Towns Fund investment, high-end hospitality and opportunities for young people - how Whitby plans to rebuild after a pandemic year

When Sarah Caldwell Steele admits lockdown has been good for Whitby, it is said in a stage whisper. The gem specialist, who runs Ebor Jetworks, knows it is the kind of comment likely to raise eyebrows.

Sarah Caldwell Steele of Ebor Jetworks
Sarah Caldwell Steele of Ebor Jetworks

In March last year she watched the streets empty from her shop, just a stone’s throw from the steps to Whitby Abbey. Then, during the brief reopening last summer, she saw a previously untapped demographic being attracted to the harbourside.

“So many people came to Whitby who had not been before or who were rediscovering it again after 10 or 20 years,” says Ms Caldwell Steele.

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“A lot of them had been used to holidaying abroad or heading down to Cornwall. They came here and found they didn’t need a six-hour drive to find a lovely harbour. It made them think differently about the place and hopefully they will come back again this year.”

Rob Wildsmith inside his cafe, Rusty Shears

As Whitby tourism and hospitality businesses prepare to reopen, the signs are that they will. Shoreline Cottages, which manages 34 holiday properties in the town, has seen bookings soar since Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his “road map” out of lockdown and the firm is now expecting a record summer.

“Normally at this stage in the year we are at 50 per cent capacity for the summer,” says Shoreline’s managing director David Haycox.

“At the moment we are at 88 per cent and bookings for later in the year are also looking good. Traditionally in autumn people come to Whitby for a shorter break but since Covid we are now seeing more week-long stays.

“That is probably because people are desperate for a change of scenery. The town does have a chance to capitalise on that. Without tourism, Whitby is just a shell and we want people to come here outside July and August when the place is already full to capacity.”

Magpie owner Ian Robson has caught up on 30 years of paperwork

The key to unlocking that potential may lie in the new Towns Fund. While the scheme was launched as part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, its delivery will now coincide with the country’s reawakening after its year-long slumber.

Whitby is set to receive £17.1m and an advance on the money will see new signage, directing visitors to Whitby’s overlooked corners, installed in time for the summer season.

“We want to attract people away from the main honeypots and into other parts of the town,” says Coun Liz Colling, the cabinet member for inclusive growth on Scarborough Borough Council which is overseeing the Towns Fund.

“Whitby has so much going for it but that isn’t to say there aren’t things we can improve, particularly away from the main streets on either side of the harbour.”

Deprivation

While Whitby has long attracted visitors with its picture-postcard appearance, the town is not without its issues. In recent years, there has been an increase in anti-social behaviour linked to all-day drinking and away from the ice-cream parlours and amusement arcades there are notable pockets of deprivation.

“The Towns Fund feels a bit like the development of the Covid vaccine,” adds Coun Colling.

“Often with investment schemes you spend years putting together a plan and then the funding comes in fits and starts. With this, the barriers have been removed, so what would have taken a decade to achieve can be done in a fraction of that time.

“Tourism is hugely important to Whitby but it can’t rely solely on that. This last year has been a really uncertain time and we have an opportunity to rewrite the future.

“So many young people move away from Whitby because they feel that there aren’t job opportunities. One thing we want to do is open a new Maritime Training Centre which will build on the town’s past but also allow us to develop a new skilled generation. If we can create a vibrant year-round community then the nice shops and high-quality accommodation the tourist demand will come.”

As lockdown restrictions relax, the full impact of the pandemic will be laid bare. The popular Moon and Sixpence and Marine Hotel, both landmark venues, recently announced they will not reopen.

Rob Wildsmith, a retired mergers and acquisition specialist, knows how difficult this last year has been for those working in Whitby’s hospitality industry.

He bought the Rusty Shears café and restaurant in December 2019 only to see it shut three months later in the first lockdown.

He said: “No one expects to make money from their first year in business but when you can only open for 120 days that is really tough. We were just getting going when we had to close but it feels like there are good times ahead.

Luxury

“There is definitely an opportunity to expand the upper to mid-range hospitality offer in the town. What people want from a holiday is changing.

“Gone are the days when people were happy with a guesthouse where you were chucked out after breakfast. People want flexibility and a little luxury and the industry has to adapt to that.”

From plans to improve facilities at Pannett Art Gallery to a trial closure of its famous swing bridge at weekends and bank holidays in a bid to ease traffic, Whitby may start to look a little different.

The events of the last year have forced even the town’s established businesses to adapt.

“It has been an unexpected reminder of how things used to be,” says Ian Robson, chef proprietor of the Magpie Cafe, famous for its fish and chips.

“When I first joined the business in the 1970s, Whitby pretty much shut down from October to Easter. Now we only close on Christmas Day.

“There have been days during the last 12 months when it has felt like living in a ghost town but it has allowed us to try new things.

“We launched ‘cook at home’ boxes and a click-and-collect service, both of which have been popular and it has also allowed me to catch up on more than 30 years of paperwork.

“In 2017 we had to close the restaurant after a fire, so we are used to dealing with setbacks.

“No one would have wanted the last year to happen but we’ve come through it and we will be back serving fish and chips and giving our customers a warm welcome, just as we always have. That’s what we do.”