Whitby is a town of two halves, split down the middle by the mouth of the River Esk. It’s also a town with two personalities – on the one hand, a busy commercial and fishing port with a bustling quayside fish market; on the other, a traditional seaside resort, complete with sandy beach, amusement arcades and promenading holidaymakers slurping ice-cream cones in the sun.
It’s the combination of these two facets that makes Whitby more interesting than your average resort. The town has managed to retain much of its 18th-century character, recalling the time when James Cook – Whitby’s most famous adopted son – was making his first forays out to sea on his way to becoming one of the best-known explorers in history. The narrow streets and alleys of the old town hug the riverside, now lined with restaurants, pubs and cute little shops, all with views across the handsome harbour where colourful fishing boats land their catch. Keeping a watchful eye over the whole scene is the atmospheric ruined abbey atop the East Cliff.
But Whitby also has a darker side. Most famously, it was the inspiration and setting for part of Bram Stoker’s Gothic horror story Dracula. Less well known is the fact that Whitby is famous for the jet (fossilised wood) that has been mined from its sea cliffs for centuries. This smooth black substance was popularised in the 19th century when Queen Victoria took to wearing mourning jewellery made from Whitby jet. In recent years these morbid associations have seen the rise of a series of hugely popular goth festivals.
Top Things to See in Whitby
Captain Cook Memorial Museum
This fascinating museum occupies the house of the ship owner with whom Cook began his seafaring career. Highlights include the attic where Cook lodged as a young apprentice, Cook’s own maps and letters, etchings from the South Seas, and a wonderful model of the Endeavour, with the crew and stores all laid out for inspection.
There are ruined abbeys; and there are picturesque ruined abbeys; and then there’s Whitby Abbey, dominating the skyline above the East Cliff like a great Gothic tombstone silhouetted against the sky. Looking as though it was built as an atmospheric film set rather than a monastic establishment, it is hardly surprising that this medieval hulk inspired the Victorian novelist Bram Stoker (who holidayed in Whitby) to make it the setting for Count Dracula’s dramatic landfall.
From the end of Church St, which has many shops selling jet jewellery, the 199 steps of Church Stairs will lead you steeply up to Whitby Abbey, passing the equally atmospheric St Mary’s Church and its spooky graveyard, a favourite haunt of courting goth couples.
Set in a park to the west of the town centre is the wonderfully eclectic Whitby Museum, with displays of fossil plesiosaurs and dinosaur footprints, Captain Cook memorabilia, ships in bottles, jet jewellery and even the ‘Hand of Glory’, a preserved human hand reputedly cut from the corpse of an executed criminal.
Whitby Sands, stretching west from the harbour mouth, offers donkey rides, ice-cream vendors and bucket-and spade escapades. The beach can be reached from West Cliff via the cliff lift, an elevator that has been in service since 1931. Atop the cliff at the beach’s east end, the Captain Cook Monument shows the great man looking out to sea, often with a seagull perched on his head. Nearby is the Whalebone Arch, which recalls Whitby’s days as a whaling port.