Whitby is consistently voted as one of the UK’s top seaside destinations for domestic holidaymakers. With its year-round season, comprehensive events calendar and rich cultural history it’s easy to see why this picture-postcard fishing port nestled on the edge of the North York Moors continues to attract generations of tourists from the UK and abroad.
Whitby is one of the most popular seaside towns in the UK for holidaymakers. Known as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the North Yorkshire coast, the River Esk carves its way through the Eskdale Valley to this stunning natural harbour.
With towering cliffs riding high on the ancient East Side and dramatic landscapes ushering in the modern West Cliff, the town of Whitby has a great legacy steeped in history, culture and myth.
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Whitby At A Glance
- UK’s top staycation destination
- Whitby jet jewellery favoured by Queen Victoria is still handmade on Church Street – Learn more
- Whitby Goth Weekend is the worlds most famous Goth celebration – Learn more
- Trenchers of Whitby voted the UK’s best fish and chip shop – Learn more
- The setting of the Dracula novel written by Bram Stoker and inspiration to authors Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll – Learn more
- British capital of whaling during the 18th century
- Iconic coal shipping port during the 19th century
- A vibrant fishing community during the 20th century
- A holy place in the early English Church; site of the first Synod of Whitby – decided the settlement date of Easter celebrations
- An important English Heritage site: Whitby Abbey is one of the UK’s most iconic Norman Benedictine ruins – Learn more
- Famous holy people include St Hilda and Caedmon, the first recorded English poet
- Home to Captain James Cook, British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the British Royal Navy, famed for his discovery of Australia – Learn more
Once famed for its fishing and whaling industries, there are relics and monuments that commemorate this maritime heritage; the Whalebone Arch and the statue of Captain Cook stand as reminders of a proud nautical history.
Since the Georgian age, Whitby has established itself as a centre for tourism. The attraction of the North York Moors and the beauty of the iconic red pantile roofs glimmering in the summer sun continue to delight tourists from far and wide.
Much of the English east coast retains this unique character – red pantiles (from the Dutch dakpan or ‘roof pan’) were imported from Holland in the seventeenth century. Even on cold, grey, blustery days, these tiles appear to glow with a warmth reminiscent of a long, hot, summers day.
Architecture is a key factor in the lasting charm of Whitby. From the ruins of the great medieval Abbey high up on the East Cliff to the Georgian and Victorian townhouses that line the west side and around Crescent Garden to the quirks of the many Fisherman's cottages crammed into the shadow of the 199 Steps to the modern properties built throughout the town there is a perennial appeal to the bustling streets of this old and intriguing place.
Whitby is a town out of time. It is frequently referred to by visitors as ‘my happy place’. Whether it’s to taste the finest fish and chips in the land or to walk the legendary cobbles of Church Street and up the fabled 199 Steps to the Abbey, it is a place to seek solace, to forget the troubles of the world and to escape to a mythical age of explorers, smugglers and saints.
As far back as the sixth century, Whitby may have been known as Streonaeshalch; which could mean ‘fort bay’ or tower bay’; it could also be that it meant ‘Streonas settlement’.
Many B&B’s and private properties share this name and those with a good handle on geography will know that the famous military base north of York is called Strenshall.
Whitby comes from an Old Norse word: Hwitebi, which means ‘white settlement’. The name Whitby came into use in the twelfth century. A lot happened in those six centuries.
The story of how Whitby came to be known as Whitby is perhaps best told through the tales of the Venerable Bede, a seventh-century Benedictine monk. According to the chronicles of Bede, the story goes that Northumbria was divided into two kingdoms: Deira and Bernicia.
In AD 604 the two kingdoms were united by Aethelfrith and as such enjoyed a great period of peace – an impressive achievement for the first King of Northumbria. It was only in the mid-seventh century that things became chaotic when Deira was ruled by individual kings: Oswui of Bernicia and Oswine of Deira.
This next episode is an important milestone in the shaping of the Whitby we know today. A bloody tale of battle, betrayal and bribery.
King Oswui had King Oswine killed in order to place his own man, Aethelwald, on the throne, a proto ‘puppet’ monarch that would act on behalf of the power-crazed Oswui.
All well and good, usual business for a bloodthirsty ruler of the seventh century. Except the plan failed. Big time.
First, Aethelwald defected to join King Penda and the Mercians, a great rival of King Oswui. Penda and thirty warlords advanced on the army of Oswui at Urbs Iudeu. In an attempt to divert a huge battle and probable defeat, in exchange for peace, Oswui offered Penda treasure – he declined. Penda remained determined to exterminate Oswui’s people ‘from the highest t the lowest’.
What happens next is uncertain but it seems that a deal is struck whereby Oswui surrenders his son, Ecgfrith, as hostage and Penda and his army retreat to Mercia.
The Venerable Bede writes that at River Winwaed, Penda’s army was ambushed by Oswui and his army. The Battle of Winwaed saw Penda decapitated and his army defeated in a smart tactical move by Oswui to press a geographical advantage at the river which saw ‘many more drowned in the flight than destroyed by the sword’.
Aethelwald the traitor stood aside ready to realign his loyalties after the battle. Cadafael ap Cynfeddw of Gwynedd deserted Penda and became forever known as ‘Cadomedd’ meaning ‘Battle-Shirker’.
Oswui’s victory over the Mercian king marked the end of Anglo-Saxon paganism, opening the door for what came next and defining moment for what would become Whitby.
According to legend, before the battle, Oswui prayed to God for victory and promised his daughter would become a nun and to grant twelve estates to the construction of monasteries in the event of his success.
Victorious, true to his word, his gifted six estates in Bernicia and six in Deira. His daughter joined the Abbess Hilda at Heruteu monastery (Hartlepool). Two years later, in AD 657, St Hilda founded another monastery at Streonaeshalch.
This was the birth of Whitby and the founding of the iconic Abbey on the East Cliff.
Learn more about Whitby's rich and fascinating history here.
The view of the abbey high up on the East Cliff exposed to the North Sea has become one of the iconic landscapes of Yorkshire, known throughout the world and photographed regularly by amateurs and professional alike.
Royal Princess Hild founded the ‘double monastery' in the Anglo-Saxon style to be used by both men and women. The Abbey became a centre of learning, a renowned nunnery and burial place for the royal family of Deira.
It is through the contribution of Caedmon who is remembered at the Abbey and at St Mary’s Churchyard with a cross, that Whitby lays claim to a literary first – Caedmon was the first English poet and Whitby the birthplace of English literature.
In 664 the first Synod of Whitby took place to establish the date of Easter. The story goes that in a toss-up between the Ionan practice followed by Irish monks and the Roman tradition favoured by Rome, the decision was settled by Big Oswui.
King Oswui asked both sides if they agreed that St Peter had been handed the keys to the kingdom of Heaven by Christ and pronounced as ‘the rock’ on which the church would be built.
Reasoning that St Peter was the highest authority in the Church it was conceded that the Roman tradition is kept. Easter was fixed to be held on a Sunday, the day of Resurrection.
This first incarnation of the Abbey under St Hilda lasted 200 years.
At this time the north-east of England was invaded by the Danes, or as they are more commonly known – Vikings! The invasion of the Danes wrought great destruction across the region and led to the fall of the Abbey. For the next 200 years, the Abbey was derelict, deserted and destroyed by the ravages of time.
The next incarnation of the Abbey was in the eleventh century shortly after the Norman Conquest. It is these ruins that remain today. The story goes that a Norman knight travelled to England with William the Conquerer. After witnessing many bloody battles to defeat the rebellious Anglo-Saxon lords in the north of the country, he became a monk.
Reinfrid entered the monastic life at Evesham in Worcestershire then later journeyed to Jarrow, a great religious centre in the north of England. It was here that he had a vision to re-establish the great Abbey at Whitby.
In 1067, with the generous help of local lord, William de Percy, Reinfrid founded the second Abbey at Whitby. This new Benedictine institution was at first merely a priory. It was granted Abbey status only in the early twelfth century.
It was in this guise that the Abbey performed a great deal of service to the local community providing for their religious needs through the running of churches, providing employment to a great number people and supporting local crafts and industries in the area.
Alas, this happy time couldn’t last. The age monasticism was about to come to an abrupt end.
In the South of England, a process known as the Suppression of the Monasteries began in 1509. Numbers were dwindling in the great monastic houses. Novices were in short supply and many religious houses were merged to ensure survival or sold to turn the assets into cash for use elsewhere.
