Susie Kearley takes a trip with her family to this vibrant seaside town in North Yorkshire – packed with history, mystery and more.
The journey to Whitby hasn't been an easy one, but as we tow the van through the beautiful countryside of Yorkshire, the wildflowers on the verges lift our spirits. Back home, the town council seems neurotic about keeping the grass mown, but in this part of the world wild flowers are left to blossom and the hedgerows bloom. It’s simply beautiful.
Under a deep blue sky, we pass sheep grazing, young lambs, and fields dotted with newborn calves. We spot York Minster across the fields, and travel through the famous North York Moors. The heather hasn’t recovered from winter, but it’s still a dramatic landscape.
Our campsite, Sandfield House Farm Caravan Park, is lovely and we receive a warm welcome. The facilities look good and it's about 10 minutes from Whitby on foot, with a beach over the road!
The following morning we walk along the seafront into Whitby town centre, passing colourful beach huts and rocky outcrops. When we get there, we see a steam-powered bus taking people on tours of Whitby. The ice cream seller is doing a good trade and my husband, Vic, tries a scoop of blackcurrant and liquorice ice cream, which gets a thumbs up.
We walk along the West Pier and notice a stunning boat, which turns out to be a 40% scale replica of Captain Cook’s ship, HMS Bark Endeavour. Within the hour, we're on board, travelling out to sea on this handsome ship ourselves. It’s very popular and crowded.
The waters are remarkably choppy, so we hold on tight! There's a commentary about Captain Cook and his crew, and the trip is made more interesting by seals swimming nearby.
After disembarking, we visit Whitby Abbey. It's quite a trek up the 199 steps to the top of the hill, where we stroll around the gorgeous Gothic abbey ruins, so spooky at night, taking in the history. There's an exhibition displaying items excavated on site, and an audio guide explains some of the history. We learn about life at the abbey and watch a short outdoor theatrical performance about St Hilda and her connections to the abbey.
Back on the campsite that evening, ducks waddle past our caravan, and as the sun sets, the sky turns red, promising a delightful day, for shepherds at least, tomorrow.
In the morning we walk along Sandsend Beach, near the campsite, which has fascinating coastal erosion and unusual rock formations. Later in the day, we drive into the Yorkshire Moors for an afternoon of exploration and adventure. The roads snake through hills and valleys, reaching a bowl in the landscape, called the Hole of Horcum. We feel compelled to walk into the ‘hole’ to see the scenery, and it’s quite an arduous trek, but very enjoyable in the afternoon sun. The Hole of Horcum is just off the A169 at Saltergate, behind Horcum Wood, and there's a large layby car park.
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
It's a beautiful sunny day when we ride on the North Yorkshire Moors Historical Railway (NYMR). The journey between Whitby and Grosmont is heavenly, passing stunning green countryside, a viaduct, lambs, calves, and the River Esk.
We walk through the vintage carriages and come across some first-class compartments bearing a striking resemblance to those used in the Harry Potter films. They might be the very same carriages, because some of the Hogwarts Express footage was filmed on the NYMR. The engines look pretty similar, too!
Goathland Station, with its iconic bridge, is famous for its role in Harry Potter. It's full of olde worlde charm, with milk churns and Victorian décor. The village of Goathland is where Heartbeat was filmed in the 1990s - a TV show about policing in a small Yorkshire village. You can see Scripps Funeral Services and Aidensfield Garage, both selling Heartbeat souvenirs. Continue up the street to see Aidensfield grocers, general stores and Post Office.
At Mallyan Spout Hotel, in Goathland, there's a steep footpath down to Mallyan Spout Waterfall. It’s a 20-minute walk, part of which takes us alongside a beautiful stream in lush woodland. The fall itself seems unremarkable, but might be more dramatic after heavy rainfall. The next stop, Pickering, is a pleasant little town with a market, secondhand bookstore, and a castle – although we don’t find the castle and probably wouldn’t have had time to visit anyway before it's time to hop back on the train! Instead, we play it safe, looking around the visitor centre and museum on the station before catching the last train back to Whitby. The day is remarkably tiring. There is so much to do, it’s impossible to fit everything in, so plan carefully.
A rainy day calls for an indoor attraction, so we saunter to the Captain Cook Museum! From the ages of 17 to 26, James Cook served as apprentice seaman and master’s mate to Captain John Walker, based in Whitby. Today Cook is best known for his exploration and mapping of the eastern coast of Australia. The museum has a collection of maps from before Cook’s exploration, which reveal how they changed after his work was done.
