Saltwick Bay is a gen--tle curved beach just down from Whitby Abbey. As the beach approaches the cliffs, it is littered with rock debris, stones and pebbles. And this is where we found ourselves, one blustery afternoon, scavenging among the pickings, eagerly looking for fossils. It was a member of staff at the excellent Whitby Museum and Art Gallery who had told us where to go. I could see now why he'd also said to wear a hard hat. Stand too close to the foot of the cliff and you risk having chunks of it fall on your head.
The North Yorkshire coastline is eroding and, in the process, strewing the area with fossils. It wasn't until we walked into Whitby Museum that I realised we were staying on Yorkshire's very own Dinosaur Coast. We had actually come to Whitby because we knew it packs a lot in for its money. Sea and sand and Captain Cook and all those fish and chips. In the Abbey, on East Cliff, Caedmon composed one of the earliest recorded examples of Old English poetry. The windswept cliff-top graveyard is the location for Dracula's encounter with Lucy Westenra, and Lewis Carroll wrote The Walrus and the Carpenter after one of his many visits here.
Accompanying all this drama is the history of the land itself. Over millions of years, seas have come and gone, dinosaurs walked and died here, glaciers shifted landmasses. All this activity has produced the right conditions to preserve an abundance of fossils, which are released daily on to the beach.
But before finding enlightenment at the museum, we had blindly enjoyed the drama of the coast, without giving a thought to its geology. One afternoon was spent among the tangle of streets in Robin Hood's Bay, where smugglers used to spirit contraband from house to house via secret doors and tunnels. After playing cricket on the beach, the children rolled in the gloopy sand to emerge like mud monsters. Only the lure of ice cream was enough to draw this to a close, and we found a lovely little sweet shop called Brown's which sold just the thing. Melted chocolate from the chocolate fountain in the window was poured on to our dairy cones.
Another day, we stopped off at Staithes. This little fishing village clings to the sides of the deep gorge that cuts its path to the sea, to create a landing place for vessels. We arrived at a strange time of day, when most visitors had left and the shops were all closing. Some locals sat on the steps of their houses chatting, but there was a sense of isolation and separateness, in contrast to the hubbub of Robin Hood's Bay.
We decided to try our luck at crabbing. Our 10-year-old, Alex, had come equipped with some string and rather smelly bacon. The long arms of the sea breaks coming off Cowbar Nab and Penny Nab provide perfect crabbing opportunities. We made up an amateur contraption of bacon wrapped around stone with a string and lowered the weighted snack down for the gullible crabs to nibble. For ages nothing happened and the tide was coming in. Soon we would be cut off. Then, just in our final minutes, two large black-green crabs let us pull them up for a minute, before they jumped back into the sea. This was voted the first highlight of the holiday by Alex.
A group of artists came to Staithes in 1894, to capture the lives of the fishing community before their era came to an end. They painted outdoors with the sun and wind on their faces, and revolutionised the British art scene. It is no surprise that the Whitby Museum and Art Gallery contains a collection of works by this Staithes Group.
Exploring the museum's narrow aisles is like rummaging through a well-travelled aunt's attic. In one room, the museum presents the breadth of Whitby's past and interests and makes sense of how these various strands begin to interrelate.
The man with the regal title of deputy head custodian, Peter Hughes (eclectic himself in his neat shirt and ponytail), gave us a floor plan of the displays, which suggested the top 10 objects not to miss. We found the Hand of Glory ourselves: the preserved severed hand of a hanged convict, with the mysterious power of putting the inhabitants of a house to sleep. Burglars prized the ownership of the hand to help them with their night pickings.
Peter helped to point out the witching post from East End Cottage, Egton, and the model ship carved by prisoners from the Napoleonic wars, using the bones found in their soup. The children marvelled at the sawn-off plait of a Chinese pirate.
Topping all of these are the fossils. Around 200 million years ago, this part of Yorkshire, along with most of Europe, was covered by a shallow sea. In this Lower Jurassic period, great marine reptiles such as the dolphin-like ichthyosaurus swam in these waters. Their bones became preserved in the soft mudstone and thin limestones on the ocean floor. Built into the museum walls are fossils of these giant animals. Display cabinets are full of ammonites and belemnites gathered along the coast by professional hunters, or found by workers quarrying for alum or jet.
The low-key presentation of these treasures gives them an air of a family collection. There are cardboard boxes of extra fossils on the floor, which visitors are invited to rattle through.
When I picked up a leaflet on dinosaur walks in the area, Peter suggested a good local spot for fossil hunting. "Here," he said, pulling out a bag of fossils from under the counter, "these are some I found this morning myself." He showed us a twirling ammonite shell, preserved for millions of years, and a whole belemnite, like a duffel coat tog. He told us the best time to go is when the tide is going out and a new harvest of fossils has been uncovered on the upper beach. We checked the times in his little tide book and found it was a good time to go right now. We were fired up and ready.
Fossils can be found almost anywhere along the coast from Saltburn to Scarborough, where the rocks are exposed. Dinosaur prints have been found from Ravenscar downwards, as this area was once a large estuary where three-toed carnivorous theropods and plant-eating sauropods roamed the mudflats for food. Footprints of three- and five-toed dinosaurs have been found in Burniston and Jackson's Bay.
Prints get weathered out of the surrounding rock and then get worn away, so you really can be the first person to see a print revealed 160 million years after it's been formed. To the north of Ravenscar, the rocks are almost entirely marine in origin, so there was no point in our looking for dinosaur prints here. However, Sandsend, Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay are all great sites for ammonites, belemnites and bivalves, and on the little beach below the caravan park, we found examples of them all.
Down on the beach, Mashy just threw the mudstone around and delighted in smashing it up. Cameron thought every pebble or stone was a find and so built a collection of rocks, that I hoped we wouldn't have to carry home. Alex looked in earnest for a round, grey pebble, a bit like a potato, that has a lazy, wavy line along its spine, a little like the corrugated edging on one of those lucky-dip numbers you find in the fair.
Using the blunt end of a hammer, it's possible to strike open the pebble to reveal the ammonite inside. Among the debris towards the foot of the cliff, I was thrilled to find a hard, grey rock with the smoky, white imprint of a feathery marine plant. Holding the image of an object that lived millions of years ago feels miraculous. Then Alex found an ammonite with a smaller ammonite inside, which looked like he'd found a primeval baby. It now lives on our window sill at home.
Whitby is at the end of the railway line from Middlesbrough, with connections from Darlington – on the East Coast Main Line (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).
The writer stayed at Kirkmoor Beck Farm (01274 568672), self-catering accommodation near Robin Hood's Bay. Prices start at £275 per week. Alternatively, Whitby Youth Hostel is superbly located right next to the Abbey at Abbey House, East Cliff (0845 371 9049; yha.org.uk). It has been masterfully restored, and offers excellent value at £19.95 for adults and £14.95 for under-18s per night.
Whitby Museum, Pannett Park, Whitby (01947 602 908; whitbymuseum.org.uk). Open 9.30–4.30pm daily except Mondays; last admission is at 4pm.
Whitby Tourism Bureau: 01723 383636; discover-yorkshirecoast.com