Picture credit: Jonathan Rudd
“This is my ninth year at Whitby and the place loses none of its charm for me.”
– James Russell Lowell 1889
The coastal town of Whitby is situated on the North East Coast of Yorkshire, at the mouth of the River Esk and on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors National Park. In 2011 it had a population of 13,213. The town offers a bit of everything, part-port, part seaside resort and part historical destination. Its current economy is based mainly around fishing and tourism with many attractions developed for visitors.
The town is divided East and West by an electrical bridge over the river, which was re-built in 1908 and swings open to allow boats to sail beneath it. There has been a crossing point at this location in various guises since 1351.
Underneath, Whitby harbour covers 80 acres and is used for catching sea food, such as cod, haddock, lobsters and crabs. On the quayside is the fish market which provides a ready supply to the towns many restaurants and cafés. During the summer salmon can be also found in the River Esk with specially licensed fleets sent to catch them. Whitby marina was also opened in 1988 and has further increased the commercial development of the town. Its proximity to mainland Europe has enabled it to also act as a small trading port, with grain, timber, steel and potash its main cargoes.
The town has a number of prominent landmarks, such as St Mary’s Church and the ruins of Whitby Abbey, situated high up on the East Cliff. These are accessible by road or up 199 steps on foot. The church originates from the 12th Century and still retains its original box pews. The whalebone arch on the west Cliff, pictured on many Whitby postcards, was built to commemorate the whaling industry. There is also a statue of explorer, Captain Cook, who served his apprenticeship at Whitby and was born in the nearby village of Marton. He also has his own museum which celebrates his time in the town, before commanding three voyages to Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, in the 1770s to map these islands for the first time.
The famous Whitby whalebones are on view here too. The original set were a gift from a Norwegian shipping company to mark the town’s whaling past in 1963. These were replaced by the current ones in 2002 from Whitby’s twin town, Barrow in Alaska, after the originals became weathered by the Yorkshire coast climate. Both the whales were legally killed.
Outside Whitby lays the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, which was given this status in 1952 and contains some of the largest expanses of heather in the UK. The 60s police drama, Heartbeat was filmed here from 1992 to 2010, with Whitby often being used as the setting for storylines which involved a criminal attempted to leave the country by sea. Whitby can also be described as a seaside resort, with a large, sandy beach, amusement arcades and beach huts along its cliffs. Sea trips from the harbour are also popular with tourists and can provide a picturesque and romantic experience.
Another smaller industry, unique to this area is the mining of Whitby Jet, a black mineral, which was very popular in the late 19th Century and worn by Queen Victoria as mourning jewellery after the death of Prince Albert. Today it is still mined to create jewellery for tourists at specialised gift shops.
Due to its geographical position Whitby has no large major routes connecting it with the rest of Yorkshire. However it is served by A171 coastal road from Scarborough to Guisborough and connected across the moors with Pickering, courtesy of the A169. The Coastliner bus service also runs from Leeds to Whitby via York. The North Yorkshire moors heritage railway, which runs from Pickering to Whitby closed in 1966, but was re-opened as a popular tourist attraction seven years later.
The town is also partly the setting for the famous horror novel, Dracula by Bram Stoker, published in 1897. Its association with this piece of literature and acceptance by the locals has meant the development of the Whitby Gothic Weekend, which runs bi-annually in April and October. It has been a feature of the town since 1994 and runs several gothic themes events including markets, club nights and a football match between the Goths and local side Stokomotiv Whitby. It is one of the largest Goth events in the world and contributes an estimated £1.1 m to the town’s economy.
Much of the gothic festival is based around the town’s nightclubs and entertainment venues, the largest of which is the Pavilion Theatre, built in 1878, overlooking the sea. It offers a range of events, throughout the year, including conferencing, plays; stand up shows, tea dances and its very own cinema. Other pubs, which are at the centre of the festival, are The Little Angel and The Elsinore, where the festival originally started. Youngsters in the town head to places such as RAW and The Rifle club. Another tradition, unique to Whitby is the Penny Hedge, which dates back to medieval times. It involves a short hedge of sticks being made from a cheap “penny” knife” and put on the beach. The hedge must survive three tides in order to be successful. It takes place in May around Ascension Day.
Whitby College is the town’s sole place for higher education, but more uniquely it is home to a Fishing Training School for new entrants and experienced practitioners in the industry.
The town has its own sporting traditions. The Whitby regatta is held each August between three rowing clubs, Whitby fishermen, Whitby ARC and Scarborough ARC. It has also expanded to include a fair, air display and fireworks. Whitby Town F.C are a semi-professional team, formed in 1892 and play at the Turnbull Ground.
Whitby has something for everyone, dramatic scenery, quaint buildings and a pleasant seaside environment making it a place full of history, pleasure and mystery.
The earliest recorded settlement in the location of Whitby was known as Streonshal in 656AD. One year later the first Whitby Abbey was built by King Oswy of Northumbria and was established as a monastery and centre of learning for both men and women.
However 200 years later it was destroyed by the Vikings and lay derelict until it was re-built after the Norman invasion by landowner William De Percy. He also built St Mary’s church which stands proudly next to the abbey and helped to establish the small fishing port of Whitebi meaning “White settlement” in old Norse. The abbey was destroyed again under the reign of Henry VIII, but the port still grew after the discovery of the mineral, alum, which is used in the purification of water. In the 18th Century it also became an important centre for shipbuilding and for a time was the third largest in the UK after London and Newcastle. Furthermore in 1839 a train link was created to York and Pickering, which further increased trade traffic to Whitby. However the invention of iron ships and further competition from newer ports in Teesside heralded the decline of Whitby as a shipbuilding town.
In 1914, Whitby, along with Scarborough and Hartlepool were bombed by German boats, which inflicted further damage to the abbey ruin, by now an important landmark for sailors. The hospital ship, The Rohilla also sunk off the coast of Whitby in this year with many of its victims buried in St Mary’s churchyard. During the 20th Century the port turned its attention back to its roots in fishing, as well as making use of its beach, cliffs and abbey to attract tourists to the town,. This has helped to make Whitby a beautiful and diverse place, with a little bit of everything for the visitor and resident alike.
Whitby was first recorded as a permanent settlement in 656. Then it was known as Streonshal. It was here that Oswy the King of Northumbria founded the first Abbey under the Abbess Hilda.
In 664 the Synod of Whitby was held in the Abbey. Among other things it was this synod that decided the way Easter is calculated. We still use this method today.