It was in this way that Cardinal Wolsey had planned for a great college at Cambridge to be named after him. Henry, however, now the king had other ideas. Wolsey failed to secure a divorce on behalf of the king from Katharine of Aragon and the Cardinal fell from grace. King’s College, Cambridge was the outcome
On the 14 December 1539 Henry VIII ordered Whitby Abbey to close. The dissolution of the monasteries had reduced the old way of life to dust. The result of a whimsical monarch demanding everything go his way.
Upon closure, Whitby Abbey was stripped of all the fixtures and fittings of value; glass from the windows, lead from the roof and left to decay. The roof of the great church and the central tower all eventually fell leaving behind the ruins we know and love today.
During the first World War, in December 1914, a German battlecruiser shelled Whitby from the North Sea, destroying the west wall and nave.
Further damage was done at the hands of locals, scavenging material for their own built projects and gardens, much as others had done before them. The Cholmsley family built an impressive private house adjacent to the Abbey plundered the ruins heavily in the making of this grand residence.
In the 1920’s the Ministry of Work took over and the today, English Heritage takes care of the still extensive remains. Much diminished from the original building but enough survives of Whitby Abbey to leave a lasting impression on visitors of what was one of the most stunning monuments in the monastic tradition of Old England.
It is easy to see why tourists flock from across the UK and the world, climbing the legendary 199 Steps, to see Whitby Abbey. This iconic and ancient place has enchanted and inspired generations of visitors with visions of saints, storytellers and vampires.
On the A174, between Sandsend and Whitby, stands a unique and interesting property ordered built in the 1860’s by an Indian Maharajah. This former toll house raised its barrier for the final time & collected its last fee in 1925. The house, now a private residence, is barely noticeable, seldom catching the attention of passing motorists.
Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire was born in September 1838. Shortly after his fifth birthday, by dint of assassination of his four predecessors, he took up his title and position.
Ruling an empire is a tall order at the best of times, let alone for a five-year-old, so the lad's mother stepped in to rule as regent on his behalf. However, this lasted but three years, until the British deposed and replaced Maharani Jind Kaur, after the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1846.
Under strict instructions from the British, the young maharajah was to be Anglicised ‘in every possible way’. Separated from his mother, he was kidnapped, and sent to Fatehgarh in Uttar Pradesh, where he was placed in the care of Dr John Login, a highly devout Christian.
Nurtured by his two closest friends, a pair of English Missionaries, chosen by Dr Login, by fifteen Duleep had converted to Christianity.
Exiled to Britain in 1854, he soon became fashionable at the royal household. Maharajah Singh, a regular guest of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, was often sketched playing with the royal children.
In 1858, after a stint at playing laird in the Scottish Highlands, stalking deer across the moors during lavish hunting parties, Duleep returned to England to take up a lease on Mulgrave Castle, just outside of Whitby.
Dubbed “the Black Prince of Perthshire”, for his exploits across the border, the maharajah continued to enjoy the finest things life could afford. It is said that during his time at Mulgrave, along with his retinue, he travelled across the beach into Whitby riding on the back of elephants.
At this time it was said that the maharajah became increasingly concerned for the elephants – he believed that sand from the beach was getting between the toes of his charges. With that, he ordered a road built to make the journey more comfortable for the beasts.
Romantic as this sounds, with trunks trumpeting across the beach, there is no proof that the Maharajah of Mulgrave ever kept elephants or rode them into Whitby. The photograph of elephants at Whitby beach? A travelling circus.
What is true though, is that Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire, son of the Lion of the Punjab, handed to Queen Victoria the Koh-i-Noor.
In 1849, the British forced the Maharajah to sign an amendment to the Treaty of Lahore, ceding all claim to sovereignty and giving away the largest cut diamond in the world. He was just ten years old.
It is in no small way that Whitby came to prominence during the reign of Victoria. Leisure time for the Victorians was a revolutionary concept and consequently, spa towns appeared across the country. Whitby became an instant hit. Visited by tourists seeking a breath of sea air and stroll along the promenade.
The link to Queen Victoria and the world-famous jet industry is the thing that put Whitby on the map. In 1861 at the funeral of Albert, the Queens' beloved husband, Victoria wore a Whitby Jet brooch as part of her mounting dress. The endorsement of a monarch of this Jet black gemstone sealing the fame of this unique and unusual rare stone forever and with it the fortunes of Whitby.
Jet is a fossilised Arucaria tree. The result of millions of years of compression of decomposed wood similar in type to Chile pine or Monkey Puzzle. A precursor to coal, Jet is warm to the touch and comes in hard or soft form – hard if found near saltwater, soft if close to freshwater.
The Jet discovered at Whitby is of the Jurassic age, approximately 182 million years in the making. Found in the debris from fallen cliffs and across the moors, Whitby Jet is of the finest in the world and has the reputation as the ‘gold standard’ in Jet.
Popular in Roman Britain for jewellery; rings, hairpins, beads, bracelets, bangles, necklaces, and pendants were thought to be produced at York. Examples of Roman Jet jewellery are displayed at Yorkshire Museum.
Beachcombing was the popular method of discovery of Jet during Roman times, just as it is today. Explore the cliffs around Tate Hill Sands, Saltwick Bay or either Robin Hood’s Bay to the south or Runswick Bay to the north and there can be found Whitby Jet.
It was in this way in the early twentieth century that an amateur geologist discovered the oldest dinosaur bone ever found in Britain.
Alan Gurr was exploring the coastline between Whitby and Scarborough with his friend, Professor Phil Manning and the Yorkshire Geological Society. The story goes that Professor Manning described to Alan the ways in which to decipher a fossilised dinosaur bone as ‘rocks with speckles of white calcite in a crunchy bar structure’. With that Alan pointed to behind him to a boulder and said, ‘you mean a bit like that?’
Weighing 15 kilograms and thought to be 176 million years old, the vertebrae has been attributed to a sauropod – similar to a brontosaurus – a dinosaur with a long neck and long tail.
In 1758, Captain William Chapman was blasting for alum in the rocks around Whitby coast when he discovered the skeleton of a prehistoric crocodile, thought to be one of the oldest discoveries of its kind in the region. Teleosaurus chapmani can be found at the British Museum.
These finds at Whitby sparked a great deal of interest in the geologic community and with entrepreneurial quarrymen who soon realised that there was money to be made in fossil hunting.
To protect these rare and historic curiosities the Reverend George Young helped to establish the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society to house these precious items. More commonly know as Whitby Museum, the display of local fossil finds is among the best in the world.
The final anecdote about Whitby’s fossil hunting legacy before we move on to Mythical Whitby involves a poem about St Hilda. Sir Walter Scott penned a verse in the poem Marmion, A Tale of Flodden Field:
How of a thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone,
When holy Hilda prayed.
It is said in ancient legend that St Hilda, in the search to find land for her monastery at Whitby, found a field that was infested with snakes. The legend goes that when she prayed the snakes coiled up into petrified stone and rolled off the cliff to the beach below. It is these ‘coiled snakes' that are so sought after by fossil hunters today.
Every myth has a grain of truth to it, as we shall see in Mythical Whitby, these stories explain the link between the past and the present in ways that are surreal, entertaining and inspiring. To end this section we’ll link modern Whitby with its very beginnings via St Hilda's snake charming legacy; the modern-day Whitby Town Council arms features three green ammonites with snakes heads. History is everywhere in Whitby, there are stories around every corner.
Bram Stoker first visited Whitby in 1890 with his son, Noel and his wife, Florence Balcombe, one-time sweetheart of Oscar Wilde. The Stokers stayed at number 6 Royal Crescent – one of the most prestigious addresses in the town. At the height of the Victorian era, Whitby had become one of the most popular resorts in the UK.
Many of the notes that Stoker made during the visit were included in the dialogue of Mina Murray, one of the novels main characters. There is a seat in St Marys Churchyard that was a favourite spot for Stoker to sit, looking out to sea. It is this seat where Lucy is first attacked by Dracula, referred to by Mina as the ‘suicide seat’.
As Stoker roamed around the graves at the top of the East Cliff, he chatted with local fishermen and the coastguard. These conversations revealed to him the story of a recent wrecking of the ship, Dmitry, a Russian schooner sailing out of Narva. The cargo of silver sand wrecked on the beach at Tate Hill Sands.
Demeter is a popular name for guest houses and cottages throughout the town. It is the name given to the ship featured in the novel that carried Dracula to Whitby, in boxes of earth and silver sand. It sailed from the port of Varna.
