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Whitby: Fish, fangs, and fossils

The ruins of Whitby Abbey, which dates back to 657AD The ruins of Whitby Abbey, which dates back to 657AD
21 Oct
2019
For this month’s Discovering Britain trail, Rory Walsh follows fictional footsteps in Whitby

For more great walks, trails and viewpoints, be sure to check out the new Discovering Britain Facebook page by clicking here.

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It’s not every day that you can gaze out to sea through the gaping jaws of a whale. I’m standing at the Whalebone Arch on Whitby’s West Cliff. Windswept and dusted with lichen, the Arch is one of the town’s most arresting landmarks. The giant jawbones come from a bowhead whale. Their pointed shape matches the arched windows of ruined Whitby Abbey on the opposite cliff and frames the estuary of the River Esk as it enters the North Sea below.

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The Whalebone Arch is a proud yet grisly reminder of Whitby’s past. From 1753 to 1833, the town was one of Britain’s major whaling ports. Each winter, boats left the shelter of Whitby’s natural harbour to hunt for whales in the freezing Arctic seas of Greenland. When the fleet returned in the summer, whale jawbones decorated with ribbons were tied to the ships to signal a successful voyage. ‘Apparently the smell of whale meat decomposing in the harbour was so bad it made men weep.’

So says David Flintham, who researched this Discovering Britain trail. A military historian and geographer, Flintham’s interest in Whitby began through long-distance walking. The town is on the Cleveland Way, Britain’s second-oldest National Trail. Most walkers arrive from the north. ‘As you approach Whitby it progressively changes,’ Flintham recalls. ‘First you see a Victorian seaside resort, then the abbey, then you follow the cliff above an ancient fishing village. It feels like there are several different Whitbys.’

This sense is not surprising given the town’s topography. The River Esk divides Whitby in two. From our starting point on the West Cliff, the trail leads downhill then crosses the river before reaching the top of the East Cliff. ‘It’s an unusual layout,’ says Flintham. ‘You wonder how a town on the east coast can have a West Cliff.’ The reason is that the river flows along a geological fault. This crack in the Earth’s surface unites as well as divides the town.

The sea is the constant in this coastal chimera. Whitby’s history, geography, and economy have all been shaped by water. Before the whaling began, Whitby fishermen trawled the east coast for herring. Huge shoals were tracked for miles. It’s said there were so many herring boats in Whitby that people could cross the river by walking over the decks. Seafood, especially kippers, remains a staple of the local economy.

The sea also brought another, stranger source of income. Lining the West Cliff are a series of benches. The furthest from the Arch is more ornate than the others. A small plaque marks it as a bookmark for literary pilgrims. The view from this bench was the favourite haunt of writer Abraham (Bram) Stoker. One night in August 1895, he watched as a ship was wrecked during a storm. These dramatic events inspired Stoker to set parts of his new novel in Whitby. That book was Dracula.

In the novel, a ship runs aground off Whitby during a proverbial dark and stormy night: ‘Strangest of all, the very instant the shore was touched, an immense dog sprang up on the deck from below.’ The dog, Dracula in disguise, runs up the East Cliff to St Mary’s Church and his reign of terror begins. If Tintagel has King Arthur and Sherwood Forest belongs to Robin Hood, Whitby is Dracula’s lair. Each year countless people come to search for the Count. Numbers peak during April and Halloween, when popular Goth festivals attract around 7,000 visitors each. It’s estimated that Whitby’s Dracula industry generates £1.1million each year.

Dracula’s arrival by sea is another reminder that Whitby has largely been shaped by natural rather than supernatural forces. Other examples soon become apparent. The Town Bridge bustles with lively activity. Walkers pass by in waterproof layers and delivery vans potter along the road. This doesn’t feel like a seasonal seaside town.

Goths in Whitby town Whitby’s links to Dracula attract many Goth visitors each year

One reason for all this bustle is that the bridge spans a natural bottleneck. It’s the main route between the two cliffs, with walkers, drivers, and boaters all trying to pass through. At the railings we pause and look along the river as it flows out to sea. With the fault line below us, the view from the bridge offers a glimpse of deep geological time. When we cross over the River Esk, the trail plunges further into this ancient past.

While the West Cliff developed as a Victorian resort, the East Cliff’s attractions are much older. St Mary’s Church was founded in 1110AD, while the abbey can be traced to a monastery dating from 657. There is also evidence of a Roman signal post on the summit. Several shops lining the cobbled streets today reveal an even earlier Whitby. One of the most famous exports from here is an unusual black jewellery made from a prehistoric relic – jet.

Whitby sits within a seven-mile seam of jet lining the Yorkshire coast. Jet looks like black stone but is instead a type of fossilised wood. It dates from the Jurassic period, 182 million years ago, when this area was a tropical river delta lined with monkey-puzzle trees. Jet formed when dead trees were squashed under layers of river mud to create a thick sticky peat. The peat eventually dried out to form the solid black jet still used today for making brooches and necklaces.

Jet was mined in Whitby from the Bronze Age but really took off in the 19th century. Demand surged when Queen Victoria began wearing jet mourning jewellery after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. By the 1870s Whitby had over 200 jet shops and the trade employed 1,500 people.

Jet isn’t the town’s only Jurassic source of income. Visitors are also drawn to Whitby for its location on the North Yorkshire and Cleveland Heritage Coast, also known as the ‘Dinosaur Coast’. Discoveries here include dinosaur footprints and a five-metre long plesiosaur. The town is even home to a unique type of fossil, the Hildocerus ammonite. These small snail-like fossils are named after St Hilda, the founder of Whitby Abbey. Legends claim Whitby's cliffs were covered in snakes until St Hilda cast them into the sea, where they coiled up and turned into stone. Locals call the ammonites ‘snake stones’. Three appear on the town’s coat of arms.

Our heads full of thoughts of ancient sea creatures, we climb the 199 steps to St Mary’s Church, the stone having been worn away by countless feet. The steps and the church are both Dracula landmarks. We are following the Count’s route to the churchyard, where his first victims meet their untimely end. It’s tempting to imagine Dracula still stalking the area. ‘This is the perfect place to read the book,’ says Flintham, ‘but not after dusk…’

Lashed by centuries of wind and rain, many of the gravestones are unreadable stumps. Looking back at the West Cliff and the Whalebone Arch, we trace our route through the town. Whitby’s cliffs seem to mirror each other but they are actually very different. Flintham explains: ‘We’re more exposed up here. We’re also standing on different rocks. The West Cliff is made of sandstone but we’re now on layers of shale and clay.’ By crossing the river, we have crossed the fault line where two landscapes meet.

Even on top of the East Cliff, water shapes our surroundings. Shale is permeable and clay is impermeable, so they respectively drain and retain water. In 2012, this caused a severe landslip. Soil fell onto houses below and bones were exposed in the churchyard. Since the last burial here in 1865, several coffins have dropped into the sea. The East Cliff is shrinking as the weather above and sea below eat the land away. Vampires aren’t the only thing to sink their teeth into this beautiful town.

TRAIL
• Location: Yorkshire and the Humber
• Type: Coastal
• Duration: 60-90 minutes
Click here for more details 
Unearth more of our nation’s history and find more great walks, trails and viewpoints around the UK at discoveringbritain.org or via the new Discovering Britain Facebook page.

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