Whitby is located in the borough of Scarborough on the North Yorkshire coast. Its harbour is often brimming with colourful vessels of all shapes and sizes including trawlers, cobles and pleasure-craft. Much of the town that surrounds the harbour is ringed by cobbled, medieval streets, lined with pubs, restaurants and little shops.
The town of Whitby is divided in two by the harbour and River Esk Estuary. The older part of the town, which crowds together in a jumble of narrow streets, is located on the east bank, while the newer town, West Cliff, is found on the other side.
History of Whitby
Whitby has a long and proud history which can be traced back to the 7th century. It was founded in 656 by Oswy, the King of Northumbria, with the construction of Whitby Abbey. Originally named Streonshalh, the town became known as Whitby during the late 10th century which means ‘White Settlement’ in the language of Old Norse.
Whitby flourished as a centre of culture and learning during the 7th century, with poets such as Caedmon producing some of the finest examples of early Anglo-Saxon literature. A cross commemorating him stands in the nearby St Mary’s churchyard. Despite its reputation, Whitby remained a small fishing town right up until the 18th century.
However, the town grew significantly with the discovery of alum in local rocks, by Sir Thomas Chaloner. The compound was used extensively during the 16th century for a variety of purposes including the treatment of leather and dyed clothes.
A number of production centres were quickly established and Whitby soon became a major exporter of alum. Shipbuilding also became an important industry during this period, with the construction of Whitby’s ‘cats’ – unique flat-bottomed boats used to carry coal to London from Newcastle. Whaling also played a major role in the development of Whitby during the mid-17th century.
In 1839, the completion of a railway network between Whitby, York and East Riding helped usher in tourism. For the first time, Whitby was within easy access to people from York and further afield. It soon became a major tourist destination on England’s east coast – a reputation it maintains to this day.
Captain James Cook
Although Captain James Cook wasn’t born in Whitby, he was nevertheless adopted as Whitby’s son. This is largely due to the important role the town played in the design of his ships, in particular the Endeavour. These awesome vessels were based on the designs of flat-bottomed boats built in Whitby. The young Cook actually served his apprenticeship on one.
Unsurprisingly, his legacy has been cashed in on by local entrepreneurs and visitors will find countless Captain Cook themed cafes and shops scattered throughout the town. The most authentic Captain Cook experience is offered by the Memorial Museum on Grape Lane. Scroll down for further information about this.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Bram Stoker wrote the famous story of Dracula, while staying in a B & B in Whitby in 1897. Although most remakes portray the infamous vampire as a resident of Transylvania, much of the original book was set in Whitby. Many of the sites remain to this day, such as the stone jetty upon which Dracula’s chartered boat was wrecked. Visitors can also follow in the footsteps of the book’s heroine Mina, by traversing the 199 steps she ran up in an effort to save her friend Lucy. St Mary’s Church which also featured in the book stands at the top.
Whitby Fish and Chips
Fishing is still an integral part of Whitby’s economy, with its fishing fleet renowned for harvesting high quality catches. Much of it ships to the famous Billingsgate Market as well as France, where it’s also held in very high regard. A plethora of pubs, restaurants and cafes can also be found around the town serving nationally renowned fish and chips. Whitby Fish Market is also a major supplier of local seafood with over 100 different types of fish products.
Whitby’s Working Port
Whitby’s port remains important, due largely to its proximity to Scandinavia. It is capable of accommodating a diverse range of cargo such as grain and steel and can handle vessels of up to 3000 tonnes. In addition, the wharf can load and unload ships two-at-a-time with over 50,000 square feet of dock space.
Captain Cook Memorial Museum
This museum is set in the 17th century house once occupied by a ship-owner to whom Cook was apprenticed. Located on the harbour, it was here that the young Cook spent his formative years learning about the ways of the sea. Highlights include letters by Cook’s own hand, original maps and charts and an impressive model of the Endeavour.
Also on display is work by those closely acquainted with the great seafarer such as William Hodges, an artist who accompanied Cook on his second voyage. This award-winning museum also runs special exhibitions throughout the year and frequently adds new items to its impressive collection.