During the trip to Whitby, on the afternoon of Friday 8 August 1890, Stoker visited the public lending library on the Harbourside (now the Quayside fish and chip restaurant). The book he read was called An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldova by William Wilkinson. Bram Stoker had just discovered the star of his book.
Dracula, meaning ‘Son of the Dragon’, leapt out of the pages in the form of Vlad Tepes, a sadistic Eastern European prince with a penchant for impaling his victims on wooden stakes.
It is clear that Whitby made a huge impact on Bram Stoker. The most exciting chapters of the book are those that take place in the town. Local legends are woven into the fabric of the story of Dracula. From the grounding of the Demeter at Tate Hill Sands to the first attack of Dracula on Lucy on the ‘suicide seat’ in St Marys Churchyard, the intensity of the action in the sleepy fishing port of Whitby is the finest in the novel. Whitby is truly the birthplace of Dracula.
Our first tale inevitably, for Whitby, involves a dead sailor, a headless horse and buried treasure. The tale goes that the drowned sailor would be visited at his grave on the third night after the funeral by a ghostly coach pulled by headless horses – the carriage thundering towards St Marys Church.
This coach, carrying a crew of skeletal sailors, would circle the grave three times in frantic ghoulish loops, causing the ghost of the deceased to rise up and join them in their haunted horse-drawn carriage as it sped away disappearing into the night.
It is quite likely in the case of the headless horse-drawn coach of sailor ghosts that there is more than a grain of truth to the tale. Smugglers were apt to create fantastic stories about frightening events up in the graveyard to keep simple god-fearing folks away from the place.
Why? Because smugglers would often hide bounty in the graves of the newly deceased and needed a clever and cunning way to collect it and move it around the town unnoticed by the ever-present forces of the tax collectors office. A sailors coffin with its haunted legend would be the perfect cover for such illicit activity.
In other parts of the country, it is now thought that similar bands of smugglers went to even greater lengths to validate the fabricated story. In Dorset, it is said that horses were painted white and lanterns were hung from coaches to create a phantom carriage of a convincing nature. The gang would then adorn themselves in fearsome and dreadful costume to accompany the terrible ghost carriage.
This terrifying tale would frighten the poor, simple-minded and no doubt superstitious townsfolk – anyone who caught sight of this roguish gang of smugglers would not question that what they saw was a ghost carriage drawn by headless horses with sailor ghosts digging up their dead friend.
The legend would spread like wildfire among the towns and villages along the coast and make certain that even the most curious-minded would steer well clear of the spectres in the night – leaving the way for the smugglers to collect their stash in peace.
Riffing on the theme of smugglers, many visitors to Whitby will know of the Baxtergate pub, The Old Smuggler. Once known as the Old Ship Launch Inn, this well known Whitby landmark dates back as far as 1401 and, as the name suggests, has a long history of smuggling.
As in the previous story, tax collectors and customs officials were based in busy sailing ports such Whitby to collect coin of behalf of the King. The smugglers needed to find ways to avoid theses officials at all costs. One of the ways that the ingenious locals came up with was to create a network of tunnels beneath the town to connect certain inns and taverns.
It is said that there is one such tunnel between the Old Smuggler and the Station Inn. In this way, the contraband could move through the town without interference from the customs officers. Robin Hoods' Bay is riddled with these tunnels and is well worth a visit to see them. The local Ghost Walk with Rose Rylands is sure to illuminate the imagination in the curious cobbled streets and alleyways that crisscross the ancient fishing village.
Outside the Old Smuggler is a piece of ship taken from what was believed to be a French smuggling vessel. The carved wooden figure certainly has an air of the mysterious – though more details than that are unknown. Perhaps, this French souvenir is connected to the ghost of the Old Smuggler. Not your usual visual apparition but a physical occurrence – on entering the Old Smuggler it’s likely to get a ‘shove’ in the back – not unlike being pushed along to walk the plank!
A famous whalebone arch in Pannett Park is the locale for our next foray into Whitby antiquity. Whaling was known to be a highly dangerous occupation. Ships spent many months at seas, up in the Arctic seas battling ferocious conditions in pursuit of their quarry. Loss of life and loss of ships was commonplace.
It is said of the whalebone arch in Pannett Park that a young boy would appear, distressed and crying uncontrollably. Little is known of the child but it is thought that he was a cabin boy on a whaling vessel that never returned. Did he drown, was he frozen to death or was he sacrificed for food by the other sailors, for when a ship became trapped in the Arctic ice, food supplies would run out and rats, dogs and even a cabin boy may be taken as a precaution against starvation.
In 1884, there was a famous trial of maritime cannibalism. The landmark case of Dudley and Stephens involved three sailors and a cabin boy who were shipwrecked and cast adrift in a small boat without provisions. The cabin boy was killed and eaten to prevent starvation, as was the custom of the sea. The sailors, upon their return, were tried and convicted of murder. The plea of defence against starvation did not save them.
The whalebone arch has since been removed from Pannett Park and the boy ghost has never been seen again.
We return to the eerie and evocative churchyard of St Mary’s, the Anglican Church for Whitby, better known as the ‘Dracula’ graveyard for its iconic role in the Bram Stoker novel.
The prominent location of St Mary’s Churchyard high upon on the East Cliff, atop the 199 Steps, is both a blessing and a curse. Afforded a wonderful vantage point and view over the bay to Sandsend across the North Sea, the Church enjoys an enviable position. However, there is a cost to this precarious plot – the cliff is fast eroding and with it, the graves and headstones of the deceased are toppling down into the yards of houses lining Henrietta Street with bones and coffins sticking out of the fallen earth.
On the walk up the twisting stone steps, weary tourists settle down for a few minutes on the numerous benches lining the way. The large flat areas making the perfect spot for a breath of sea air and a nice sit down. These perfect perches were not designed as such but were in fact built as rest stops for pallbearers climbing the 199 Steps carrying a heavy coffin.
We say a heavy coffin but in actuality, some of the graves though marked and inscribed with words to remember the dead, there often was nobody at all. ‘Here lies the body of Isaac Green whose body was lost at sea and never found,’ is the riddle explained by locals as the fate of seamen who were drowned at sea.
These contrary inscriptions are mentioned in the Dracula novel in an exchange between Mina and Lucy when they speak with their old friend, Mr Swales,
Look here all around you in what art you will. All them steaks, holding’ up their heads as well as they cam out of pride, is scant, simply tumblin’ down with the weight o’ the lies wrote on them. ‘Here lies the body’ or Sacred to the memory’ wrote on all of them, an yet nigh half of them bean’t no bodies at all…
Stoker took great pains to introduce local Whitby lore into his story. These details and ‘real’ embellishments served to enchant the reader as they unfolded the mystery of the dreaded vampire. Could it be that Mr Swales is hinting towards the old smugglers' tale we spoke of earlier? Were these graves simply a decoy for enterprising brigands hiding their loot?
Walking amongst the ancient headstones and overgrown plots, the casual visitor may notice the two rather sinister-looking skull and crossbones close by the exit to the Churchyard. Local legend has it that these two graves mark the spot of two notorious pirates, alas, it is not true. A Fishermans tale passed down through the generations to entertain traveller and landlubbers.
The skull and crossbones have been used since antiquity to symbolise man’s mortality. A common piece of funerary art that found popularity as a memento mori in the 16th and 17th centuries as ‘deathheads’.
William Scoresby Snr is the locally celebrated and widely known seafaring hero of Whitby. Famed for his exploits aboard the Henrietta – he broke the British record for sailing north – reaching latitude 80 30′ with his son, William Scoresby Jnr as the first mate, and lauded as the inventor of the Crow’s Nest. William Scoresby Snr was a real-life explorer with the exploits to prove his tenacity, seamanship, and courage. He is buried here at St Mary’s Churchyard.
Our final secret of this mysterious and mythical place is a rarity and a one of but a few in the UK. In the far corner of the churchyard is a tombstone cut entirely from iron. Forged and cast in the foundry on Baxtergate, this memorial was created for the local engineer, George Chapman. A unique resting place for a man that helped build many of the early bridges of the 1800’s.
Once the sixth-largest port in Britain, with an enviable reputation for shipbuilding, Whitby earned its place in nautical history for seafaring exploration and maritime trade.
In the eighteenth century, the whaling industry dominated the town. The bustling harbour was an important node in the manufacture of many sailing essentials: rope making, sailcloth, and lamp oil – with the great boiler houses lining the harbourside this part of town was known for the odious stench associated with the rendering of blubber from whales in oil production. A far and distant image to the one we know and love today.
