Tuneful haven: As he strolls the streets of Whitby, Chris Berry discovers how the town has become a magnet for music.
Fishing, the abbey, the 199 steps, whalebone arch, cobbled streets, the bridge, harbour, beach, Captain Cook, Whitby Jet, Dracula, regatta week, kippers, the Magpie Café? What does Whitby mean to you?
It’s hard to imagine another town in Yorkshire that can conjure up so many images purely by the mention of its name but if you’ve lived in God’s Own County all your life, or even if you have yet to receive white rose citizenship amongst your dyed-in-the-wool neighbours it is highly likely that Whitby will feature amongst your favourite coastal places to visit. Scarborough may be larger, Bridlington may offer more beach space, Filey may be more genteel but this is arguably the most historic, atmospheric and captivating of all the seaside resorts on the east coast.
Rather like its harbour, the town offers a haven for not just ships and boats but also a refuge for those who want to escape from their day-to-day existence. During the past two decades it has also become the place to be for individual musical tastes and lifestyles with Goths, folkies, rockabillies and Northern Soul lovers all descending for their own dedicated weekends in the town.
Whitby’s largest and liveliest entertainment venue is the Whitby Spa Pavilion that includes both the Pavilion Theatre built in the 1870s and its large function room. Its setting into West Cliff, overlooking the North Sea, provides another iconic image and this year it will once again play host to a multitude of specialist music-genre weekends.
The granddaddy of all music events to be held in Whitby is of course the Whitby Folk Week, not for the organisers just a weekend in keeping with other genres but a whole seven days in which the town itself is alive with everything from the traditional fisherman’s jumper-styled folk to today’s upbeat tunes along the lines of Mumford & Sons and Bellowhead. This is where the greats of the folk music world will often appear including many of Yorkshire’s finest such as the Carthys and the Watersons. Next year’s festival is already being organised as it will be the 50th anniversary.
Whilst colour and flamboyant dress sense comes with the territory in the various music festivals, there is one Whitby event that has been a firm favourite on the calendar for the past two centuries. Whitby Regatta is now regarded as one of the oldest sea regattas in the UK and sets the town abuzz with activity in the harbour. Its sea-rowing race is one of the most gruelling events and thousands are enthralled as the teams battle against the elements. Make no mistake this is a massive weekend and if you’ve chanced upon it when having decided to go to Whitby without prior knowledge you will know just how much it takes over the town.
When I was about eight years old Whitby didn’t mean music weeks, it wasn’t a retirement home for folkies, nor was it somewhere people wandered around in long black coats and heavily buckled boots as if they were part of a film set. It was a lovely little seaside resort that had a great beach, perfectly flat for the playing of cricket; it had a nice little pitch and putt course on the recreation area of West Cliff; Arnold Palmer’s crazy golf just up from Whitby Pavilion; kids’ rides; and a little paddling pool. The really great news is that it still has all of these even 40-plus years on from when I first came here with mum, dad, my brother Dave and sister Jo. We all had a great time in a lovely self-catering apartment overlooking the River Esk.
Dad would walk us up Henrietta Street, beyond the 199 steps, where we would take in the wonderful aroma of Fortune’s Smokehouse, home of the Whitby kipper. Walking those cobbled streets on the east side of the harbour really does transport you back in time. If you close your eyes you can picture fishermen home from sea smoking clay pipes, and women with shawls and baskets of bread.
What haven’t I mentioned? Probably a good deal more that I should but this all serves to emphasise that Whitby has so much going for it. Here are a few more – check out the extended marina; the town’s excellent independent shops, particularly the little sweet shops; go rowing on the River Esk on the stretch near Sleights; if you have children about the age I was when I first visited then the beach and inlet at Sandsend is a must; and if you’ve ever wanted to really test yourself on a seaside golf course try taking a look at some of the breath-taking tee-shots at Whitby Golf Club.
I know I should have mentioned more about the abbey, Whitby Jet and Bram Stoker but I love Whitby for what it offers today.