You can see the kitchen, where young James Cook ate, reception rooms and the attic where the apprentices slept. The museum highlights the routes that Cook travelled on his journeys around the world, and some of the exotic plants and animals he discovered. He took artists on his voyages to sketch plants and animals, because there was no photography.
Conflicts between Australian natives and white settlers are detailed in letters. It’s a fascinating museum offering a glimpse into the life and travels of Captain Cook and his associates. He died in a conflict with native Hawaiians in 1779.
After lunch we visit Nunnington Hall, a Tudor house where hunting trophies line the entrance hall. The impressive dining room is laid for guests, the grand Oak Hall originally hosted parties, and the Drawing Room was used for relaxation and games. You can explore The Tudor Oak Bedroom, nursery and maid’s bedroom, and there are changing exhibitions in the attic. Peacocks patrol the grounds, and there's a cottage garden.
Whitby Tour Bus
A ride on the open-top Whitby Tour Bus exceeds all of my expectations for sheer entertainment. By midweek we've already stumbled across many of the town's highlights, but our guide offers a new perspective on each of them, often accompanied by hilarious stories.
We travel past Whitby Museum gardens, the old workhouse, and learn how locals avoided the 18th century window tax, as well as the Royal Crescent’s misfortune. We also hear a little more about Captain Cook, the town's whalebone arch, and Bram Stoker's connections to Whitby – Dracula was written here, inspired by the town.
Robin Hood’s Bay
Nearby Robin Hood’s Bay is worth a visit. The steep descent to the beach reminds me of Clovelly in Devon, lined with quaint independent shops, but perhaps not quite as pretty. The Bay’s old police station was built to control the railway labourers who went into the village after work, challenging the locals to ‘battle royal’ and falling down drunk. The station is now a holiday cottage.
Farther down the street, the visitor centre tells the history of fishing at Robin Hood’s Bay, the smuggling activities that took place in the 1700s, coastal erosion, fossils found on the beach, and the ebb and flow of tides. There's also a big fish tank containing fish found in local waters; we spot a flatfish, catfish, and crab. Back outside, the beach is covered in different coloured seaweeds, and peppered with rock pools to explore.
Ducks, pheasants and swallows are belting around the campsite this morning. After chasing them with a camera, we head to Scarborough. From the promenade we spot a family who have built a fantastic fortress in the sand. The donkey rides look popular and there are people playing crazy golf on ‘Yorkshire's Championship Course’, according to the sign. There’s also a Sea Life Centre, a modern shopping complex, a miniature railway, shooting range, and a pretty park with a boating lake. All of a sudden, the sun vanishes, it turns cold, and we're shrouded in thick fog. Our plans for the afternoon – an indoor fairground attraction – seem apt!
The Scarborough Fair Collection is a vintage fairground attraction based at the Flower of May Holiday Park, six miles out of town. In the reception area, there's a grand piano playing itself. We investigate, press a key, and nothing happens. Somewhat disappointingly, we conclude that it's pre-recorded music; there’s no phantom pianist.
We step into the exhibition of old fairground organs, gallopers and rides, some dating from the early 1900s. There are vintage vehicles on display, including a showman’s engine and old gypsy caravans, as well as a child's Commodore caravan. It's only about four foot high, but inside it has a fitted sink, wardrobe, sofas and beds. It even makes our Freedom caravan look big!
An organist plays a Wurlitzer theatre organ in the ballroom and we sit down to listen. Then we ride on the super-fast 1950s Noah's Ark carousel and hold on tightly! I’m sure if they made them today, we’d have to fasten all sorts of safety devices. After watching the dodgems and gallopers, we check out the kiddies’ rides, some of which sport carved figures that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film.
We return to Sandfield House Farm Caravan Park in dense fog and find the wildlife as active as ever – two shameless wagtails are mating on our pitch!
Where to stay
Sandfield House Farm Caravan Park
Sandsend Road, Whitby
T 01947 602660
Lady Cross Plantation
Egton, Whitby YO21 1UA
T 01947 895502
Guisborough Road, Whitby, YO21 1TL
T 01947 601542
What to see
HMS Bark Endeavour
T 01723 364100
T 01947 603568
Robin Hood's Bay
Scarborough Fair Collection
T 01723 586698
Whitby Tour Bus
T 01947 602922
T 01439 748283
Captain Cook Memorial Museum
T 01947 601900
North Yorkshire Moors Railway
T 01751 472508