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Why you should visit Whitby in winter

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 January 2016

Whitby in winter light.

Whitby in winter light.

© Tony Bartholomew

Is Whitby winning over visitors as a year-round attraction? Jo Haywood finds out

Photographs by Tony Bartholomew

Fishing off Whitby PierFishing off Whitby Pier

In summer, all you need is a sandy beach, an ice-cream van and the odd donkey to attract visitors to the Yorkshire coast. But in winter you have to work a bit harder.

No one wants to park their family on the beach when the waves are crashing in with alarming speed and the wind is sand-blasting the smiles off their faces, so what can high season crowd-pullers like Whitby do to bring in visitors during the tricky off-peak period from November to February?

‘If someone could come up with a really good winter event – perhaps a top quality Christmas market – the season could be even longer,’ said Charles Forgan, volunteer manager at the Captain Cook Museum. ‘It’s vital that our season is as long as possible as we’re a tourism-dependent town, and we have to make our mark regionally, not just locally.

‘The Goth Weekend is superb at extending the shoulders of the season but, at the moment, it’s usually the last item on the calendar before we close down for the winter. Lots of people will tell you Whitby is an all-year-round resort, but it’s more of a wish than a reality.’

The monastic ruins of Whitby Abbey are also a fascinating and undeniably creepy option, with the added bonus of perhaps the best view of the town from their eerie eyrie on the East Cliff headlandThe monastic ruins of Whitby Abbey are also a fascinating and undeniably creepy option, with the added bonus of perhaps the best view of the town from their eerie eyrie on the East Cliff headland

Whitby Goth Weekend takes over the town twice a year; once in spring and once, perhaps even more appropriately, around Halloween on the cusp of November.

Over the festive period, there are carols in the atmospheric remains of Whitby Abbey, regular Santa trains leaving Whitby station to travel along the Esk Valley to Glaisdale and back, a panto at the Pavilion and, on Boxing Day, the annual Whitby Lions dip off the West Pier (a proposition guaranteed to make you feel completely nithered no matter how high you have the central heating).

And let’s not forget Charles’ own Captain Cook Museum, which closes in November and reopens in February. This beautiful 17th century house on Grape Lane, alongside the harbour, was owned by Captain John Walker, a prominent Quaker shipowner, who let young James Cook lodge in the attic when he took on his apprenticeship as a seaman.

The museum celebrates Cook’s subsequent achievements and the work of those who sailed with him. It also gives visitors the chance to see letters in the great explorer’s own hand, original paintings and drawings, ship models and maps, and strange objects from newly discovered lands.

The statue of Captain James Cook in Whitby is by sculptor John Tweed and was unveiled in 1912The statue of Captain James Cook in Whitby is by sculptor John Tweed and was unveiled in 1912

‘Visitors, even those who are quite scholarly, find our collection quite astonishing,’ said Charles. ‘It totally exceeds all expectations.’

The museum, perhaps not surprisingly, attracts a disproportionate number of visitors from Australia, New Zealand and Canada – all places Cook explored and mapped. But the good captain is not the only person (using the term very loosely indeed) who brings crowds to Whitby throughout the years.

‘I’ve never been a great fan of Dracula and, frankly, we’re rather snotty about him at the museum,’ said Charles, ‘but you can see clearly that this is the landscape that inspired Bram Stoker. You just have to stand on the headland by the abbey to know it’s the truth.’

With that in mind, if you’re looking for a bit of spooky nonsense then the Dracula Experience is open every weekend between November and Easter, offering a unique tour through Bran Stoker’s story and its connections to the town using animated scenes, electronic special effects and live (or say they tell us) actors.

The monastic ruins of Whitby Abbey are also a fascinating and undeniably creepy option, with the added bonus of perhaps the best view of the town from their eerie eyrie on the East Cliff headland.

‘It doesn’t matter what the weather’s like, Whitby’s character shines through,’ said Ian Robson, joint owner of The Magpie Café, a landmark fish and chip restaurant overlooking the harbour. ‘In fact, it can sometimes look its best when the skies are dark and dramatic. Climb those 199 steps to the abbey – after your fish and chips of course – and you get one heck of a view.’

It’s been an annual tradition to shut in the quietest month of the year but, from 2017, The Magpie will be open year-round.

‘In the old days, like most local businesses we used to shut at the end of September and not open again until Easter, said Ian. ‘But that’s all changed now as Whitby becomes more of a year-round town.

‘It used to be that people would pretty much hibernate through the winter, but now families go exploring whatever the weather, and more people book in for short winter breaks.’

Year-round visitors are obviously good for the town, good for businesses and good for local people as seasonal work becomes a full-time career.

‘It’s good that we’re getting busier but, whatever happens, we never want to take away from the unique character of the place,’ said Ian. ‘It’s not worth sacrificing Whitby’s distinctive atmosphere for a few more visitors in January.’

If you do happen to be in town this winter and are searching for something a little cerebral, you could try Whitby Museum and Pannett Art Gallery, which are open all year round except for a short break between Christmas and New Year.

The gallery was gifted to the townsfolk of Whitby by Alderman Pannett and houses a magnificent collection of work by the early 20th century Staithes Group of impressionist painters; while the museum was founded in 1823 by Whitby Literary & Philosophical Society to exhibit spectacular fossils found in the local alum workings and various ‘curiosities’ (don’t you just love a curiosity?) brought from foreign lands by the captains of the town’s numerous sailing ships.

For those of you with lively children who need a good run round before settling down for a fish and chip supper (it’s compulsory at the Yorkshire coast; don’t try to fight it), why not wrap up well and head for the beach for a bit of fossil-hunting, stone-skimming or dad-burying (again, it’s compulsory, just don’t forget to dig him up again before the tide comes in).

And if you don’t want to get sand lodged in every nook and cranny, there’s always Pannett Park, a green haven named Best Public Park in Yorkshire in 2014, which is open all year round from dawn to dusk.

It’s great for family nature walks and has a modern children’s play area, a lily pool, a wild plant bank, a fun Jurassic garden with a life-size replica of a giant sea creature and a good selection of both open and enclosed picnic areas.

Tell us about your favourite winter day out on the Yorkshire coast by emailing or tweeting @Yorkshire_Life.


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