Andrew Vine: Summer when the world fell for Yorkshire’s charms

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THE approaching bank holiday weekend always brings with it a touch of melancholy.

The last extended break until Christmas seems to signal that the best of the summer is past and autumn waits in the wings with its shortening days and cooler nights.

There was a hint of autumn in the air in Whitby at the weekend, as the breeze ruffled the waters of the harbour and gave those aboard the packed pleasure boats heading out to sea a choppier excursion than they might have bargained for.

But there was something else, too – an unmistakeable reminder how, as this extraordinary summer draws to its close, it has sown seeds of hope for the future.

The signs were there along cobbled Church Street and at the top of the Abbey steps, in a bric-a-brac shop at the foot of the hill in Robin Hood’s Bay, outside a pub overlooking the harbour at Staithes and on the section of the Cleveland Way that runs along the clifftop at Ravenscar.

The mix of voices to be heard in Whitby and its surroundings on a summer’s day is familiar to anyone who has known the east coast all their life. There are the accents of West and South Yorkshire, of County Durham and Tyneside.

But this weekend just passed, there were other accents to be heard that made my ears prick up because I haven’t heard so many of them in Whitby before. German and French, Scandinavian and Spanish spiced the usual mix of Yorkshire and Geordie.

Turning the pages of the visitors’ book at the cottage where I stayed was revealing. There was an unmistakeably international flavour to the guests of recent weeks. They had come from Norway and Finland, Sweden and the Black Forest, the Baltic and the Mediterranean.

It’s a well-thumbed book from a cottage that has been in the holiday business for decades, and leafing back through the entries for last summer, and the one before, turned up all the familiar towns and cities that one would expect.

Sheffield and Leeds, Huddersfield and Halifax, Newcastle and Sunderland were all there. But this year, there were others too – Stavanger and Malmo, Hamlyn and Marseilles among them.

Over the course of centuries, seafarers of many nations have been glad of the sight of the Abbey on Whitby’s clifftop, beckoning them towards the shelter of the harbour.

Is it possible that the town is now seeing the beginnings of a new wave of overseas visitors, this time coming not under sail but by road, rail and air, not to trade, but simply to enjoy?

And if that’s the case, is it because of what we might call the Tour de France Effect? It’s difficult to think of another reason for the increased influx of visitors from abroad.

It’s obviously unwise to pin too much on a single visitors’ book or the unmistakeable sense of there being more holidaymakers from Europe about than usual. But maybe there are other books just like it all over Whitby, and farther south along the Yorkshire coast, each page a small piece in a jigsaw that reveals a picture of new tourists from beyond traditional catchment areas.

The pages of the book and the voices overheard in St Mary’s Church or in the streets below seemed to tell a story that is heartening and hopeful not just for Whitby and the coast but for the whole of Yorkshire.

Those entries in the visitors’ book for this summer began before Le Grand Depart swept through the county in July, continued during those heady two days, and ran into August.

It’s possible that the long run-up to that unforgettable weekend when Yorkshire gave the Tour de France the greatest send-off in the race’s history produced a bounce in tourism that pre-dated Le Grand Départ as well as boosting visitor numbers in the aftermath.

I wonder how many of those visitors who signed the book, and left the kindest of comments about their accommodation and Whitby itself, were drawn to Yorkshire by curiosity about a place that they had maybe never heard of before the county received an unprecedented amount of international publicity.

Perhaps, in Malmo or Stavanger this winter past, the months of exposure Yorkshire received after landing Le Grand Départ sent people to search engines which threw up the hitherto unfamiliar name of an historic port that has always reached out to the world and is only too happy to continue doing so.

Of one thing, we can be certain. If they’ve been, they’ll be back. A single visit to Whitby is never enough, whether for somebody from Yorkshire, Tyneside, Norway or Germany.

Autumn awaits just around the
corner, but the unfamiliar accents heard in the streets of Whitby hold out the hope that when next summer arrives, so will the most benign of invasions from Europe.

Andrew Vine