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Jet black town with a rosy, Gothic future

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Whitby is one of our most perfect little seaside resorts, with its historic heart tucked cosily down a deep valley on the North Yorkshire coast. It’s an  ideal  short getaway destination. My must-do list includes some of Britain’s best fish and chips, lashings of Gothic horror, 199 famous steps, a hotel where Lewis Carroll stayed,  the statue to a great explorer and a peek into a jet black past.

Take the train

My entrance to Whitby was more sedate than Dracula, who smashed straight onto the beach in the harbour (….“leaping from wave to wave [the strange schooner] rushed at headlong speed, swept before the blast…”) I came by train, up the attractive Esk Valley. It’s a good option for a long weekend, as you won’t need a car in this small town. Occasional steam trains run here over the North Yorkshire Moors from Pickering. You can walk round town in half a day.  Start on West Cliff  at the whalebone arch (a memorial to Whitby whalers), and the statue of great discoverer James Cook, who began his seafaring life here. Over the ancient swing bridge is the old town with its narrow ways, cobbled streets and shops selling the town’s famous black jet jewelry.

History on high

t’s one of the great climbs in Britain, the199 stone steps leading up from the old town to East Cliff.  My ascent was a bit more leisurely than Mina’s frantic dash up to rescue her friend Lucy from an awful end in Dracula – for me, too much stopping for photos over red pantiled roofs (many holiday homes for rent here) to the harbour.  St Mary’s Church, at the top of the steps, is an18th and19th-century compoit delight, with box pews where the faithful could hunker down in comfort for a long sermon, the three tier pulpit and central charcoal boiler.  Whitby Abbey is grey and stark and poignant in any light– smashed up by Henry VIII in1540.  www.english-heritage.org.uk

Hero exposed

One of the most powerful images of 19th-century bravery is a photograph of Henry Freeman, in the new cork flotation jacket. He was the only crew member of the Whitby Lifeboat wearing it when the vessel was sunk in a storm just outside the harbour in 1861, and the sole survivor.  The photo is perhaps the best known work of Frank Sutcliffe, whose pioneering lens ranged widely over people and places in and around the town. You can see some of his output in the Sutcliffe Gallery (part of the town’s Flowergate Gallery). And it’s worth the walk up to Pannett Park to see the artists’ take on the town, from peaceful harbour scenes to the bombardment in 1914 by two German battlecruisers, in the Whitby Art Gallery and Museum.

Catch of the day

My fish (roasted brill with braised vegetables, Yorkshire belly pork, caramelised apples and a cider and wholegrain mustard cream) came from the Good Intent,  Abbey Lee, Maggie M, Our Lass II, or perhaps one of the otherfrom the small Whitby fishing fleet. I know tis because chef Rob Green lists then all , and their captains, on his menu at Greens restaurant. He’s down on the quayside every day to see what they’ve caught, sourcing his product from them “wherever possible”.  In 2009 Rob won the fish industry’s Seafood Chef of the Year award. www.greensofwhitby.com. There are plaudits too for the town’s rich list of chip shops, led by the eminent Magpie. Rick Stein said it showed him how good a chip shop could be. Prepare to queue.

Hotel Wonderland

Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), sensible fellow, spent his holidays in this fashionable Victorian resort, staying six times at 5 East Terrace, high on West Cliff. The link with such a brilliant imagination inspired the new owners to reopen it as La Rosa Hotel, in 2008.  Think Victorian theatre set. There are no telephones, televisions or showers (the roll-top baths are decadently inviting). They furnished the eight (individually themed) rooms with antique brass beds,  black and gold eiderdowns,, vintage wallpaper, old writing desks, battered suitcases,  and a display cabinet full of Carroll’s own things. My room, with a view over the town, was as red and sultry as a courtesan’s  boudoir, complete with saucy period photos. Breakfast was a hamper in my room. www.larosa.co.uk/hotel. Bram Stoker stayed around the corner in the Crescent, a worthy Victorian attempt to emulate the Bath namesake.

Wander off

A signpost next to the Abbey carpark points up a tantalizing invitation: Cleveland Way. It marks the start of an epic walk south along the cliffs, part of the 110 mile national trail that wraps right around the North Yorks Moors. I sampled just two wild and thrilling clifftop miles on the short stretch to Robin Hood’s Bay. There were huge views – wild water on my left, glowering moors on my right.  I met just one walker and about 10,000 birds.  Another way south is on the Moor to Sea Cycle Route, on the line of the long shut Whitby-Scarborough railway.  You can hire bikes at Hawsker station, two miles south of Whitby. www.trailways.info

The writer travelled with East Coast trains via Middlesborough. A connecting Coastliner bus service runs from York to Whitby.  Advance returns, online at www.eastcoast.co.uk, London to Whitby, from £31.20. 08457 225225. see also www.yorkshire.com

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