outstanding view. Beach houses are nestled into the cliff side as the coloured doors contrast against the pavilion. Sea mist continues to amalgamate around the shore as rain clouds move closer in. On the left, Whitby Abbey stands alone on top of the east bank, a 7th-century Christian monastery that was ransacked by Vikings and later bombarded by German artillery during WW2. It now stands in splendid isolation. There’s an overwhelming sinister feeling that exudes from that dilapidated ruin. No wonder Bram Stoker chose to write his novel here. Regardless of where you are in Whitby, omnipresent reminders of Halloween, death, and Dracula are always close by.
Having disembarked, followed the hordes of travellers over the swing bridge and turn left down Sandgate street, I am overwhelmed with the amount of Whitby Jet stores. Unlike most gemstones, Whitby Jet is fossilised wood that has been compressed over millions of years. Although mining jet has never been legally approved, it was an accepted practice during the Victorian era. The gemstone is usually found in seams of shale that can extend beneath the water line. During bad weather, these shales break off and make the journey back onto the shoreline. The appearance is jet black as you can probably gather. Apparently, Queen Victoria was a big advocate Whitby Jet, particularly as she mourned the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861 as it best represented her grief. Whitby has an uncanny knack of tying their most enterprising resources back to the subject of death.
I begin the agonising 199 step ascent to the grade I listed St. Mary’s Saxon Church. The stone steps leading up to the ancient foundation (12th century) were reportedly built over 200 years ago and I believe them. Several times I worry that even a small slip would severely affect my bottom jaw’s appearance. The trepidation is only compounded as rain encapsulates the whole town. The church, however, is simply incredible. It’s imperious, anarchistic in appearance and commands attention. Most of the gravestones have withered and succumbed to the sea breeze. Leaving no recognisable trace of those resting here. The weather in the North can be quite tough at times and as the modern population continues to push itself into irreversible climate suicide, one can’t help but shiver at the thought of weather/living conditions back then. I carefully place myself among the headstones and turn around to look down at the old town. For a few minutes, I have the church and graveyard to myself. I find myself wanting to stay longer. Unlike the rest of the day, I have become immune to the weather for some reason. My main objective of finding shelter somewhere is forgotten and I have become fully immersed at the moment. The tall-grass besides me takes a hammering before a small family makes their way towards for a photo opportunity.
Throwing myself down the stairs seems a more enticing offer than the painful, meticulous planning of footsteps. After allowing calf muscles to calm and persuading my now introverted toes to return from hiding, I dart into the nearest cafe for a warm brew. By sheer luck, I have come across the Blitz cafe. Situated on Church Street, the cafe is incredibly authentic in achieving a 40’s wartime theme. From the cutlery to the menu options, everything has been incredibly well planned and executed. A break to the bathroom and one is transported back 70’s years. The stairs leading to the restroom is aligned with sandbags and tin cladding. The time and effort spent in immersing the customers is commendable. So is the price range too.
As heavy rain settles and lack of feasible landmark options to visit fades just like the sunshine, there’s is an unmistakable sense of gain and achievement. For me, this was a last chance trip between me and Whitby. As I planned the day, the usual sighs and groans rang high and loud, however, the only groans that can be heard is that I now have to depart. We’re so very lucky to still have places such as these, you can moan as much as you want about that questionable public toilet right in the centre of the town, but Whitby has managed to keep a hold of a sense of its history and culture. A lot more that can be said about other seaside towns. Coming away from the computerised living of city life has made me feel more embedded and understanding of Whitby. I can’t help but feel disappointed that I hadn’t taken full advantaged of this wonderful town when visiting before. Perhaps growing up has something to do with it.
Written by Matthew Thomas
Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons photographer Barnyz – Whitby coast