Businesses have worked hard to reopen and we must support them: Christa Ackroyd

I’ve just caught sight of myself in the mirror and burst out laughing.

Whitby is among the places that is starting to welcome visitors back this weekend. (Tony Johnson).
Whitby is among the places that is starting to welcome visitors back this weekend. (Tony Johnson).

Never have I looked more removed from the groomed television persona some of you may remember.

I have paint in my hair, which contrasts perfectly with two inches of grey roots which haven’t been touched up in months.

My nails are full of wax and polish and my hands are raw from scrubbing. And I don’t mind a bit. This weekend North Yorkshire reopens for business and it is an unsettling time for all of us.

Over the past few days, I have been flitting between the three holiday lets I manage on the North York Moors and the coast as we prepare for the reopening of much of the leisure and tourist industry on which this part of Yorkshire relies.

I am not on my own. The hills, or the moors, are alive to the sound of strimming and hammering as owners of cafes, cottages and village pubs prepare to fling open their doors once more. And, boy, do they need to.

For much of the area, tourism is a lifeline. In Whitby it’s by far the biggest employer, with one in 10 working in the sector. As many seaside areas declined, Whitby has been on the rise, even beating Brighton to take top coastal spot in the UK.

But that’s down to hard work and investment by individuals who took a risk. Twenty years ago Whitby had gone the way of many seaside towns and was tired, outdated and uncared for.

But little by little it spruced itself up. Sleek wine bars opened along the harbour. Fine dining was available alongside the best fish and chips in the land... and, yes, you have to have it with the skin on. The Goths festival celebrating Bram Stoker’s Dracula brought in thousands of colourful characters twice a year.

Other literary connections were explored, including Charles Dickens, who came to read aloud his latest works at the historic White Horse and Griffin, and Lewis Carroll, who wrote Jabberwocky on the beach with the real-life Alice and her family.

Then there’s the abbey, attracting thousands each year to climb the 99 steps from the cobbled streets below. Well worth the huffing and puffing for the view from the top.

Yes, Whitby was doing well until Covid-19 closed it down overnight. And that’s just one example. Scarborough had invested millions. Bridlington recently proclaimed itself the country’s lobster capital and Filey was viewed by many as the next seaside resort to undergo a renaissance.

The same story was played out in the Dales and on the North York Moors – business was booming, with visitor numbers increasing. Those visitors alone contributed more than a billion pounds a year to the North Yorkshire economy and without them rural areas would collapse, as would the national parks, which rely on people to spend their money in the pubs and tea rooms as well as the B&Bs and caravan sites.

So you can see why this weekend is so important. Not since the foot-and- mouth crisis in 2001 have I seen this area so nervous.

That crisis cost the country £8bn and the moorland roads were closed for half a year. Farming and tourism bore the brunt. Six million animals were destroyed and with them some of the heart of local communities.

But this is Yorkshire. We are made of strong stuff around here. So people picked themselves up and reinvested money and passion. Farmers diversified and set about converting disused buildings into holiday cottages.

Many opened their farms as bed and breakfasts to ensure not just a livelihood but that they could keep farming too. Villages spruced themselves up and this week every business was asking: Will people come back?

By now, as you read this, you will probably know the answer. One estimate is that this weekend will see ten million cars on the road in the UK. Here in North Yorkshire they remain more cautious. As the young lad at the ice-cream kiosk in Hutton le Hole said: “We don’t know whether we will sell one or a hundred. But anything is better than nothing.”

Down the road at the Blacksmith’s Arms in Lastingham, landlord Pete and his team are putting out the socially distanced picnic benches and bringing back furloughed staff with anticipation.

My lovely friend at the Durham Ox in Crayke has reopened his kitchens and is just keeping his fingers crossed. In Whitby, a flurry of inquiries last week might save the season after all.

And I hope it works out for everyone. For me, the new rules have meant soft furnishings have been packed away. Every light switch and remote control has been sprayed and every surface disinfected.

Hand wipes and antibacterial gel have replaced the usual sweet-smelling toiletries. It’s not going to be easy. Our first visitor cancelled this week because he was from Leicester, which is back on lockdown.

I know of at least one hotel that has closed for good and there are a number of empty shops that have clearly struggled. But we will survive.

This area is special to me. It’s where my mum was born and where we spent our childhood holidays. It’s where Uncle Lance and Aunty Nelly farmed sheep on the hills and where we picnicked by the streams.

It is simply the most beautiful part of the county and the country. This week it has been deserted. But North Yorkshire is ready. So please come.

But keep your distance and take your rubbish home. Support the local businesses who have put so much effort into reopening, as thousands have done throughout Yorkshire this week.

Above all, stay safe.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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James Mitchinson