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The holiday rep, Geoff Wilkinson, is showing us into Spring Vale, the lovely old fisherman’s cottage that will be our home for the next few days. “Now then,” he says, “you’ll be wanting to know about eating.”
“Brrr, yes,” I say, “is it central heating?”
Geoff – who was indeed talking about restaurants – looks at me. “You’re nesh, lad. Nesh.”
“He is nesh,” agrees my girlfriend, nodding.
As the only non-Yorkshire native present, I was feeling the chill up on the north-east coast. Whitby is, whether or not you are nesh (a word applied to us softies from south of the Pennines), bracing. Luckily our cottage had not only central heating but a faux-log fire too, convincing enough to have me reaching for the matches.
Out by the sea, there was no question of needing a bathing costume, even in the bright sunshine. Fully dressed, and then some, we strolled along the virtually deserted shore. People dream about secluded beaches, but we weren’t stepping over any sunbathers in April in Whitby.
The sand was streaked with black shingle, which my girlfriend informed me is Whitby jet, a semi-precious stone. Occasionally we thought we’d found a big shiny black one, but which would turn a disappointing grey on drying, giving rise to a new game: Wet or Jet?
The town’s biggest landmark is the Abbey, an imposing ruin high up on a promontory. We climbed the famous 199 steps that lead to it, counting only 197, but not feeling fit enough to check. I tried to look over the cliff, before my girlfriend pointed to the sign saying Dangerous Cliff and to the flowers pinned to fences where, by accident or design, others had strayed too far.
It’s a gorgeous spot, if – given the church and graveyard adjoining the Abbey – a slightly spooky one, well befitting its role as the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Apparently, Goths flock to Whitby. We only saw a few, none at the Abbey. Walking back towards our cottage, though, a pub had a big cartoon Dracula and a sign saying “We welcome Whitby’s Goths.” Clearly, it’s a market worth tapping into.
Eating, as Geoff eventually outlined, is popularly done at the Magpie Cafe, a fish restaurant down by the harbour which was Egon Ronay’s restaurant of the year in 1994 – an extraordinary accolade for somewhere that largely serves fish and chips. Very good fish and chips they are too, although I was slightly disappointed to have ordered a special platter of mixed fish when the usual staple, cod, turned out to be the best of the bunch.
I told the waitress so. “Ooh, I much prefer haddock,” she said. “Cod’s a bottom-of-the-sea fish. You wonder what they’re eating down there. ” She laughed. “Don’t say anything to the other customers though.”
Whitby plays up its olde-worlde credentials for all they’re worth, and nostalgia trips are by no means limited to traditional fish restaurants. Opposite the museum of Victorian Whitby in Sandgate, a photographers’ studio called The Victorian Image invites punters to dress up in 19th-century costume and have a sepia portrait taken. One who has already succumbed to temptation is Middlesbrough footballer Gianluca Festa, who adorns the window with his wife and two children, like a pizza baker of yesteryear.
There are also several old style confectioners dotted around, the type with sweets in jars defiantly measured in pounds and ounces. I bought two ounces of Maxon’s Yorkshire Mixture from a shopkeeper who weighed it out with gratifying old-fashioned surliness, careful not to add one sweet too many.
It’s generally a very pleasant place for a wander, with lots of old courtyards and intriguing alleyways, with names like Arguments Yard and Dark Entry Yard. From our cottage it was an easy stroll down to well-preserved streets of shipowners’ mansions or sweet cobbled terraces, via a park and the Union Steps – which, according to a faded Yorkshire Post Whitby Weekend Walk, is a touch of Paris in Whitby.
By this reckoning, Pier Road must be Pigalle – a sudden, unexpected stretch of flashing lights, amusement arcades, one shop selling comedy t-shirts and another selling surprisingly ribald comedy badges. “It’s nothing on Scarborough,” sniffed my girlfriend.
We decided to go to Scarborough. It’s nice, apart from the bit that we visited, which is the seafront at the south harbour. Vast amusement arcades stretched far up, down, and back, desolate chasms haunted by latter-day Pinkys and solitary drinkers. I tried to find a toilet, which meant buying a token from a man in a booth and then going up more stairs and through a floor-to-ceiling turnstile. To keep junkies out or in? I couldn’t decide. I barely wanted to win a teddy or push the two pence pieces off the ledge any more.
Having lost all will to gamble, we drove instead: past Goathland in the moors, where the TV series Heartbeat was filmed and where sheep graze on common land; to Robin Hood’s Bay, a village cascading down to the sea, a favourite finishing line for coast-to-coast cyclists; and to Staithes, similar but grittier. We also drove to the ghost village of Ravenscar, a planned resort that never was, but which retains a lonely hotel and the foundations of a railway station on an isolated clifftop, next to a sign saying No Picnics, No Parking.
Back in genteel, welcoming, fully built Whitby, we went to the Duke of York, sat in a bay window and ate more fish and chips. The sun set over the harbour; reflections of the evening lights shimmered in the water. “Like Greece,” my girlfriend said. And, give or take 30 degrees, it really was.
Way to go
A stay in Spring Vale cottage, sleeping four, costs from £326 for a three-night break and from £528 up to £803 for a week, depending on time of year.
Reservations for this and other properties in Whitby through Shoreline Cottages, PO Box 135, Leeds LS14 3XJ. Tel: 0113 244 8410. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.shoreline-cottages.com
Gwyn Topham travelled from London to York with GNER, tel: 08457 225 225. GNER operates trains every half hour throughout the day from Kings Cross, journey time approximately two hours.
He hired a car in York from National, tel: 0870 556 5656. Whitby is 45 miles drive away, across the North York Moors national park.
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