Over the years, I’ve spent many a glorious family weekend sampling the delights of the traditional fishing port of Whitby, a genuine treasure of the North Yorkshire coastline, tantalisingly within reach of Newcastle, York and Scarborough. It’s a town rich in maritime tradition, popular with young and old, steeped in history and reeking of premium freshly caught fish and chips.
Fittingly in the very place where the famous Dublin born 19th century novelist, Bram Stoker found the inspiration, amongst the haunting cliff-top Abbey ruins, to write his masterpiece of Gothic intrigue Dracula, the local gemstone is Whitby Jet ; dark, opulent and magical in every aspect.
And believe me, if like us you happen upon Gothic weekend, if you go down to the beach that day you’re sure of a big surprise. There’s really no better way to keep those unruly little ones in check than the sight of 100’s of gothic afficionados roaming through the streets beautifully bedecked in splendidly dark apparel , “better be a good boy /girl now otherwise the vampires are gonna getcha!!”
In reality, there’s a really friendly atmosphere on these special weekends, and if you fancy checking it out for yourself the official 2009 dates for the WGW (Whitby Gothic Weekend) are Friday 24th-26 April and Friday 30th October- 1st November (now that’s Halloween handy dandy ain’t it)
The main day tripper car parking is situated adjacent to the historic harbour area (you can also find places further up in the town overlooking the bay, or even by the Abbey itself), it’s standard Pay and Display Long Stay stuff.
Just a short walk from there you’ll find the main tourist information centre and home to the story of Whitby’s most famous son the Captain Cook museum. Also, the main railway station is diagonally opposite here. Just across the way, you’ll see Trenchers fish restaurant which I’ll come to in a bit…
But first, let’s take a leisurely stroll along the harbour side into town.
If you are in the mood to head straight to the beach, carry on in a straight line, past seemingly endless rows of amusement arcades on one side and seafood selling stalls on the other, and within 10 minutes or less you should be able to either promenade your way along the old harbour gates, or lets be more realistic if you have kids with you, charge down the slope straight onto those Golden Whitby sands.
For me though, long before you get to any of that, there’s an ideal opportunity to first soak up the side-streets that are bristling with cultural quirkiness and then if you are feeling sufficiently energetic, to take the chance to stroll up the multitude of cobbled steps that lead you to the Abbey. So when you come to the little red bridge, take a right turn, and head into the teashop strewn promised land….
****Trudge, Fudge and Finery****
Turn up left onto Church Street and walk along the winding cobbles, and these takes you gradually in the direction of the Abbey, but not before you get the chance to sample the endlessly more-ish delights emanating from the assorted icecream, chocolate and fudge emporiums adorning the route, not to mention the delicious cakes and snacks you will find in a selection of courtyard cafés tucked away down inviting alley ways.
My personal favourite is Sanders Yard, home of quite possibly the second finest Coffee and Walnut cake I’ve ever sampled (it’s ok mother-in-law, you’re still number 1). In this quarter, you will also find plenty of gift shops crammed with traditional crafts, and the Whitby Jet Heritage centre is a great place to get that special souvenir.
****Our quest for Dracula’s Grave!!****
Drifting back to our Gothic Weekend experience, on that particular occasion we were visiting Whitby with our friends and their kids who were also our Godchildren. Already highly excitable and giddy from seeing so many folk dressed in spectacular gothic outfits, whilst we sat merrily munching our brunch in the aforementioned Sanders Yard, their eldest girl Sarah (an impressionable 8 years old at the time) had asked the question as to whether we might be able to visit Dracula’s gravestone at the Church by the Abbey. Naturally given that old fang face is an entirely fictional creation, this was a tricky proposition indeed….
However being the “Uncle” with the reputation for having comfortably the most active imagination in our group, I was tasked by her Mum of coming up with a plausible location, so she wouldn’t go home entirely disillusioned. “Don’t worry Sarah, Uncle Paul knows where it is….”
And so it was that Sarah and I led the group on the most daring of adventures. Never mind your 39 steps, between us and our mysteriously enticing final destination lay a fearsome collection of 199 ultra steep and cobblicious steps. Needless to say, in her excitement Sarah managed to skip up those stones like a veritable spring lamb dragging my podgy old frame along for the breath consuming ride.
But as we reached the top and the edges of the churchyard I gathered my wits and hatched my daring plan. “Of course” I said wistfully, at the same time frantically trying to spot a likely candidate “everyone expects that Dracula’s headstone will be the most spectacular one here, but very few people know where to find the secret stone…..”.
There it was, a jagged weather worn half height stone, with the faded inscription no longer legible, our combined shadows spookily pointing straight to it. I whispered “And here it is…!” Sarah, uptil now a model of wonderment and calm finally let slip her thoughts at this most dramatic of moments. Still retaining that matter of fact charm, she simply said… “I’m a bit scared”.
