The historic maritime port of Whitby conjures up a myriad of images that connect people through time to this beautiful ancient town.
From the iconic Abbey ruins atop its headland, reminding us of its Christian heritage, to the harbour below where the Esk flows into the sea, a booming whaling industry thrived; now it is a tourist magnet and thriving community.
The existing Whitby Abbey ruins date from the Norman period when Benedictine monks founded a new abbey on the site of the original, which had been destroyed by Viking raiders in 867 AD. The order and abbey was to be destroyed and dissolved by Henry VIII. However, it is the original abbey that holds its lasting place in history, founded by Oswy, King of Northumberland in 657AD and associated with St Hilda. The Synod of Whitby, which was held in 664AD, was noteworthy as Celtic Christians lost the debate with Roman Christians on how the calculation of Easter would be made, the effect of which we still feel today.
Whitby as a settlement can be traced back to the Bronze Age. Brigantes, Romans, Saxons, Vikings all played their part in the town’s development, but it was the abbey that first made the difference between a settlement and the town it would become, between the mid-C18 and C19, a thriving maritime port.
The Alum industry in the C16 century also played an important part in the growth of the importance of the port. Alum was an important fixative used in the dyeing of cloth. The remains of such a works can be explored at Ravenscar further along the coast. In To Love Honour and Obey this is mentioned, as the fires and smells of the process polluted the coastline at the time. Modern methods of production made the century old methods of alum production obsolete, but in the early C19 it thrived.
From the mid C18 to mid C19 the port was an important whaling, fishing, boat-building, rope and sail-making harbour with many associated industries prospering alongside.
One of these ‘trades’ was smuggling and the narrow alleyways and snickets were excellent for moving contraband through the streets unseen to the prying eyes of the customs or revenue men. Another use for them was for young and able men to dodge the pressgang should one dare to come by.
Today Whitby is a bustling town where freshly caught fish are savoured in the many restaurants and inns. Whitby crab is delicious.
The White Horse and Griffin is a restored C18 coaching inn on the east side where Charles Dickens once stayed. The cobbled yard to its side, and the style of small brick out houses further along hidden in one of these yards, inspired the bath house where Willoughby takes Beth in The Yorkshire Saga series Book 1.
The visitor can take a trip out of the harbour and see for themselves the view many a returning sailor would have seen, as the church on the headland welcomed them home.
Whitby has many historic sites and buildings to explore, a myriad of gift and crafts shops. It also holds a number of popular festivals including the very lively and colourful Whitby Folk Week, the dramatic costumes of the Whitby Goth Weekend and even a Pirate Festival to name but a few.
The famous cartographer and explorer, James Cook, lived at his master’s house in Grape Lane in 1748 at age 18 as he served a merchant seaman’s apprenticeship. The house is now the home of The Captain Cook Memorial Museum and is well worth a visit.
Sir William Scoresby is another famous native who invented the ‘crow’s nest’ to protect sailors, and his family’s legacy to the town and whaling industry is also celebrated within the town’s museum.
After the mid C19 the whaling industry and shipbuilding trade died down but a new invention, the railway, arrived and the town on the west side of the Esk developed to accommodate guests in fine hotels. This railway accesses the beauty of North Yorkshire NYMR such as Goathland, Grosmont and Pickering; some of the locations were used in TV’s Heartbeat series and Harry Potter. It is a really beautiful journey to take.
One of the guests who stayed here was Bram Stoker. This gave the town a connection to his famous work ‘Dracula’.
The 199 steps lead up from Church Street from the C15 cottages to St Mary’s church at the top and the abbey beyond it. The church inspired another scene within To Love Honour and Obey because of the unique box pews and the gallery above. The setting, building and views from outside this church are well worth a visit.
When Queen Victoria went into a long period of mourning, another of Whitby’s industries thrived; that of Whitby Jet. The Jurassic period’s fossilised remains were mined and skilfully crafted into jewellery. Once the fashion changed, and association to death dulled its popularity in the early C19, demand faded, but not completely as it has regained some popularity today.
Whitby also features in For Richer, For Poorer as Jerome and Parthena escape their pursuer in a Yorkshire coble. The harbour would have been busy with many vessels leaving from the steps at all times of day and night to catch the tide.
The Yorkshire Saga series is set against the beautiful setting of North Yorkshire weaving fact and fiction, real and imagined towns along the coat and moors.