Captain Cook Monument
The Captain Cook Monument is situated on a cliff near East Terrace. The monument was presented to Whitby by Sir Gervase Beckett MP in 1912 and was created by sculpture John Tweed. It stands over 6 feet tall and depicts Cook looking out to sea.
The monument has an inscription which reads: ‘For the lasting Memory of a great Yorkshire seaman this bronze has been cast, and is left in the keeping of Whitby, the birthplace of those good ships that bore him on his enterprises, brought him to glory, and left him at rest.’
The impressive Whitby Abbey dates back to the 11th and 14th centuries. Reached via the 199 steps, the Abbey features massive pillars and arches with gaping windows, dramatically set against the backdrop of the North Sea.
The iconic ruin inspired the likes of Bram Stoker and attracts religious and literary pilgrims from all over the world. There’s a museum and visitor centre adjoining the historical site, which showcases the history of the Abbey through a variety of artefacts and interactive displays.
Whitby Museum and Art Gallery
Overlooking the town in Pannett Park, stands Whitby Museum. It exhibits an eclectic mix of items such as fossils, Cook memorabilia, strange inventions and ships in bottles. Visitors will also find the biggest collection of jet artefacts in the world. This black mineral is found all over the North Yorkshire Moors and is made into jewellery by craftsman in and around Whitby.
The gallery shows the work of the Staithes Group of artists and includes paintings of ships and local landscapes. The museum is run by the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society which has been a registered charity since the early 18th century.
One of Whitby’s most distinctive features, the 199 steps date back to the 18th century and were originally wooden in their construction. They provide a challenging climb but once traversed, afford some panoramic views of the town with its red-topped roofs as well as the picturesque harbour area.
The ascent begins at the end of Church Street on the East side of Whitby and leads to St Mary’s Church and abbey ruins. Fortunately there are rest-stops on the way for visitors to catch their breath, although care should be taken not to lose count of the steps. Tradition requires visitors to count each one!
This acclaimed museum vividly tells the story of Bram Stroker’s Dracula through a dramatic-walk through experience featuring live actors, animated scenes and special effects. Situated at 9 Marine Parade, the experience comprises 10 scenes relating to the famous book.
Visitors will also find a number of Dracula-related items and movie memorabilia such as the cape worn by Christopher Lee in the second Dracula film as well as opening coffins and an animated galleon. Special guided tours are available by prior arrangement – it’s open throughout the year with the exception of Christmas and New Years Day.
St Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church overlooks Whitby and is situated close to the abbey. It sits atop the 199 steps and has a fortress-like exterior which shields against the coastal winds of the North Sea. The Church can be traced back to the early 11th century and is best exemplified by its Norman tower.
The interior is actually of a later design and displays styles and influences typical of the 18th century, such as skewed, tilting galleries and box pews. The triple-decker pulpit is its centrepiece and can be traced back to the late 1700s. Outside, the large church yard is filled with monuments to long-lost sailors, fishermen and life-boat men who braved the tempestuous waters of the North Sea.
Situated on West Cliff, the Whalebone Arch celebrates Whitby’s whaling history and the exploits of Captain James Cook. The original was erected in the mid-18th century before biting coastal winds and inclement weather took their toll.
Its replacement, which stands today, was presented to the town by the Norwegians in 1963 and offers a striking commemoration of Whitby’s long and illustrious sea-faring history. The first Whalebone Arch can now be found in the Whitby Archives Heritage Centre, where it’s preserved for posterity.
In addition to the many visitor attractions in and around Whitby, there’s also a collection of towns and places of local interest that are well-worth visiting. Here’s a run-down.
Robin Hood’s Bay
This picturesque fishing village has an intriguing tradition of smuggling. The main street, New Road, winds through the old town and drops down steeply from the cliff-top to the sea. Off this road, runs a warren of narrow cobbled streets, punctuated by tiny houses, pubs and little gift shops.
Secret passageways, once used by smugglers are said to connect some of the buildings. Fishing was once the main source of income before a decline in the 19th century. Now tourism dominates the town’s economy. Located South of Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay is easy to get to, either by foot or on a bike. Buses 93 and 93A also run hourly between Whitby, Scarborough and the town.
