It rains rather a lot in Britain - even Visit Britain aren’t unwise enough to pretend it doesn’t. Most of our seaside resorts have, therefore, been spoilt by over-development to ‘cater for’ visitors when it’s too cold or wet for the beach. Whitby, however, 2½ hours northeast of Manchester and a 4½-hour drive from London - is different. Certainly there are amusement arcades, fortune-tellers, and tourist-tat shops in plenty. But since this town of 13,000 is still a working fishing port, it hasn’t been taken over completely.
Anyway, many years ago I was here researching an article about the explorer Captain James Cook, so the weather didn’t really matter. I’d brought some no-messing mountaineering waterproofs with me, and faced the rain and the howling wind, and gained some amusement from the few tourists struggling with their cheap plastic ponchos. But I did hope it would brighten later, because I also wanted some pictures of Whitby Abbey (below) for a calendar project. I didn’t get them on that occasion, and had to wait several years for the opportunity to revisit. But more recently I was finally able to walk in the footsteps of Whitby’s fictional villain (more about that below), as well as its real hero!
Whitby Harbour is a narrow river mouth, on each side of which a red cliff towers, and along their slopes the old town clings. West Cliff belongs to Captain Cook, and his statue stands atop the cliff, looking out to sea. As a young man he lodged with and worked for a merchant named John Walker, in Grape Lane. Walker’s 17th-century house still stands and is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, devoted to the achievements of his protégé. Cook’s ships were also built here in town; all having originally been collier barks. His ships, the Endeavour and the Resolution, and consorts which sailed with him on his second and third voyages, the Discovery and the Adventure. A non-sea-going replica of Endeavour (below) can be found in the harbour and it’s open to visitors.
It was probably from the West Cliff, on 31st October 1885, that Irish novelist Bram Stoker witnessed the cargo ship Dimitry out of Narva, run aground on Tate Hill Sands. When some years later he wrote Dracula, he had the count arrive in the Demeter, from Varna, steered by the dead hand of her captain. But it's East Cliff that is "Dracula country", thanks to the ruins of 7th-century Whitby Abbey, where a simple herd-boy named Caedmon once sang to, and captivated the first abbess, Lady Hilda (who was later declared a Roman Catholic saint); the Song of Caedmon is said to be the pioneer of English religious music. Caedmon’s Trod is the name given to one of the two sets of steps leading up to the abbey from the old town. Curiously, though, the commemorative Cross of Caedmon stands at the top of the other steps, called the Abbey Steps (below) - or more usually simply the 199 steps (don’t ask, I didn’t count them!). And why "Dracula country"? Because Stoker depicted the vampire in the form of a large, doglike creature running up the 199 steps to the graveyard of 12th-century St. Mary's Church (which you can still visit) in the shadow of the ruins of the abbey - which is also described in Mina Harker's diary in the novel.
Both sets are good for pictures looking across the red-tiled roofs of old Whitby. The sun shows the tiles to their best advantage ... but, wind and rain ensures that the steps aren’t too crowded! You pays your money ... or, you gets up early, or you comes in winter!
For more information, check out VisitWhitby.com.