I think it was Donald Rumsfeld who, when talking about the Gulf War got himself tongue tied over the topic of ‘known knowns’ ‘ unknown knowns’, ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’. I realised that my knowledge of Whitby was a little like the American intelligence he described. There were things I knew that I knew – that Whitby was a port, that it was famous for jet jewellery and for scampi. There were things I knew but had forgotten – for example that it had a ruined abbey on a hillside, that there was a hillside covered in steps to reach it and that the town has ‘something’ to do with Dracula. What I thought I knew was that it would be a bit tacky but that turned out to be entirely untrue. I didn’t know that it was the birthplace of Captain Cook and what I never imagined in my wildest dreams was that it would have a world class wide sandy beach.
We were staying down the coast at Robin Hood’s Bay and our B&B owner had tried to encourage us to walk to Whitby. We’re not particularly lazy but we took one look at the sky and decided it would be much too risky and drove over instead. By the pathway on the top of the cliffs it’s about 4 or 5 miles, but by the road it’s quite a lot longer. I went without too much idea of what to expect and I was delighted by what we found.
We parked up in a long stay car park close to where the yachts were moored in the harbour. We could see the Abbey on the hillside, rising above the red-brick houses that cling to the hillside. We passed the boats and piles of lobster nets, although they could have been crab nets as I’m not sure how to tell the difference, and then we crossed the bridge onto the Abbey side of the river. This area of the town is laced with narrow alleyways of tiny independently owned shops, cafes and restaurants. There’s a small market and lots of ‘alternative’ stores to attract the Dracula fans in search of tattoos or the Jet collectors in search of black stuff with which to decorate themselves. As we headed up the hill we could see the harbour mouth beneath us and watch the boats going out to see and coming back again. Several pleasure craft offer short tourist boat trips including a beautifully restored old lifeboat and you can watch them chugging out to sea at regular intervals.
We came to the base of the flight of stone steps that leads up to the Abbey and St Mary’s Church. There are 199 steps, just in case you feel the need to count them – it starts to feel like 599 as you get to the top as they’re that annoying height that’s a bit too shallow to take comfortably but too high to double up and take two at a time. We were in the early days of our holiday when we were still bursting with energy so we headed up to check out the views.
The graveyard of St Mary’s Church is fabulously spooky with gravestones leaning at precarious angles, facing towards the sea like wives watching for their fisher-husbands to return from sea. Looking in the other direction you get excellent views of the ruined abbey. We weren’t particularly trying to be cheapskates but I couldn’t imagine that there’d be much more of the ruined abbey to see if we paid for the entrance, so I stuck to shooting photos over the church wall and saved our money for lunch. Instead of visiting the abbey, we popped into St Mary’s Church, a strange construction that seemed to break all the normal rules about church architecture. For a start there seemed to be too many windows, and most of them undecorated. Once inside the pews were arranged in boxes so that the congregation would have struggled to see more than just the occupants of their own box. It was an oddly impersonal lay out that left me wondering how many of those attending services would have been able to see or hear what was going on. Many of the pillars are painted in mock stone designs which look oddly amateurish, as if someone invited the kindergarten to do the painting.
With our religious buildings behind us we headed back down the 199 steps and over to the other side of the river in search of lunch. This side is the more touristy, ‘seaside’ part of the town, with the waterfront filled with amusement arcades and chip shops. We skipped the chips and bought a portion each of Whitby scampi to eat on the harbour wall because there’s nothing like sea air for giving you a good appetite.
The scampi were fresh, juicy and delicious and our lunch was spoiled only by me getting pooped on by a large, grumpy seagull who projectile pooped down my arm from about six feet away. If I hadn’t been so busy mopping up the mess, I would have been impressed by both his range and his precision targeting.
Once our lunch was eaten we headed round the headland and onto the beach. It’s safe to say I had not imagined that such beautiful, clean, wide beaches were to be found in the UK, and certainly not ones that were almost empty of people. Not only is the beach wide and flat, but it stretches as far as the eye can see. As we strolled along, I was soon captivated by the rows of beach huts further down the beach. I adore beach huts although I’ve never hired one or even been in one but they represent the simple pleasures of the seaside – a place to put your deck chair when the rain starts to fall and to brew up a cup of tea and watch the world go by. The Whitby beach huts are brashly painted in primary colours that would stand out on even the dullest northern day.
Once we’d passed the beach huts we headed up the cliff to the road at the top and strolled back towards the harbour, stopping to admire the statue of Captain Cook and to photograph the whale bone arch before heading into the modern part of town in search of coffee and wi-fi. Unable to find any wi-fi in Robin Hood’s Bay, we’d asked our B&B owner if she knew of a place in Whitby. A long explanation followed and I nodded in all the right places and paid no attention. I figured we’d find a Costa or a McDonalds or a Starbucks and log on there but by sheer chance we found the cafe she’s told us about. This was lucky since there was a noteworthy absence of most national chain stores in the town. We’re so used to going to every town or city and seeing exactly the same identikit High Streets, that I was really impressed to go somewhere that had so few of the familiar shop fronts.
It has long been my ambition to retire by the sea. This has been a feeling that’ s been growing over the last 8 years whilst we’ve been living in the most landlocked county in England. The primeval yearning of a Brit for the sea is in my genes and I’d always assumed that if I wanted to exercise my genetic drive to walk on the beach, it would have to be in an overpriced tacky touristy seaside town on the South Coast. Going to Whitby opened my eyes to a very different British seaside experience by showing me a town that has extensive facilities, proper restaurants and shops and not just chippies and arcades, and that would be a beautiful place to be year round. I’m not so naive as to think the sun always shines in the North East (in fact to think it EVER shines if I’m honest) but the quality of the beaches and the fantastic views had me longing to quit my job, get a fancy pedigree dog (since there seem to be no mutts in Whitby) and take long walks on the beach in the horizontal rain. For me Whitby was definitely a winner.