Old Coastguard Station
Owned by the National Trust, this education centre explains how the landscape of Robin Hood’s Bay was formed by the use of interactive models. Paintings by local artists are often on display on the second floor when it’s not in use – there’s also a small gift shop.
Robin Hood’s Bay Museum
This museum is run exclusively by volunteers and display items relating to fishing, local geology and shipwrecks. Also featured is a model of a smuggler’s house which shows how contraband could be concealed, as well as a life-size model of a local fishwife. Although small, the museum charmingly depicts the history of Robin Hood’s Bay and the surrounding area.
Staithes is a small fishing village tucked beneath high cliffs on the banks of the Roxby Beck River. It was at one time the busiest fishing port in the North East and an important source of minerals such as jet, iron and alum. However, the creation of the Whitby, Redcar and Middlesbrough Union Railway heralded the advent of tourism, which became the town’s main industry.
Despite this, Staithes seems less touristy than the nearby Robin Hood’s Bay. James Cook once worked here as a grocer’s apprentice before moving to Whitby to join the Royal Navy. William Sanderson’s Shop, where Cook worked, was destroyed by the sea although its remains were incorporated into Captain Cook’s Cottage. From Whitby, Staithes can be reached by buses on the Whitby to Middlesbrough line.
Major Whitby Events and Festivals
Whitby offers a full program of events and festivals throughout the year which attract visitors from far and wide. Some of the most notable ones are included below.
Whitby Goth Weekend
Running from the last weekends of April and October, the WGW is a major Whitby festival and consists of live music events, performed by popular bands and DJs. It was originally organised in 1994 by a small group of friends including promoter Jo Hampshire and has grown to become one of the biggest Goth events in the world.
Many events are held at the Whitby Spa Pavilion although others are run by different establishments around Whitby, including The Resolution Pub and the Metropole Hotel. Activities include a charity football match between Goths and a local newspaper, craft-markets, club-nights and sandcastle building.
Moor and Coast Festival
The Moor and Coast Festival celebrates traditional music with performances held during May. It consists of three days of music, song and dance and also features fringe events such as street performances and local ghost walks. The main venue is Whitby Communication College with further acts performing at the Friendship Rowing Club. Other attractions during the festival include a real ale bar, workshops and ceilidhs.
This is one of the oldest regattas in England and dates back to the early 19th century, when fishermen raced their fishing smacks. The event gradually began to incorporate Yachts into its program and in 1847, The Whitby Challenge Cup was run for the first time and yacht racing became the regatta’s centre-piece. It now attracts over 20,000 people and takes place over three days in August. In addition to the yacht racing, there’s also rowing races and air displays from the Red Arrows. Other notable events include an air sea rescue demonstration, live music, fireworks and a 4k fun run.
Whitby Folk Week
Whitby Folk Week is also a major event in the town and runs for seven days during August. Over 600 events are held each year including concerts, dancing, singarounds and street entertainment, all with the aim of celebrating traditional folk music. The festival has grown each year and has come a long way since its inception as a small dance-based festival.
It now attracts a diverse range of big-name acts from all over the United Kingdom. Visitors can also enjoy a number of fringe events throughout the town. There’s also an extensive children’s programme which helps to involve the young ones in this unique annual event. Season tickets and individual tickets are available as well as student discounts.
Created in 2000, the Musicport Festival aims to promote live music and performances in Whitby and the surrounding area. It has attracted a collection of top artists such as the Levellers, Courtney Pine and Midge Ure. The festival takes place during late October and consistently recevies rave reviews from the press. Some of its venues include the Whitby Pavilion Theatre, which plays host to a variety of acts, from stand-up comedians to live bands.
Whitby Live 60’s Festival
Fans of the swinging 60s will enjoy this festival, which runs for two weekends during June. It plays host to a number of renowned 60’s performers such as Herman’s Hermits, Ivy League and the Persuaders. A collection of tribute bands also perform during the festival covering the songs of the Beatles, The Shadows, Elvis and Cliff Richard. Concerts and live performances take place at the Whitby Pavilion Theatre and other venues in nearby towns such as Bridlington.
Learn more about Whitby through the town’s official site.
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