It is thanks to the prosperity derived from the whaling industry that the Pannett Park area owes its existence. The grand mansions of Bagdale and St Hilda’s Terrace were built on the fortunes of the blubber business.
A great many locals were employed in the whaling industry. Primarily in the sailing of the ships to catch whales in Artic Greenland. A dangerous and precarious occupation; many boats were capsized, crushed by ice or men simply froze to death. Despite the risks, crewing a Greenland whaling vessel offered money and adventure to many men in the town – a heady combination for the brave seafaring townsfolk.
Other occupations included shipbuilding, of which more later, alongside the complementary skilled crafts of sailmaking and rope making – essential for the maritime ecosystem to prosper. Manual labour in the boiler houses was common; production of lamp oil and ‘stays’ for corsets were popular in the fashion of the time.
For almost a century, the ‘Greenland Whalers' of Whitby were among the most successful and prominent in the whaling of Arctic waters, earning Whitby the title of capital of the British whaling trade.
Early ships were considered successful if they returned with a catch of a handful of whales. By the time of William Scoresby in the early eighteenth century, the numbers were more significant – the Resolution brought home 249 whales in the ten years between 1803 – 1813. This catch produced over 2,000 tons of oil that were used in the street lamps of Whitby.
Alas, such prosperity couldn’t last. By 1837, the year that Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, the last Whitby whaler, the Phoenix, was decommissioned
In the nineteenth century the as the whaling industry faded out, a new commodity took centre stage. Coal replaced whale as the catch of the day.
The shipbuilders of Whitby had built vessels for the whaling industry for years but it was the uplift brought by coal merchants that really helped the craft take off. Colliers, the name given to ships that carried coal, were produced in Whitby.
Coal was mined north of Whitby across the Tyne and Wear at Newcastle and Sunderland in particular. These mines in the North East needed the skill of Whitby men to build and sail ships.
Whitby colliers supplied coal to London in vast quantities with Whitby men sailing routes all along the East coast of England shipping coal to many of the towns along the way.
There are accounts of Whitby men sailing colliers across the North Sea, to the Baltics, the Local Countries, and even France and Germany.
The earliest record of coal being transported in Whitby ships was in 1392. Coal from Newcastle was taken to Whitby Abbey to fire the warming house and Abbott's lodging.
One of the most famous ships of all time was built in Whitby as a collier. In 1764 the Whitby firm, Thomas Fishburn, was commissioned to construct a vessel for a certain Captain Cook.
By 1773, Great Britain was at war with its thirteen colonies in America. Known as the American Revolution, the conflict relied heavily on the Royal Navy sailing ships of men and supplies to the front line.
Whitby was building twenty ships a year by this time and these were supplied directly to the navy for this purpose. Such was the importance of the trade that American naval commander, John Paul Jones, planned to destroy the town's shipbuilding industry in an effort to reduce the British Navy’s forces.
Records show that during the American War of Independence such an attack did take place at Whitehaven, thankfully, Whitby remained intact.
The Whitby shipbuilding era peaked during the Napoleonic War. In the year 1802 there were 39 ships under construction in Whitby harbour; employing ancillary trades such as sailcloth manufacturers, boat builders and ropemakers.
Alas, this prosperity could not last – the war ended and as the whaling industry began its terminal decline, the popularity of Whitby colliers waned. Coal began to be transported by rail and canal and the shipbuilding industry concentrated on Tyneside and Wearside.
The perilous North East coast of England has claimed many ships over the years. There are more than 530 wrecks off the coast of Whitby. Weather, war and whereabouts have sunk ships for hundreds of years on this hazardous stretch of the North Sea.
During both world wars, the naval action in the North Sea was intense. Skirmishes between U boats and merchant ships were common during the first second world war. Many mines were laid by both British and German naval ships during these conflicts.
A pair of such shipwrecks from this time include the merchant ship, the Giralda and the attacking U-boat, the UC-70. Off the coast of Runswick Bay are the remains of these two unfortunate boats. A deeps dive is needed to visit them, however.
Whitby has a couple of very well known shipwrecks that are accessible by foot at low tide, of which, the SS Rohilla is most famous. The ‘Three-Day Rescue' is a local legend that stirs strong emotions for those that remember stories of the sinking of this British India Steamer. The Rohilla ran aground in 1914 during service as a hospital ship.
The other easily visible shipwreck off Whitby is that of the MV Creteblock. This unusual concrete ship was struck at Whitby Scar on its way to be scuttled. In the efforts to clear the debris from the low tide, the MV Creteblock was blown up with dynamite. The remains at Saltwick Bay Nab at the easiest to see and visit of all the shipwrecks.
It is reckoned that the UK has more fish and chips ships than a well known American burger chain by a margin of eight to one.
North Sea Trawlers have been working out of Whitby for years. This advancement in fishing helped reduce the price of fish and chips. The boom in the capacity that came with it created a market for cod and chips across the country. Working men everywhere could afford this delicious meal.
A fitting way to end this section is to bring attention to the ancient artefact next to the beach at Tate Hill Sands. The earliest fishing vessels in Whitby put out from this thin stretch of sand. Known as Burgess Pier in old times, Tate Hill Pier as it is known today is thought to be the oldest in the world.
Marked with a timber anchor recovered from the North Sea by a Whitby trawler close to Robin Hoods' Bay, Tate Hill Pier has been so since the 1190’s and played a vital role in the early fishing industry in Whitby.
Since the building of the East and West Piers, the usefulness and importance of the smaller Tate Hill Pier began to diminish. However, the name of Tate Hill Sands will live on through the immortalisation of the location in the Dracula novel. Perhaps without this discrete yet essential mooring, Whitby may not have become the town it is today.
Whitby is still an active fishing port to this day supporting the livelihoods of many locals in the town. Walk down to the harbour and you’ll instantly grasp the heritage and lasting legacy the fishing industry has made on the town.
Way back when England was divided into kingdoms and Hadrians Wall stood as a great divide between North and South, Paganism was still the religion of the land. Christianity had reached the British Isles and was practised in Ireland and some parts of the mainland including Scotland but repeated Anglo-Saxon invasions ensured that the old ways of the Pagan remained.
Hilda was the daughter of Prince Hereric. He was poisoned at the court of Elmet and so Hilda was brought up by her uncle, the king of Edwin, the ‘bretwalda’ (Britain-wielder), the overlord of lords. Edwin, a Christian convert, was killed by the pagan king of Mercia leaving Hilda in the care of St Paulinus.
At this time Hilda was thought to have fled to Kent, a Christian stronghold, where she continued her education, earning a reputation for piety and good sense. Aidan of Lindisfarne sent an invitation to travel north to establish a monastery on the banks of the Wear in County Durham. By now Hilda had become a nun.
In 657, Hilda was chosen as the founding abbess of Whitby. Research suggests that the site matches that of the Abbey we see ruins of today, although the functioning of the original Celtic Abbey of Hilda would have been very different to the later Benedictine one.
Under Hilda’s careful guidance many great names of the early Church were established at Whitby; John of Beverley, the bishop of Hexham and Wilfred, the great bishop of York, of whom were canonised. Hilda became famous for her steady hand and great wisdom. Kings and princes consulted her on all manner of things, Hilda steered a steady ship, nurturing the local community around the Abbey.
All who knew of Hilda called her ‘mother’, for her outstanding grace and devotion.
Hilda’s life was remembered in song, as was the Celtic tradition, including the verse that speaks of ‘birds dipping their wings to St Hilda as they fly over the Abbey’. The most famous of all, we will mention later in Mythical Whitby, not wanting to say too much, but it involves St Hilda turning a plague of snakes to stone and is immortalised in the Whitby Town Council crest. ‘Ammonite Hildoceras’, a legend indeed.
Whitby Abbey became one of the most influential religious houses and education centres in the country thanks to St Hilda. She passed in 680 having wisely for twenty-two years. St Hilda’s Day is celebrated in mid-November. A fine time to visit Whitby to pay respects to the town’s most famous resident.
The story goes that Caedmon was a farmhand, working the grange of the Abbey to tend the animals. The Abbey needed milk, butter, cheese and eggs. It was Caedmon’s job to look after these beasts to produce the goods.
