Whitby: Wild, Wet, and Woolly

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June 23rd 2007
Published: June 23rd 2007
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Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast, is a stunningly beautiful town even before you get off the train. Red-tiled roofs climb up the two main cliffs that face each other across a small fishing harbor. We arrived after a long train ride to fresh sea breezes and white fluffy clouds against a blue sky. The students loved it immediately. Its small town charm was a refreshing change after Edinburgh.

The town is divided by the harbor. On the east side sits the Old Town, with its narrow cobblestoned streets and tiny little shops and pubs. The oldest street is Church Street, with a market place with massive stone pillars supporting the Town Hall. At the end of Church Street is the Duke of York pub, with lovely views of the harbor, and the beginning of the 199 steps, which rise in a gentle spiral up to the East Cliff. At the top is Whitby Abbey and St. Mary’s parish church with its graveyard looking out over the harbor to the North Sea.

Some of our group, including Lucy and myself, stayed in the Old Town in the lodgings at the back of Shepherd’s Purse, a storefront selling natural foods, nuts, cheeses, olives, and really exquisite women’s clothes at the dress shop in the back. Very expensive things in linen, silk, cashmere, etc. The combination of the crunchy organic, slightly rustic food store and the bohemian elegance of the clothes in the back was unexpected and very appealing. To the right of the store and down a long alley you pass Sander’s Yard, a restaurant and tea room, serving full English breakfasts, including vegetarian choices, tea sandwiches and light lunches. They have comfortable seating inside with a small kids’ play space, as well as patio tables outside on the cobblestones. Further back down the alley, through a high picket gate, is the galleried courtyard where Shepherd’s Purse rents rooms and a few self-catering flats. Again, very shabby chic, with old painted garden furniture, lots of potted plants and flowers scattered about, garden statuary, folk art, and a dove cote with many doves in residence.

My room opened right into the courtyard and was rather small but very thoughtfully decorated. It had a poster bed with lace curtains, beads and mini-lights adorning it. The slightly lumpy mattress was made comfortable with an abundance of fresh white linens - a generous duvet and about 10 pillows in crisp and clean white embroidered cases. There were satin-covered hangers, Victorian prints and photos and, in the bathroom, the teeniest little sink you could imagine. (I had to have my nose touching the mirror above in order to spit into the sink.) I pulled back the long silk drapes each morning to let in the sunshine from the courtyard. I was also provided with all the essentials for tea-making in the room, a standard amenity in most English B & B’s.

There are seagulls everywhere in Whitby, and they hovered around the courtyard outside my room making quite a racket. Every hour this noise was punctuated by the church bells of St.Mary’s chiming the hour.

The rest of our party was staying in the New Town, in the Royal Crescent of Georgian houses. This section of town reflects the town’s history as a popular resort destination during the 1800’s. There are round blue historic plaques noting where historical and literary figures stayed, including Elizabeth Gaskell and, most famously, Bram Stoker.

For this is Whitby’s grand claim to fame. It was while here on holiday that Stoker began to write his great novel, Dracula, and he found many different sources of inspiration in the town, from the physical setting for parts of the story to local history and legends. An actual shipwreck of a Russian ship on the beach at Whitby became the ship that runs aground in the novel carrying Dracula, who escapes in the form of a large black dog, bounding up the 199 steps to hide on the grounds of the Abbey. The churchyard overlooking the harbor was the setting for Lucy Westenra to have her first meeting with the dark figure of Count Dracula. Her friend Mina sees them from across the harbor, and runs down the West Cliff, across the bridge, and up the 199 steps to find her. Sources in the local library about Rumanian history provided Stoker with the name Dracula and other inspiration for the Count’s mysterious home in Transylvania. One evening we took a guided walk, led by a man in a long overcoat and top hat, who wove together all these pieces to tell the story of the creation of the novel, adding various humorous embellishments and ghost stories to make it all more dramatic.

Today, Whitby is a popular destination for people on holiday or just out for a day trip. I was up most mornings very early, and I learned that most of Whitby’s business establishments don’t open until 9:00. Earlier than that there is a lot of activity down on the water, lots of delivery trucks, unloading produce at a greengrocer, papers at the newsagents. Some of the trucks did the tricky task of backing up the very narrow cobblestone streets in the Old Town. In some spots they had not much more than one foot of clearance on either side; any pedestrians had to press close against the walls to let them pass.

But between 10:00 and 5:00, Whitby is abuzz with pedestrians, strollers (called pushchairs, prams, or buggies), and wheelchairs, as people come to just wander the streets, enjoy the sea air, spend money at the boardwalk arcades, eat ice cream and fish and chips. I have never seen so many people eating fish and chips in my life. The higher priced restaurants had lines coming out the door with people paying over 12 pounds a plate for fish and chips, but the take-away places did booming business as well. I noted the famous deep-fried Mars bar on one take-away menu. The streets were filled with people eating out of Styrofoam and cardboard take-away boxes. We had a nice group meal at a modern style restaurant called Trenchers. I had fried Whitby scampi, chips and peas. It was good, but I’m good for the next year or so before I’ll be craving more fried fish.

