Thursday, May 15, 2008

Discovering Whitby (Part I)

What do Moby Dick, Captain Cook and Dracula all have in common? No, it's not a bad joke. All of these things have a strong connection with the seaside town of Whitby, which is a beautiful resort town located on the north coast of Yorkshire. Part I of this series will take you around town, focusing on the history and things to do and see. In the next issue, you'll find resources for your trip to Whitby, including special offers on accommodation.

The ruins of Whitby's 7th century abbey once made Whitby one of the key centres of Christian learning in the north. Later, the abbey and the town inspired a Whitby holiday maker to base his gothic novel on a mixture of real locations, legends and myths. The year was 1890, and this holiday maker turned out to be Bram Stoker, who subsequently published Dracula.

While Whitby cashes in on this gothic connection, the town's true heroic son is definitely Captain Cook. An early seafaring town, even Melville paid tribute to Whitby whalers in his epic Moby Dick. Captain Cook performed his seafaring apprenticeship in Whitby, and went on to become a great discoverer and national hero in his Whitby built ships.

While there are plenty of historic attractions and connections to explore, modern Whitby is, in essence, your classic sea side resort. Today's Whitby is a charming town full of shops, fish and chip joints, and cafes...all blown together in one beautiful brisk sea breeze. It's a breathtaking place, even when it rains. I should know, I have caught the Whitby fever from my in-laws, who have spent their holidays here for the last fifteen years.

The West Cliff

Whitby is a town divided by steep cliffs formed by the River Esk and a stunning harbour. The West Cliff is the newer part of town. Along the North Promenade you will see the pavilion and numerous attractions for children, including go-karts, crazy golf, boats, a paddling pool, and on nice days, donkey rides on the beach below. You'll also find a Cliff Lift to take you to the beach below. The buildings facing the sea and in the streets behind is where you will find a majority of the accommodation carved out of 18th and 19th century buildings.

At the cliff's edge closest to the harbour, at the junctions of North and East Terrace, you will find a memorial to Captain Cook and a mammoth set of whale bones. This is a great place for a photo opportunity as below the harbour opens up to the sea, and boats leave and enter the harbour through the piers. Here you will find the main route, Kyber Pass, to the harbourside street's a lot easier going down!

Beware the Man-Eating Seagulls!

Once you've reached the bottom of Kyber Pass, you may walk down the length of the West Pier, where you can climb the now-defunct lighthouse if your knees can stand all the stairs. You can also reach the beach from here.

Alternatively, tourists enjoy the stroll along Pier Road (this street takes many names along its length), which is a lovely walk past shops, cafes and restaurants, and amusements. Admire the enormous seagulls that seem to be everywhere you turn. To my knowledge, they've never actually eaten anyone, but they look as if they could!

You may want to have a look in the small Lifeboat Museum (free, donation only, call 44 (0)1947 602 001 for enquiries), and kids will doubtlessly want to spend some time in the amusement parlours, when they aren't begging for some of the candy or other treats sold along the street. New Quay Road is also where you'll find the Dracula Experience (enquiries: 44 (0)1947 601 923), a very touristy themed "haunted house" type amusement.

Swinging Over to the East Side

From Pier Road, the first opportunity to cross over to the older part of town is via the Swing Bridge. Despite the name, the bridge is not a rope bridge but one that is designed to swivel and open to let tall ships pass into the harbour.

On this side of town, you will find two main streets of shops, art galleries and cafes, Church Street and Sandgate. You will also find a small market nestled in one of the places that these two streets meet. The shops over on this side of town tend to offer handcrafted items and very unique giftware.

Whitby Jet is one unique item many purchase when visitors come to Whitby. It is a rare black stone formed of carbon, that has been used to make jewellery and ornaments for more than a century. It came into vogue when Queen Victoria used some for mourning ornamentation after Albert died.

If you turn right on the first street after crossing the bridge, you can travel down Grape Lane, which is the home of the Captain Cook Memorial Museum (44 (0)1947 601 900 for enquiries). This museum, housed where Cook served his apprenticeship, contains a fairly impressive amount of memorabilia, including models of ships, letters, and other items pertaining to Cook's voyages.

The Climb to Heaven, or At Least a Good View

At the sea end of Church Street, you will find the famous (or infamous, if you mutter all the way up like I do) 199 steps of the Church Stairs. If you choose to climb the steps to visit the abbey and church, you'll be following in the footsteps of pallbearers, who once used the stairs to carry coffins to the church, and also Dracula, who bounded up the steps in the shape of a dog after the ship carrying his coffin was shipwrecked.

Once you reach the top, you'll be rewarded by a beautiful view of Whitby and the sea. You may also sit along the wall and admire the 12th century St. Mary's church (ring 44 (0)1947 603 421 for enquiries) and its eerie graveyard. You are welcome to look inside; the best feature has to be the outstanding box pews. In the graveyard, you'll find the grave of William Scoresby, another of Whitby's great sons who invented the Crow's Nest. Dracula fans may remember that it is here in the graveyard that Dracula made Lucy one of his hapless victims.

Whitby's best known claim to fame, however, has to be the cliff-top ruins of Whitby Abbey (44 (0)1947 603 568). The monastery was founded in the 7th century by St. Hilda, and became an important force in English Christianity. It was here at the determination of when to celebrate Easter was finally made. Although the abbey is open to the public, much work is being done on the new visitor museum and centre, due to open sometime this year. Archaeologists are also busy on site. Recently, they have discovered a medieval garden, and are in the process of restoring it to its former glory.

Wandering around this clifftop area, you will also discover a tall cross to the memory of Caedmon, one of the monks at the abbey in its earliest years. His poem "Song of Creation" is the earliest surviving poem in English, which some argue makes Whitby the birthplace of English Literature!

The best time to visit Whitby is in the summer, hands down. In the winter, Whitby can be isolated by snows, or miserable cold and wet weather. Every August Whitby holds a three day Regatta, which is a celebration with boat races, lifeboat and rescue displays, parades, music and fair attractions.

Top Travel Tips!

Be sure and walk the grounds around Whitby Abbey...look for the peculiar "vampire" grave.

If you are planning to come to Whitby in June through August, be sure to book as far in advance as possible, as accommodation can be snapped up very quickly, especially during special events.

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