Bede, an almost contemporary of St Hilda, records that Caedmon was an illiterate man, ignorant of the art of song. It is said that on occasion Caedmon would retire early to bed because he knew not the songs of his fellow man singing at the Abbey. It was on this night that Caedmon experiences the vision of a man while he was sleeping that asked him to “sing to me the beginning of all things.”.
Baffled and frightened, Caedmon refused, claiming he knew nothing of the song. By the time he woke the next day, he had fixed in his mind a song in praise of God and creation. He recited his poem to his bailiff. Word got back to St Hilda. Delighted, Hilda requested to hear Caedmon repeat the verse and satisfied that this illiterate cow-herd had produced a miracle, asked him to write another.
Instinctively, Hilda knew that the words had been divinely inspired, when Caedmon returned the next day with the second song, she confirmed her intuition. Convinced of the divinity channelling through Caedmon she orders he take vows to become a monk and made provisions for his education in doctrine and sacred history.
Now the words of the Father of Glory must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and the minds of his purpose,
the work of the Father of Glory – as He is the
beginning of wonders (and He)
established, the eternal Lord,
He first created for the children of Earth
Heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the middle-earth, the guardian of mankind,
the eternal Lord, afterwards appointed,
for men among the Lands, the Lord Almighty.
After his death, the Abbey church became a place of pilgrimage. In 1898 a great cross, a beautifully carved statue was erected in his memory in St Mary’s Churchyard. Caedmon College, the local school, takes his name in honour of his work. It is his poem that is credited with helping to spread Christianity around all the British Isles. Caedmon of Whitby, we salute you.
Whitby is synonymous with fish and chips. It is the long tradition of this once great fishing port to have strong ties to the sea. The fishing industry has been the backbone of the modern town. Whitby has been prosperous throughout its history thanks to its hand in glove relationship to the sea. From whaling to colliers to cod fishing, Whitby was founded with sons of the sea.
Beyond the economic boom that came with this seafaring ingenuity and determination, there are other feats that have marked Whitby out for special mention. Exploration and discovery are the preserve of Whitby men too.
Captain James Cook needs little introduction; British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the British Royal Navy famed for his discovery of Australia. Captain Cook is one of Whitby’s most famous modern heroes.
Cook was born in Middlesborough to a Scottish farm labourer, also named James, in 1728. Airey Holmes farm was his early childhood home and Mr Thomas Skottow, the farmer, paid for James Cook to attend the local school.
After a four year stint on the farm with his father, at the age of 16, he travelled to Staithes to serve an apprenticeship as a shopkeeper and haberdasher. Record speculate that it was here that Cook first fell for the sea.
Shop work didn’t fit Cook. After just eighteen months he was introduced to the Walker brothers at Whitby. John and Henry Walker were friends of Sanderson the haberdasher and agreed to take on Cook as a merchant navy apprentice.
His apprenticeship complete, Cook sailed the Baltic trade routes and passed his exams in 1752, progressing quickly to be offered command of collier brig, Friendship, in 1755. Less than a month later, sensing an opportunity for advancement and adventure, Cook had enlisted with the Royal Navy – England had begun the Seven Years' War.
Cook stated that he intended not only to go “farther than any man has been before me but as far as I think it is possible for a man to go”
During the Seven Years’ War, Cook established a reputation for cartographic and topographic skills, notably, he created the map that was used to help General Wolfe mount a surprise attack at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759.
Cook would spend the next five seasons in the region of Newfoundland mapping and surveying all the coastline, rocks and hidden dangers in maps that were used for the next 200 years. He also conducted an astronomical observation; on 5 August 1766, he measured the eclipse of the sun with longitude taken at Newfoundland and cross-referenced with England.
The Royal Society was greatly impressed as were the Admiralty, at a time when the high seas were determining the direction of travel, not only for Cook's career in the Royal Navy but also the expansion of British interests overseas.
Captain James Cook undertook three great voyages for the Royal Navy and in doing secured his reputation as one of the greatest maritime explorers of all time.
Learn more about Captain James Cook here in our detailed article about the life and times of this internationally celebrated local hero.
There are two William Scoresby’s. Father and son. Senior and junior. William Scoresby Snr was born in 1760 in Pickering to relatively humble beginnings – he was an agricultural labourer before going to sea.
In 1785 Scoresby Snr joined the crew of the Henrietta, a Greenland whaler, becoming its master six years later. Whitby at this time was the epicentre of the British whaling industry and Scoresby Snr enjoyed fantastic success both as captain and Arctic explorer.
Two of the most noteworthy achievements of William Scoresby senior are the invention of the crow's nest and the record for sailing the furthest North any ship had ever sailed – reaching latitude 80’30’, just 500 miles from the North Pole.
In 1807, William Scoresby junior was just 17 years old and already he had shared in his father's triumph at sea aboard the Henrietta. Scoresby Jnr was studious and hardworking and in-between working with his father, took an interest in meteorology and natural history of the polar regions.
He was elected to the Wernerian Natural History Society for his contributions to scientific knowledge of the Arctic. At twenty-two, he was married to a Whitby shipbrokers daughter and in the same year took the helm of his father's ship, the Resolution.
In 1813 he established that the Polar Ocean has a warmer temperature at depth compared to the surface; one of the many studies of the region that so captured his imagination into the early 1820’s. A correspondence with scientist Sir Joseph Banks was stuck up which hinted at the intention to search for the North-West Passage.
During the search, Scoresby Jnr fell into grim peril in a collision with an iceberg. His brother-in-law aboard the whaler, John, helped save and repair his ship, the Esk. Taking much of the catch as a levy for this act of seamanship.
While away at sea on this mission William’s wife, Elizabeth, died. This news along with other circumstances led him to retire his captaincy and turn to the cloth. Scoresby obtained a degree in Divinity from Cambridge University in 1825 and became a ten-year-man the same year, graduating in 1834 to become vicar of Bradford diocese in Yorkshire.
He was elected Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and published numerous studies including an Account of the Arctic Regions and Northern Whale Fishery, Journal of a Voyage to the Northern Whale Fishery, including Researches and Discoveries on the Eastern Coast of Greenland. A Whitby gentleman of great talent and range.
Vice Admirall Sir William Clarkson
To complete our set of famous Whitby sea-going captains, our final local legend is Vice-Admiral Sir William Clarkson. Sir William is widely considered the co-founder of the Australian Royal Navy. Born at No.10 St Hilda’s Terrace in 1858, son of a prosperous draper, Sir William was educated at a local private school.
After qualifying as a maritime engineer he joined the Commonwealth Naval Forces in 1884 as an engineer lieutenant. By the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1901, he was Chief Engineer. It was this role that led him to become the founding force of the Royal Australian Navy.
His work took home to the far corners of the globe visiting dockyards in Japan, the United States, Canada and Great Britain. He was largely responsible for the creation of a purpose-built dockyard at Western Point and commissioned the first ships for the RAN.
Vice Admiral Clarkson was described as ‘without peer in Australian maritime matters’.
Upon his death, he was returned to the UK to be interred at St Mary’s Church in Whitby.
Whitby has a claim to one of the most famous literary legacies of all time in Bram Stoker and the Dracula novel. The book has been in print since it was first published. A remarkable success by any measure. We’ll tackle the Whitby and Dracula connection in a later section in all it’s historical gory detail.
Beyond Bram Stoker, there are a select few unsung literary figures that deserve special mention.
Stories about Whitby have been prominent in the imagination since the reign of St Hilda. The iconic monastery has evoked praise and song since the days of Caedmon.
Whitby has an abundance of natural features and many man-made effects that lend the town an endearing charm that transcends the sum of its parts. From the pier to the 199 Steps to the Abbey across cobbled lanes and yards to the North Sea, Whitby has a lot to inspire, surprise and delight the writers of the world.
Known under her pen name, Mrs Gaskell wrote a bevvy of novels in the 1800’s that won critical acclaim. Sylvia’s Lovers is the least well-known story and the one which is set in the fictional town of Monkshaven – aka, Whitby.
The book is set in 1790’s Whitby and the whaling industry is in full swing. This is the backdrop for a romantic novel that charts the exploits of the press-gang during the French Wars as two men attempt to win the favour of a beautiful young woman.
Mrs Gaskell stayed at No.1 Abbey Terrace for a brief visit in 1859. This was the foundation for her description of Whitby. The home belonged to the ‘Railway King’, a man named George Hudson who had grand visions for Whitby as a tourist centre.
While not entirely factually correct, Sylvia’s Lovers in well worth a read for the modern-day Whitby lover.