Fortunately for me, the rest of our party were quickly on the scene, and back to the arms of mater she went…The funniest thing for me though was when we met up with a couple of other friends later that day, and gawd bless her, when we recounted the tale, gawd bless her my wife’s friend (we’ll simply call her Julie cos that’s her name) said “You really visited Dracula’s actual gravestone – wow!” – honestly you can’t make it up!!
Having reached the summit, and taken a moment to look back across the stunning views back across the harbour and the rest of the town, naturally you can take a look inside the historic parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which dates back as far as Norman times. But there’s no mistaking the main attraction right in front of you, dominating the cliff-tops as far as the eye can see.
For any English Heritage members (like me) the great news is its free entry. Otherwise, according to the latest prices published on the official web site, prices for 2009 are £4.90 per adult, £2.40 for kids, £3.90 for concessions, and a family ticket coming in at £12.20.
The visitor centre and access to the Abbey grounds is pretty much open all year round, except Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the Winter season which runs from 1st October to 31st March and the main Christmas holiday dates.
Now obviously as it’s no cost to me, I’m going to be slightly biased, but I really would recommend you pay a visit.
There’s a fantastic interactive exhibition centre where you can get to “talk” to the major historical figures who played a part in the Abbey’s rich history, ranging from St Hilda who founded the original Abbey back in 657, right through to Bram Stoker on how the Churchyard and Abbey inspired him to write his classic novel Dracula (once again Julie, it is a work of fiction…hmm)
They also provide free audio handsets to accompany you around the ruins and grounds themselves, well worth it if you have the time. And as ever featuring high on my agenda, there is of course a well stocked and flourishing tea room to enjoy!
****A tale of two chippies****
Tea rooms-schmee rooms I hear you cry, what about the fish and chips man! Now as far as I understand, the most popular place to go has always been the Magpie Café, situated in it’s original black and white 1750s building on the Pier road that leads along the harbour side. The thing is though, on absolutely every single occasion I’ve visited Whitby, over the years, there have always been queues of people into the streets, so in truth I’ve never actually been. From the amount of hungry folk prepared to queue up you’d have to conclude it’s definitely got something.
I am however, more than delighted to be able to recommend an excellent alternative, particularly good for larger family groups. As I mentioned earlier in the piece, close to the Tourist Information Centre there’s a great place called Trenchers, boasting two floors of spacious and nicely decorated modern interiors, loads of comfortable green leather seating, and very friendly waiting staff. Oh aye, and a fully licenced bar!!
They have an excellent selection of seafood dishes and fish of all types and sizes, and I’ve always found it fresh and the portions to be more than generous, and even at somewhere between £6-10 for a main course, you certainly get what you pay for here in my view. Plus it’s one of those places where they put the deserts on display – mouthwatering stuff indeed!
****A lift in a cliff – where’s Dr Zeuss hiding?****
There’s one final Whitby odyssey I’d like to share with you and it only seems right and proper to round off my review of one of the North’s premium seaside resorts with a bit about the Whitby sands beach itself. But rather than take the direct route to the beach from the harbour, there’s a very interesting alternative to explore assuming you aren’t feeling to full of deep fried joy at this point.
Just shy of the beach, turn to your left and head up a set of zig zagging stone stairs. At the very top, there’s the iconic whalebone arch, made up of two giant 15 foot long whalebones – a modern day replacement for the original from 1853 but nonetheless one heck of a good photo opportunity not to be missed.
But this in itself is not the odyssey I am referring to. Once again, going back to that visit with friends and godchildren, I remember well the moment I discovered – the Lift in the Cliff! So carry on walking along the promenade, up the hill, past various seafront hotels on your left and glorious views of the beach landscape to your right, and there it is. The West Cliff Lift, a piece of genius indeed, able to propel you safely down 120ft to the beach below.
Great I thought, but there was just one problem. Our friend Vicky was more than a little nervous about lifts, and so she decided she would rather brave the twisty, turny hillside path that eventually leads down to the sands. Naturally being a gallant sort of chap I offered to accompany her.
However one of her little girls was still in a pushchair, and didn’t want to be separated from her mummy. So I got the ultimate chance to prove my godparenting credentials, as I grimly gripped on as hard as I could to the handles, till my knuckles were white, ever so carefully making my way down the steep pathways. A bracing experience indeed!!
Still we made it in one piece, and however you make the journey, it’s nice to know that it’s more than rewarding when you get there. Strolling along the top of the beach which is lined with spectacular sandstone rock formations, there always seems a real warmth about the place.
In my experience, it’s generally kept very clean, and even at peak times there’s usually plenty of space across the rolling plains of golden sands to create a bucket and spade masterpiece. Indeed, even the Donkeys are treated to regular annual MOT healthchecks in July, according to the Donkey Sanctuarys official website.
All in all, I have to admit, when it comes to the Great Northern seaside resorts, I’m still very much a Scarborough loyalist, but with all its quirkiness and cultural fascination, I must concede that Whitby does give it a good run for its money.
After all, where else on earth, would you ever get to see good folk in long black leather trench coats, taking a paddle!