October 03, 2010


David Ellis

THERE are five reasons most people know about England's little North Yorkshire town of Whitby: James Cook, fish and chips, Dracula, a modern-day TV soap, and old steam trains.

Sitting astride the Esk River estuary, Whitby's 14,000 hardy souls have learned to live with the hammering winds that come in off the North Sea in winter, while in summer it can also be postcard-perfect rustic England, particularly on its older eastern side.

PICTURESQUE Whitby Harbour.
In those summer months its one of the quaintest harbour towns in the country. Tourists flock here to enjoy sunny strolls along the waterfront, the local fish markets, browse the antique stores, and eat fish and chips at outdoor cafes, in little restaurants whose window boxes overflow with fire-engine red geraniums, or with a pint in back-street pubs where battered haddock and chunky golden potato chips have been turned into an art form.

And taking a stroll around the narrow alleyways in search of history, in Grape Lane they find the one-time home of Quaker ship-owner, John Walker and the sea-farer student who lived in his attic – James Cook.

Cook was born at Marton near Middlesborough, and was apprenticed to a grocer in nearby Staithes. But his real love was the sea, and one day he walked the 21km into Whitby to ask Walker if he would teach him seamanship and navigation.
IT was in the attic of this house in Whitby that the young
James Cook lived while learning seamanship
under mariner John Walker.

Today in the museum that occupies Walker's one-time terrace house, visitors learn about Cook's life in Whitby, about the Endeavour that was built here, and of Cook's world travels; there's also a statue of Cook on West Cliff and a plaque in town given by Australia and New Zealand to commemorate his achievements.

And if you are in Whitby on the morning of Ascension Day each year, you'll see a group of civic and business dignitaries making apparent dopes of themselves as they squelch through the mud of Whitby Harbour to plant, of all things, a hedge before the tide comes back in.

This bizarre ritual started in 1159 when three Norman noblemen on a pig-hunt discovered a hermit giving comfort under a hedge to a boar they'd arrowed. They beat man and beast to death, but in his dying moments the hermit prayed that God would forgive them.

ONE of Whitby's many harbourside pubs that have
turned battered haddock and chips into an art form.
Hearing the story later, the Abbot of Whitby was so angered he ordered that as pennance every Ascension Day a group of 'noblemen' erect a hedge on the mudflats of low-tide Whitby Harbour, or lose title to their lands. And to make their task all the more difficult they could use, not spades, but simple 'penny knives' such as that carried by the hermit.

The ritual is still carried out annually 850 years later, and if the 'Penny Hedge' does not survive three incoming tides it has to be built again.

Up the hill overlooking the Estuary is an old hotel, and it is here when the winds howl in off the North Sea and the fire crackles in its grate that the visitor draws mind-pictures of that day in 1885 when Dublin-born writer Bram Stoker decided during a stay that it would be Whitby where 'my Count Dracula will come ashore from Transylvania.'

Stoker was captivated by the destructive storm that raged during his stay at the hotel and which sank the Russian schooner Dimitry of Narva on the nearby Tate Sands as she made for safety in Whitby: in his book he has Dracula coming ashore 'during a ferocious storm' from the Russian ship Demeter of Varna.

AUTHOR Bram Stoker wrote his classic
novel Dracula during a stay in Whitby
And for rail buffs the local North Yorkshire Moors Railway has regular tourist-train runs using restored steam and diesel locomotives hauling historic carriages to five nearby towns with their yester-year Tea Rooms serving wonderful home-made scones, pies and traditional pasties.
GOATHLAND Hotel 15km from Whitby –
renamed Aidensfield Arms for TV soap Heartbeat.

And on select nights, there are silver-service dinners in restored timber-lined Pullman carriages on runs into the countryside.

At Grosmont the old locos are still serviced in the original engine sheds – but it's the 15km run to tiny Goathland that's the most popular day-trip, for this was Aidensfield of TV's Heartbeat series, and where you can visit the Aidensfield Arms, Mostyns Garage, the Village Store and Greengrass's farm.

Whitby's a bit off the beaten track, but well worth the effort. For more information go to www.whitby.co.uk

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