Charles Dickens connection to Whitby begins with the dedication in the novel Domeby and Sons, which was serialised in monthly parts between 1846 and 1848. Charlie counted among his friends the Marquis and Marchioness of Normanby, it was to the Marchioness that the dedication was made.
On a visit to North Yorkshire to stay with the Marquis and Marchioness at Mulgrave Castle, Dickens found inspiration for characters and places in a number of his novels.
The counting-house of Scrooge the protagonist of A Christmas Carol is first encountered in Malton on Chancery Lane. He was in the town to visit another friend, Charles Smithson, a lawyer with a practice in Malton.
It was at the home of Mr Smithson, Easthope Hall, that Dickens encountered a lady on whom the alcoholic midwife and nurse, Mrs Sarah Gamp, is based. That novel, of course, being Martin Chuzzlewit.
After the funeral of Mr Smithson in 1844, Dickens was invited by the Lord of Normanby to stay once more at Mulgrave Castle. On this visit, the pair travelled the countryside around Whitby and dined at the White Horse and Griffin.
Dickens subsequently became an advocated for Whitby, encouraging his friend Wilkie Collins to visit in 1861. Collins and Dickens were both very popular and successful authors in the nineteenth century. Collins, less remembered than his counterpart, was in his day, the height of fashion to read.
On his visit to Whitby, Wilkie Collins was accompanied by Caroline Graves. The Woman in White. Published the year previous, was said to be based on her.
The reference to this inspiration was highlighted in a biography of Sir John Everett Millais. The account of a night-time meeting between Millais between Wilkie and Charles Collins with a distraught woman is documented in the biography as being the same scene in The Woman in White.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a regular visitor to Whitby, staying at No. 5 East Terrace on at least seven occasions. Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician, is famously known as Lewis Carroll, the creator of the wonderful stories, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
It is said that Whitby was where the poem ‘Walrus and the Carpenter’ were first penned. On his visit in 1854 it is likely that Carroll was experimenting with storytelling, and in particular, stories for children.
No.5 East Terrace is now run as a boutique hotel. La Rosa with its seafront views, literary pedigree and the quirky interior is a fine place to take an afternoon tea in a true Yorkshire style Mad Hatters Tea Party.
Whitby has featured as a location in a number of films. Happy Potter and the Philosophers Stone, Captain Jack and Shackleton, the Artic Explorer are among the big screen appearances for Whitby and Goathland respectively.
My personal favourite is this pop trivia fact: the Simply Red video for Hold Back The Years features Mick Hucknall in Church Street. The single cover is a shot of Mick looking out across the harbour.
Frank Meadows Sutcliffe
Last but not least, we must make special mention of the Whitby photographer, Frank Meadows Sutcliffe.
Sutcliffe was born in Headingley, near Leeds in 1853 to an already artistic family. His father, Thomas Sutcliffe, was a watercolour artist, etcher and lithographer. Around this time photography was beginning to become an art form.
Frank moved to Bloomfield Terrace in Whitby in 1871 after a short stint as a portrait photographer in Tunbridge Wells. He established a portrait business out of his Skinner Street studio, later moving to Sleights where he married and began a family.
The lasting legacy of Sutcliffe’s photography is testament to the ambition of a man that wanted to document the world as it is seen. Over the years he created a compelling and intimate picture of our favourite seaside town during the Victorian era.
The Water Rats, perhaps Sutcliffe’s most famous work, was not without controversy. The image depicts children at play on a boat. Local church leader censured the picture. However, the churches measure proved no barrier to the Prince of Wales who bought a copy for himself.
It could be that Sutcliffe’s images of Whitby are the most comprehensive collection of its kind of any town, anywhere.
Whitby has an enviable location in the North East of England. During the summer months of June and July, it is possible to see the sun not only rise from but also set into the sea from certain spots in and around Whitby.
Position yourself anywhere along North Promenade or go to Saltwick Bay to witness this extraordinary celestial event.
We would recommend a visit to Saltwick Bay for the summer solstice. It’s a wonderful way to celebrate the longest day. Be sure to pack a picnic and some warm clothes. Skinny dipping optional!
Thanks to the Esk flowing directly into the North Sea a host of water sports are now possible in Whitby.
Kayaking, stand up paddleboarding (SUP) and kitesurfing are also available in the town.
Whitby has a wide selection of local walks that are suitable for walkers of all abilities. It is perhaps because of the easy access to these walks that Whitby is so popular for dog-friendly holidays.
Whether it’s a leisurely stroll along the beach to Sandsend, a saunter around the town’s cobbled streets, up the legendary 199 Steps or a march out onto the Cleveland Way, Whitby is a great base for walkers.
Museum of Whitby Jet
Whitby has a fantastic selection of museums and galleries to enjoy. The most recent addition to the list is the Museum of Whitby Jet. Curated by world-renowned Whitby jet expert, Rebecca Tucker, the Museum of Whitby Jet has a vast collection including the worlds largest piece of Whitby Jet. Housed in the magnificently restored Wesley Hall, the premises has a seafood restaurant, Albert’s Eatery and is open daily.
Whitby Museum contains a wide and varied display of beautiful and unusual objects. Originally created to house the fossils collected by Whitby’s sailing captains, the museum has extended its scope to include items of interest from the last hundred years. The ‘Hand of Glory’ is one such artefact, said to be the hand of a murderer.
Whitby Lifeboat Museum
Whitby Lifeboat Museum celebrates the long and proud history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in Whitby. The collection of medals, paintings and objects from rescues and wrecks are housed in the original boathouse that served from 1895 –1957. The boathouse displays the D-Class lifeboat OEM Stone III.
The Captain Cook Memorial Museum
The Captain Cook Memorial Museum is tucked away down the intriguingly named Grape Lane, an area of Whitby that Cook frequented as a young seamen’s apprentice. The house, where Cook lived with the Walker family, is packed full of items and artefacts pertaining to Cook's great voyages including the discovery of Australia. A real treasure trove for fans of maritime exploration.
The Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre
The Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre pays homage to the great British explorer, navigator, cartographer and British Royal Navy Captain. The display catalogues Cooks maritime career in fascinating detail. The collection includes model ships, books of great antiquity and coins, glassware and other seafaring paraphernalia.
Robin Hood’s Bay Museum
Robin Hood’s Bay Museum holds a fine collection of things pertaining to geology, fishing and shipping. There is a life-size model of a Fishwife and a model of a smugglers house to show how to conceal contraband.
Pannett Park Art Gallery
Pannett Park Art Gallery is the highlight of the art scene in Whitby. Featuring work from the Whitby Art Society, the Staithes Group of Artists and the Pannett Collection. The gallery and park are named after Robert Elliot Pannett, Whitby’s most generous benefactor.
Pannett Park is an oasis of calm in the heart of Whitby. This expertly planted garden has an all year round planting scheme with state of the art play area, commemorative garden, community garden, a Jurassic garden and a lily pool.
One of Yorkshire’s leading art galleries featuring work by local artists. Prints, large canvas and original paintings are available at this exclusive Church Street address.
The Studio of John Freeman
Located on the legendary Sandgate, The Studio of John Freeman is the place for local photographs, original watercolours and limited edition prints.
Whalebone Arch is one of Whitby's most famous landmarks and is a popular spot for photographers; the arch frames the horizon of St Mary’s Church up on the East Cliff. The arch is made from a 20ft jaw bone of a whale. While the purpose of this arch is purely decorative, in the days of the great whaling industry, a whalebone was tied to the mast of retuning ships to signify that the whalers survived the hunt.
Captain Cook Memorial Monument
Captain Cook Memorial Monument is a 7ft 6inch bronze statue to commemorate the men who built the four ships that Cook used on his voyages; Endeavour, Resolution, Adventure and Discovery. Situated in People’s Park on the West Cliff, the statue commands a majestic view of Whitby Harbour, East Cliff and St Mary’s Church.
The 199 Steps leading to St Mary’s Church are one of Whitby’s most iconic and enduring landmarks. Reportedly used by St Hilda as a test of faith, the steps now serve as a rite of passage for Whitby visitors. The summit affords one of the finest views of the town.
Top tip: each step has a metal engraving with a Roman numeral to denote the number of the step.
St Mary’s Church
Dating back from 1110, St Mary’s Church is an Anglican parish church serving Whitby’s faithful. The churchyard was made famous in the Bram Stoker novel, Dracula. This grade I listed building is as unusual and charming as it is old and legendary. A popular hangout for Goths on the biannual Whitby Goth Weekend.
