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To the Lighthouse by Helen Hutchinson - Read More From Helen Here
Wild, gothic, romantic, and now sophisticated. Whitby hasn’t changed that much over the years. It’s beauty is still unspoilt. It’s history is clearly visible at every turn. The abbey’s shell like ruins look out to sea and over the jigsaw puzzle of roofs that tumble down to the harbour.
What has changed though is the amount of visitors. The cobbled streets on the East Side are hardly ever quiet. Gone are the days when it used to feel like a ghost town from October through to Spring, bleak and empty.
There are now about as many cake shops as pubs. Stylish restaurants, smart wine bars and themed cafes with elaborate care taken over their interiors. None of which have reverted to seaside commercialism. Its posh and we’re quite proud of it.
It wasn’t always like this of course. We didn’t have a lot of choice, but growing up in Whitby we had the beach, and freedom. The summers really did feel hotter and longer.
As a kid I’d often take the dog for a walk along the pier and look out to sea. She’d struggle to walk along the planks of wood with their gaps, petrified. We’d both peer at the men casting off their lines into the sea below. Caught fishes by their feet, gasping their last breaths, tails flapping helplessly.
Flashes of silver scales and small tubs of bait. In the Summer when the North Sea can turn an ultramarine blue you could hang over railings at the end and feel like the rest of the World was in front of you.
Occasionally you’d spot a seal that bobbed its head up like flotsam, floating in an inky dark blue sea, staring back at you blankly, before it went off to deplete the cod and haddock.
Standing on the edge of the pier and looking at the horizon from Saltwick Nab to Sandsend you could trace the curve and actually realise that yes the earth is round.
Walking past the whirlpool onto the old wooden part of the pier always sent a shiver of macabre fascination down your spine. It was possible to imagine sea beasts lurking and trapped mermaids, and of course certain death if you happened to slip into it.
Now you can’t get that far and the ongoing wrangling to get it opened continues. Historically Whitby has boomed then bust. Whether whaling, shipping, jet or fishing a pattern emerges of either a lack of solidarity, managing to preserve what we have or diversifying.
Now it feels like tourism, the mainstay of the town, could be threatened too. A combination of over saturation and local authorities failing to preserve our legacy. Returning to live here its heritage has more resonance as it heaves at every corner with memories of the past.
Whitby has always inspired the imagination to run riot. If you sit on the edge of the cliff in St Mary’s graveyard, the bell tolls like it has for centuries, your surrounded by the tombs and gravestones of ancient families. It’s possible to imagine Captain Cook sailing out in tall ships to discover the New World.
Up there you realise the significance of this harbour. One of the most important in the whole of England considering its legacy. Which makes its neglect more shocking.
Then you realise your in the company of another hero, Caedmon. The first English poet, was inspired by a dream. He herded animals on the Abbey plains and was encouraged by St. Hilda to write it down into the first English song. A Celtic cross commemorates him in the graveyard. Simply inscribed it says he fell asleep hard in 680 AD.
It must have been bleak and very hard. As I go down the 199 steps I sort of wish St Hilda and Caedmon could have walked along Church Street and gone in to Marie Antoinette’s cake shop. Its small, infact you could hardly swing a croissant, but beautifully formed. The interior is painted a soft olive green, it has three glass chandeliers and delicate feather wall paper. There’s portraits of the French Queen, and a bronze bust peers over your shoulder as you do indeed eat cake.
Caedmon could have discussed his rhyming couplets and whether one day he might be able to give up his day job with the sheep and goats. St Hilda would try to work out how to deal with those awful pagans as she had a capuccino.
And if they were still here now you get the feeling they wouldn’t have taken the neglect of their home town lying down.
To the lighthouse that’s always been there to see people safely home. To the beaches that evoke so many childhood memories. To the piers that have seen people learn to love fishing. To the swing bridge which connects the West to the East side, and makes you realise you are walking over the North Sea every time you cross it.
So to those that have and continue to campaign and make a difference, thank you. And to those that criticise or undermine them stop it. I, like a lot of people are guilty of just being nostalgic and doing nothing constructive. It’s time we all did a lot more before its too late.
Real Whitby would like to thank Helen for sending in this excellent article.