One day for lunch I got a chicken pasty and two jam tarts and ate down by the quay, with my feet hanging over the edge. My companion was a cheeky old seagull, who stood right next to me the whole time, eyeing my food with his beady little eyes. Also nearby was an elderly couple in their wheelchairs, just sitting and enjoying their view of the harbor.

Whitby is also famous for Whitby jet, a black fossilized wood, very light weight, but with a luster rather like Onyx.. Especially in the old town, over a dozen jewelry stores specialize in selling jet jewelry. In Victorian times it was carved into brooches and pendants; today the most popular pieces seem to be matching pendant and earring sets with circles or ovals or teardrop shaped jet set into silver or gold. In the movie Possession, with Gwyneth Paltrow, an antique brooch of Whitby jet plays an important role in the plot.

One particularly fun shopping discovery for me was a place called Bobbins, just a few doors down from Shepherd’s Purse. This was an old stone Wesleyan chapel, with a large wrought iron gateway that said “Knitter’s Paradise” outside. You can imagine my delight. Up to this point I had not had much luck finding yarn stores or knitting stores in Britain. Most seemed to have changed premises or were far from the town centres. The interior of Bobbles was a bit of a jumble but filled with fun things to notice and discover. The pipes of the old church organ were still on the wall, and the raised wooden pulpit was now the stand for the till (cash register). The woman who waited on me has dyed black hair and several facial piercings, including a chain running from her nose to her ear. She was quite pleasant and helpful, and we chatted about the popularity of knitting in the U.S. vs. the U.K. They sold quite an eclectic mix of goods, including the standard Whitby souvenirs, an assortment of antiques/junk, and a wide variety of yarns and hand-knit sweaters. They specialized in Whitby gansey sweaters, knit in what I think is Debbie Bliss denim yarn. They also had the usual assortment of really gaudy ribbon yarns in outrageous colors to knit into simple scarves. I was attracted to some really nice handpainted merino wool by Colinette, made in Wales. I bought just enough for one pair of socks and a scarf. It was a bit of a luxury (at the current exchange rate) but will be my souvenir of Whitby.

Promptly at 5:00, the shops of Whitby all shut their doors for the day, the tourists all quietly disappear, and save for a few restaurants and pubs, the town quiets down for the night. It’s very pleasant walking around in the evening, and in late June, it’s well past 10:00 before the light fades.

On Saturday a group of 9 of us walked the trail along the coast to Robin’s Hood Bay, a town to the south. The walk is about 6 miles each way, and the scenery is absolutely stunning. You walk high along the cliffs, at the edges of fields and pastures, close to herds of sheep and cattle, lots of beautiful wild plants and fields, bunnies, and these amazing black slugs that look like they’re made of polished Whitby jet.

The hike there was nice, sunny and pleasant, but not at all too warm. We were approaching Robin Hood’s Bay after about 2 ¼ hours when we heard some rumblings of thunder. We made it safely inside the Victoria Inn, a very respectable hotel and public house in the town, just before the heavens opened and buckets of rain came pouring down We had lovely pub lunches: ploughman’s platters, sandwiches, chips, pints, etc. When we had finished, it was still raining, although no longer violently. A few students went off in search of the bus back to Whitby, but 6 of us decided to stick with our commitment and began the 6-mile walk back. We were a little apprehensive, but trusted that we were prepared for whatever the walk held. We all had rain coats and fairly sturdy shoes and socks. It rained off and on for about the first and last 20 minutes of the hike back, which was slower going, taking close to 3 hours, primarily because of the wet, slippery and sometimes treacherous conditions produced by the torrential downpour. The dirt paths were slick as grease as were the stone paths and staircases cut into the hills. In several places we encountered streams that had not been there before; some we jumped over were 2-3 feet wide, and we often had not choice but to walk right through water up above our ankles. I was a bit worried in a few spots that the trail might actually be impassable. But after the water poured into our shoes a few times, we just accepted the fact that we would be entirely soaked and splattered with mud and we began to enjoy the challenges of the hike. The students (all female on the return trip) got such a kick out talking to the sheep and cows along the way, and discussing what a feeling of accomplishment they would have when they got back. They dubbed our group the Wild, Wet and Wooly Whitby Wanderers.

It was hard to leave Whitby. It’s a town that inspires and refreshes by its sea air and incredible beauty, and its holiday atmosphere invites travelers to relax and slow down. I do plan to return. It would be a lovely place to spend a week or two on holiday, although I suspect it does get much more crowded in the peak of hot summer.

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27th June 2007

you've outdone yourself with the descriptions of this leg, well done! What an adventure you're having; we're looking forward to more stories this weekend. Cheers, xxxooo
27th June 2007

Love the photos!
Hi Sara, I am thoroughly enjoying the photos, as well as your writing. Thanks! I saw Clark this morning at Melodrama Camp when I dropped Anya off. Looks like they're having fun! Take care, Lee
27th June 2007

Thanks for sharing all this with us ... very beautifully written with lots of great photos. Miss you!!
29th June 2007

Ahhh, you are giving me wunderlust. Your trip is sounding fab. (isnt that what the Brits say?) It has been so fun to read your comments and see your pix! I am sure youre having a blast. See you soon! Nancy W.

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