Said to be the first English poet, Caedmon was allegedly an illiterate cowherd. There are two crosses in memorial of Caedmon – the old one in St Mary’s Churchyard and a new one opposite Whitby Abbey. The inscription reads, “To the glory of God and in memory of Cædmon the father of English Sacred Song. Fell asleep hard by, 680.”
Arguably one of the UK’s best-known ruins. Managed and maintained by English Heritage this former Benedictine monastery is a must-visit attraction. A regular events calendar shares the stories of the Abbey in a fun and informative way.
Whitby Harbour is built upon the natural harbour formed by the estuary at the mouth of the River Esk. Generations of man-made improvements have established this stunning natural feature as one of the most distinctive and enjoyable aspects of Whitby. The bars, restaurants and shops that line the harbour are a perennially popular haunt for tourists.
The two piers of Whitby are man-made fortifications designed to protect the harbour from flooding. There has been some form of protection at the mouth of the Esk since as early as the 1300’s. Today, the piers are a favourite spot for local fishermen and amateur photographers and are popular with tourists walking off their fish and chips. The towers at the end the East and West piers are commonly confused with Whitby Lighthouse. The lights are in fact simple way markers for ships entering the harbour. Whitby Lighthouse is a couple of miles south-east past Saltwick Bay.
Whitby Bandstand is easily one of the most popular places in Whitby to eat fish and chips. Situated at Scotch Head the bandstand is an easy landmark to find and a great place to sit awhile after a walk along the pier.
Located at Ling Hill, south-east of Whitby, beyond Saltwick Bay, Whitby Lighthouse has been a beacon of hope for sailors approaching the port since 1858. Operated by Trinity House the Lighthouse is now also home to two unique holiday cottages; Galatea and Vanguard.
A bridge has existed at this spot on the River Esk for centuries. The swing bridge we recognise today has been in operation since 1833. This feat of engineering is popular with tourists and locals alike, the opening of the bridge always draws a crowd. The swing bridge celebrated its centenary in 2009 to much fond appreciation.
High on the list of the visitor attractions is the Bark Endeavour, a replica of the ship sailed by Captain James Cook on his voyage to discover Australia. The vessel is kitted out exactly as it would have been for this incredible journey. Open to the public, the Bark Endeavour is a museum, educational resource and has a themed restaurant.
Eskape Whitby is the first and only escape room in the town. The themed room – ‘The Night Watchman’ – is an action-packed fun-filled activity for the whole family.
Whitby Coastal Cruises
Whitby Coastal Cruises operates a daily service to enjoy the spectacular Yorkshire coastline. A selection trips are available including a Coastline Cruise, Staithes Cruise and River Trips. The highlight of the possibilities is the Sunset and Twilight Cruise.
Whitby Whale Watching
Discover Whitby's best-kept secret on a Whitby Whale Watching trip along the coast. Whales and dolphins are often spotted along the North Sea coast and this trip takes the most popular route to capture a glimpse of these wonderful sea creatures.
Whitby Town Open-Top Bus Tour
Learn more about Whitby on the open-top bus tour. Running seven days a week during the peak season this guided tour is sure to provide a detailed and entertaining journey around the town. This family-friendly adventure lasts around 1 hour.
There are a number of guided walks around Whitby. Dr Crank and Whitby Storyteller are the most well known. Our recommendation is the original walking tour of Whitby with Rose Rylands, The Whitby Storyteller. Rose can be booked for group tours of Whitby and offers a turn-up-and-walk ghost tour across in Robin Hood’s Bay.
Whitby Pavilion is the largest venue in the town and regularly hosts performances from touring artists, bands and shows. It is also the local cinema for Whitby. Tomorrow’s Ghost the musical element of the biannual Whitby Goth Weekend takes place at the Pavilion.
Esk Valley Railway
This dog-friendly rail journey from Whitby to Middlesborough passes through 16 villages on its route across the North York Moors National Park and is a fantastic way to see the best of the region in a simple and accessible way. Stops include Grosmont where you can hop on a steam train and Danby, home to the Moors National Park Centre.
One of Whitby’s premier entertainment attractions, the Dracula Experience combines animated scenes, electronic special effects and live actors to create a spooky interpretation of the original Bram Stoker novel.
View our detailed list of things to do in Whitby
Church Street is the epicentre of the Whitby Jet jewellery trade. With dozens of artisans peddling their wares in the tiny shop fronts that line the cobbled street from the 199 Steps to Captain Cook District.
Queen Victoria made Whitby Jet famous by favouring the black gemstone by wearing a large piece for the funeral of her beloved husband, Albert.
Many of these craftsmen and women work on the premises and can create bespoke pieces to order. It is little wonder that the name Whitby became synonymous with the world of jet and that the finest handmade jewellery is still made on this famed address.
Whitby Whole Foods
For the health-conscious and those seeking culinary treats, Whitby Whole Foods has a wide selection of delicious and nutritious goodies from all corners of the globe. The shop specialises in local produce and has a range of wonderful honey from beekeepers across the region. Shopkeeper, Deb Gillanders, is on hand to offer advise on the best remedies and tinctures to alleviate ailments of all kinds.
Ever heard of Lucky Ducks? Whitby Glass is the only place in the world where you can purchase these extraordinary keepsakes. Made for 50 years by expert glassblowers, Whitby Lucky Ducks are a unique gift from a unique town. Other collectable items and precious things available at this iconic and world-famous shop on Whitby’s Sandgate, include Steiff Bears, John Beswick and much more.
The Whitby Catch
Whitby’s premier seafood shop with fresh local catch available every day of the week. The Whitby Catch is the retail outlet for the celebrated fish and chip shop – The Magpie.
Fortunes have been smoking kippers on the same Henrietta Street premises since 1872. This traditional smokehouse is the only one of its kind in Whitby and supplies many of the guesthouses and restaurants in the town. The famous signage outside reads: Fortune’s Whitby cured kippers. Established in 1872. Obtainable here only”. You’ll smell them before you see them.
Handmade chocolates are the order of the day here at Justin Chocolatier. Located on Whitby’s legendary Church Street just a few doors down from the 199 Steps, Justin's is loved by tourists and locals alike. Popular treats include Captains Cook’s rum truffle cannonballs and Dracula’s fondant filled coffins.
Whitby born and bred Illustrator, Jessica Hogarth, has been creating beautiful decorative designs based on her home town since 2012. Her work showcases Whitby landmarks in a quirky and inventive style. Her work is sold in stores across the country and also online at www.jessicahogarth.com
Art Disco is a Whitby based fashion brand with a keen eye for all things maritime. Creative duo Lucy Catherwood and Marie France established this boutique lifestyle brand to produce: ‘Original goods traditionally designed and crafted in our Whitby studio, for people like us who are brave, free and wild as the sea’.
Furbellow & Co
Located in the historic old town of Whitby on Sandgate, Furbellow & Co is a barber, a holiday cottage and a retailer of fine and curious things for the discerning gentleman. The store stocks a range of excellent grooming products, hard liquor and male clothing of a fashionable bent. The store is kitch, cool and open for business.
Whitby is blessed to have flavours from around the world; Italian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, British, home-cooked, seafood, Tapas, Full English – you can find all them all here.
Star Inn the Harbour
The Star Inn the Harbour specialises in spankingly fresh seafood prepared in a fantastic location. The brainchild of Michelin starred chef, Andrew Pern, Star Inn the Harbour has an expansive menu celebrating the best local produce.
Ditto is an intimate, family-run restaurant serving a delicious home-cooked British menu. This Skinner Street favourite has just 18 covers and is best booked well in advance. Arguably, Whitby’s best restaurant.
Named in playful acknowledgement of the connection of Queen Victoria to Whitby Jet, Albert’s Eatery is situated in the splendid Museum of Whitby Jet. Located in the stunning Welsey Hall on Church Street, Albert’s Eatery specialises in seafood feasts and regional classics.
Tucked away in Grape Lane is Whitby’s most popular hidden gem. Famed for its stone-baked wood-fired pizzas and homemade pasta dishes, Moutrey’s is the Italian restaurant of choice in Whitby.
The Blitz Cafe
This 40’s themed all-day venue on Church Street, offers delicious daytime fare including breakfasts, sandwiches, afternoon teas and delicious cakes. By night the menu switches to continental tapas with a fine selection of tasty treats including classics such as patatas bravas, gammon steak and homemade beef burgers.
