Walk above the rooftops

The Yorkshire town of Whitby has inspired a Transylvanian vampire and a mad hatter's tea party. Its famed 199-step ascent to an ancient abbey has challenged tourists past and present

One of my favourite photographs of my mother was taken by my father at the top of the 199 steps in Whitby. It was just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when my parents were stationed at nearby RAF Driffield. Mum sits engrossed on a bench, the rooftops of this Yorkshire town below her misty with smoke and slightly mysterious. I was too young for this outing but now, all these years later, here I was sitting on the same bench.

One of my favourite photographs of my mother was taken by my father at the top of the 199 steps in Whitby. It was just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when my parents were stationed at nearby RAF Driffield. Mum sits engrossed on a bench, the rooftops of this Yorkshire town below her misty with smoke and slightly mysterious. I was too young for this outing but now, all these years later, here I was sitting on the same bench.

Not much had changed. The lamps had been modernised and the smoky coal fires were a thing of the past but the view was just as spectacular. Below me the houses and fishermen's cottages tightly hugged the sides of the cliffs right down to the edge of the River Esk. I couldn't quite see the swing bridge across the harbour but below West Cliff there was a glimpse of the superb three-mile stretch of Whitby Sands. This is the beach where Lewis Carroll wrote much of Alice in Wonderland and where the Walrus and the Carpenter "wept to see such quantities of sand".

Back on East Cliff, the 199 steps lead up to St Mary's church and the ruins of St Hilda's Abbey. The Abbey is visible on the headland for miles around. It was established in the middle of the seventh century by the King of Northumberland. Destroyed by the Vikings, it was rebuilt again in the 11th century only to slide into romantic disrepair over the ensuing millennium. This heroic hulk still manages to lure almost every visitor to Whitby up the steps, first-timers counting each one as they climb.

In fact there are steps throughout this hilly holiday town. History seeps through the narrow, cobbled streets and alleys that lead down to the shore. Two of the most ancient thoroughfares are Church Street and Sandgate, their old-fashioned shopfronts gleaming with local jet. This black, fossilised wood was first discovered within a few miles of Whitby. When the ornate jewellery became all the rage during the Victorian era, the town was the busy hub of the country's jet industry.

Lewis Carroll wasn't the only author to spend time here; Mrs Gaskell visited the town with her daughter to gather local atmosphere for Sylvia's Lovers, Charles Dickens dined at the White Horse and Griffin Inn in Church Street, once the departure point for the Whitby to York stagecoaches and, most famously, Bram Stoker got his idea for Dracula while staying in Whitby's pleasant and very harmless looking East Crescent. I bought the book but, uncertain of how Transylvania would translate to North Yorkshire, I declined the Dracula Experience on Marine Parade.

For almost 100 years, from the middle of the 18th century, Whitby was one of the busiest ports in the country. There are still plenty of seafood stalls where you can buy a half-pint of prawns or mussels to eat on the hoof but, for first-rate sit-down fish and chips, it pays to join the crowd queuing outside the Magpie Café down on the front.

Another very busy place is the Sutcliffe Gallery at the bottom of Flowergate. Frank Meadow Sutcliffe was a photographer who took wonderfully evocative pictures of local people and the harbour at the turn of the 20th century, when the river was crowded with fishing vessels and scratching a living was tough. Peering at Sutcliffe's images in the gallery conjures up a strong sense of what life might have been like in the town a hundred years ago.

Whitby's most celebrated resident was the navigator James Cook. Born in a village on the moors, he worked in the fishing village of Staithes before taking an apprenticeship with John Walker, a prosperous Whitby shipowner. Today, Walker's large house in Grape Lane is the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. At the very top of the house is the huge attic where James lodged with 17 other young apprentices. From the windows he could look across the harbour to the shipbuilders, where the Resolution and Endeavour - the ships that took him on his great voyages of discovery - were constructed.

A statue of Whitby's famous son gazes out over the harbour from the top of West Cliff. A wing in the Pannett Park Museum is devoted to Cook, and the museum also houses collections of locally-found Jurassic fossils, jet chess boards and the finest collection of model ships I've ever seen. A trail through Captain Cook country takes you from the village where he was born through all the places associated with him; at least, those within North Yorkshire.

The North Yorkshire Moors National Park can be every bit as wild and stormy as the North Sea itself, but the best way to see it is by taking a trip on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway - a fragment of line left from the days when seaside specials took rail travellers to Whitby the exciting way. I boarded the steam train a few miles inland at Grosmont. The 36-mile round journey to Pickering (a small town at the very heart of the moors) took nearly three hours, but it was the kind of retrospective journey that fitted the mood of the weekend.

Valerie Singleton stayed at the Leeway Guest House, 1 Havelock Place, Whitby YO21 3ER (01947 602 604), where a double room costs £21 per person, with breakfast. An optional evening meal costs £10. Alternatively, smart holiday homes in Whitby cost from between £200 and £770 from Shoreline Cottages, PO Box 135, Leeds, LS14 3XJ (0113 289 3539). Whitby Tourist Information is on 01947 602674

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