Passage to India
One of two Indian restaurants in Whitby, the Passage to India is conveniently located close to the train station on Windsor Terrace. Serving traditional India classics including balti, biryani and bhuna. This family-friendly restaurant is happy to welcome groups for celebrations of all kinds.
Frequented by Vic Reeves of ‘Shooting Stars’ television fame, this fantastic Whitby bistro specialises in fresh seafood. Popular with locals and tourists The Edge, on Bridge Street, is just a stones try from the swing bridge and Church Street. The oysters come highly recommended.
Specialising in small plates, Harrys Bar, is one of the premier restaurants in Whitby. Harry’s is located on Pier Road and serves up some of the best cocktails in town. The menu offers an extensive selection of locally sourced goodies prepared to excite and delight.
Occupying a prominent position on Whitby Harbourside, The Marine, enjoys some of the best views in town. The Marine is known for its seafood and celebrates local catch of the day with a variety of suggestions from its accomplished chef. This upmarket venue has a wonderful roof terrace – the perfect place to enjoy a glass of champagne.
One of Whitby’s top dog-friendly restaurants. Converted from the old Burberry factory, Abbey Wharf is the largest bar and restaurant in town. The restaurant serves a wide menu including meat from the grill and local seafood including scallops, prawns and kippers. Take away is also available.
The Moon & Sixpence
The Moon and Sixpence is a bar and casual dining venue located on Pier Road on the Harbourside. The views from the bar and outside seating are among the best in the town. The food includes cajun style, gumbo and is known as the home of loaded fries. Small plates and a la carte are also available.
A French-style Bistro Cafe in a delightful Georgian building on Skinner Street. Mademoiselles is a family-run restaurant serves up French favourites crated with local produce including Beef Bourguignon, Lemon Sole and creamy garlic mushrooms. Afternoon Teas and sharing boards are popular during the day.
The Fishermans Wife
Situated on Khyber Pass, the steep twisting road that leads down from West Cliff into town, The Fishermans Wife is a traditional seafood restaurant. Lindisfarne Oysters, fish pie and fish curry are among the chef specials at this sea-view restaurant.
White Horse and Griffin
Favourite haunt of Captain James Cook, the White Horse and Griffin is one of Whitby’s oldest most well-known coaching inns. Residing on Church Street in the old town of the East side, the White Horse and Griffin is steeped in the history and culture of this maritime port. The menu in this iconic hotel and restaurant includes 28 day aged sirloin steak, fish and chips and trio of lamb.
Creating special moments for the people of Whitby and tourists alike, Indian Moments prepares homemade Indian food for any occasion. House specialities include Balti, Passanda and Massalla. Located just a short walk from the swing bridge this Church Street restaurant is a firm favourite for curry lovers.
Humble Pie and Mash
Serving pie and mash to the people of Whitby for generations, Humble Pie and Mash is one of the most well known and loved restaurants in the town. Family favourites Romany Hommity Pie, Steak and Stout, Lamb and Leek and Yorkshire pudding and Black Pudding are served on creamy mash with mushy peas and lashing of gravy. Tucked away on the cusp of Grape Lane, Humble Pie and Mash is a Whitby institution not to be missed.
Step off the train at Whitby and at the end of platform one is the town’s only Thai restaurant. Kam Thai is a bright and informal space designed for easy express lunches and decadent evening banquets. Thai favourites including Pad Thai, Thai green curry and Nam Tok beef are available for the seeking a favour of the east.
Fish and chips in Whitby
Fish and chips is a contentious subject in Whitby. The standard is high and the choices many. For us three names are synonymous with fish and chips in Whitby; Trenchers, the award-winning restaurant established in 1980, the iconic Magpie Cafe on Pier Road favoured by James Martin and our personal choice, Silver Street chippy, arguably the finest fish and chip shop in the land.
Known and loved nationwide, the Magpie Cafe stands in an iconic black and white 18th-century building on Pier Road at the Harbourside of Whitby’s bustling tourist strip. Praised by many as the best fish and chips in the land, including celebrity chef, James Martin, the Magpie is a Whitby favourite.
Trenchers of Whitby
Voted the UK’s number one fish and chip shop for 2019 at the Seafish Fish and Chip Shop Awards, Trenchers of Whitby is highly regarded by locals and tourists alike. The restaurant is located opposite the Star Inn The Harbour on New Quay Road.
Silver Street Fisheries
Whitby locals adore Silver Street chippy. It’s one of the towns best-kept secrets. Serving up traditional fish and chips in its modest shop on Silver Street, just off Flowergate, Silver Street is great value and supremely tasty. The black pudding pattie is a cracking side order to the selection of fried fish and mushy peas.
Mr Chips has been producing consistently generous portions of fish and chips at its Church Street restaurant since 1981. Named as one of the top ten coastal fish and chip shops in the UK by the Guardian, Mr Chips has carved out an enviable reputation in Whitby.
Hadleys Fish Restaurant
Named by the Whitby Gazette as the best fish and chips in Whitby, Hadleys has been frying cod at 11 Bridge Street since 1937. The restaurant has a licensed bar and offers holiday cottage accommodation.
Whitby’s first fish and chip shop to offer vegan and gluten-free options, Robertson’s has made a name for itself with consistently high-quality portions of the nations favourite dish. The restaurant is at 6 Bridge Street opposite Hadley’s.
Quayside is an award-winning fish and chip shop on Pier Road. Preparing carefully selected MSC certified sustainable fish, the chefs at Quayside serve only the best fish and chips in one of the busiest locations in the harbourside.
For more than 50 years Royal Fisheries has been serving up award-winning fish and chips on Whitby’s Baxtergate. Operated by the Fusco family Royal Fisheries is one of the longest established fish and chip shops in the town.
No visit to Whitby would be complete without a visit to one of the many traditional watering holes used by sailors, smugglers and sports fans for generations. Whitby has a wide selection of real ale pubs, dog-friendly pubs and pubs with accommodation.
From traditional Fishermans inns to modern sports bars, Whitby has a pub for everyone. View our detailed guide to Whitby Pubs here.
The Star Inn
This dog and child-friendly pub specialises in good beer and great times. Set back from the main quayside at 4 Haggersgate, The Star Inn is a traditional pub with a jukebox, pool table and widescreen TV.
A regular fixture on the live music scene, The Elsinore is a goth friendly boozer with a traditional Whitby charm. Expect a lively atmosphere and standing room only at this Flowergate hotspot.
The Little Angel
Known locally for its matchday shenanigans, The Little Angel is the top choice for live sports. Beer and food available in abundance at this Flowergate pub and is highly rated.
A popular Church Street watering hole with something for everyone. This family-friendly pub looks out over the harbour and is known for live music, big-screen sports and excellent value food and drink.
The Station Inn
The Station Inn has established a great reputation for its real ale and live music. Frequented by beer connoisseurs and music lovers this New Quay Road pub has a lively early doors clientele.
A family and dog-friendly pub on Whitby’s east side, The Endeavour overlooks the River Esk. This Harbourside pub has a great selection of beers, wines and spirits.
Middle Earth Tavern
The Middle Earth Tavern is one of the best-kept secrets in Whitby. Serving some of the best real ale in town this Church Street pub also serves food – the Cirdan Harbourside Grill has earned a great reputation for grilled meat and fish.
The Duke of York
At the bottom of the 199 steps stands The Duke of York. This family-friendly pub serves good food, fine wines and real ales. The backside of the venue faces the Harbourside offering stunning views across the bay.
The Board Inn
Like its Church Street neighbour, The Duke of York, The Board Inn has fantastic views of Whitby Harbour. This dog-friendly pub serves traditional pub grub in its harbour view restaurant
Celebrating the best of the local live music scene, the Golden Lion has a great reputation as a top spot for live music, good beer and great company. Located at the end of Flowergate on Golden Lion Bank.
The Pier Inn
The Pier Inn is a family-friendly Harbourside pub that serves home-cooked food, real ales and fine wines in a relaxed seaside atmosphere.
The Jolly Sailors
One of Whitby’s traditional Fisherman's inns, The Jolly Sailors is right on the waterfront at St Anne’s Staithe. Well known for its excellent Sunday roast.
The First In, Last Out
The First In, Last Out on York Terrace in Fishburn Park is a popular haunt with locals that like to drink. Described in reviews as a “fabulous hidden gem”.
For those inspired to visit our magnificent town, take a look at our 48-hour itinerary to the best of Whitby. In it, we detail the top things to do, where to eat and places to stay. Whatever your interest, Whitby is sure to satisfy.