Whitby: Harbouring dreams

Whitby was the launchpad for Captain Cook's seafaring. But land-lubber Jackie Hunter has other reasons to return to the seaside town
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The Independent Travel

One thing we're all agreed on: it's not the same without the golf balls. To recapture the experience of my childhood visits to Whitby in the late 1970s, it seems vital not only to revisit the charming seaside town but to exactly recreate the dramatic and - to childish eyes - sinister journey from our starting point.

So here we are, en route from Pocklington in the East Riding's Vale of York, heading north and upwards, high over the North Yorkshire Moors in a small convoy: my dad's car, followed by my brother's. The bright-orange VW Beetle with its throaty engine that carried us here all those years ago is long gone, and so far no one's surreptitiously kicking anyone on the ankles in an annoyingly repetitive fashion or threatening to regurgitate half a pound of Nuttall's Mintoes on to the black vinyl upholstery, but the most significant and disappointing difference between then and now is the absence of the golf balls.

If you never drove over this bleak moorland road during the years of the cold war, you will perhaps be unfamiliar with the terrifying symbols of RAF Fylingdales' nuclear early-warning system that stood here: three vast white globes, looming at the highest point of these windswept plains and often glowing alarmingly against a backdrop of dark-grey northern clouds. To a 10-year-old, they looked like nothing else on Earth, but quite a lot like something you might see on Dr Who - yes, that scary.

My brother and I were too young to understand the full significance of their presence (our environmental awareness extended little further than the reports about pregnant pandas and unearthed Viking artefacts from John Craven's Newsround in those days), but our creative minds knew no bounds and we had absorbed just enough of the facts to know that the golf balls were somehow connected with unimaginable disaster and the end of the world. Perhaps there were shadowy figures inside, I used to think to myself, waiting to jump out at exactly the moment when our little orange Beetle chugged past. There was also, of course, the possibility that they were alien vessels...

These days, the early-warning missile defence system is marked by a relatively small concrete pyramid, lacking the fearsome beauty of its predecessors and utterly devoid of menace. Far more remarkable is a natural phenomenon that either I have forgotten from my childhood trips or which was overshadowed by the manmade landmarks. The Hole of Horcum, between Pickering and Goathland, is described by my mother as "the Devil's punchbowl": a vast, crater-like amphitheatre 120m deep and more than 1km across, scooped out of the heathery moor by thousands of years of spring-water erosion, around whose edge the A169 skirts dramatically. Walkers and paragliders are almost permanently in evidence here, contemplating its gloomy depths and the views surrounding the Hole.

Just beyond here, standing alone beside the road three miles from Fylingdales, is a celebrated pub, Saltersgate Inn, where a fire has - according to legend - burned continuously since 1801. The story goes that if the fire is allowed to go out, disaster will befall the landlord and his customers. Just a story, but so far no one has risked letting the flames die down completely.

Soon, the dramatic silhouette of ruined Whitby Abbey is visible in the distance, and the road dips down, winding towards the working harbour and the tiny seaside cottages clustered around it: Whitby is where the rugged meets the twee. We find our way round the labyrinthine one-way traffic system to Flowergate, and finally to the tiny-fronted cottage, accessed from a pretty pedestrian alley that, somewhat unfeasibly, will be a home away from home for no fewer than nine of us (six adults and three children aged from 8 to 12) over the coming weekend.

The Bakehouse is typical of Whitby housing stock, however, in that it is far more accommodating than the exterior would suggest. Over four floors, the clan divides itself between four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a kitchen, sitting room and a spacious dining room. The house fairly oozes fishing-village charm, with low-slung beams, dense stone walls and floors, sash windows and a wood-burning stove in the fireplace. It is thoughtfully and - oh, joy - tastefully decorated and far cosier than the gloomy B&Bs and linoleum-floored holiday flats that were the norm for Whitby's summer visitors in decades past.

As pleasant as it is indoors, the idea is to head outside as quickly as possible. My father and brother nominate themselves to the task of fetching a fish-and-chip lunch, and disappear round the corner in the direction of Baxtergate's best chippy. One rather long hour later they reappear. The waiting plates in the oven are hot to the point of exploding; the cutlery lies accusingly on a pristine tablecloth. The menfolk have been on a pub crawl and the females of the party are grimly hoping this doesn't set the tone for the remainder of the weekend. The children just want to wolf down their fish and chips so that they can hit the amusement arcades along the main drag.

We have decided it is good policy to let the three boys loose on the slot machines, air-hockey tables and flight-simulator rides from the start. There's no faster way to teach a child how quickly a £5 kitty can disappear. Sure enough, within an hour the trio traipse out of the sticky-carpeted pleasure palace, with only empty pockets and traces of ice-cream about the chin to show for their efforts. The youngest is stunned by his failure to turn that £5 note into a fortune, which he had planned to pull off with a combination of innate gambling skill, unprecedented good luck and, perhaps, the intervention of a warm-hearted proprietor of the type that is rarely seen outside an Enid Blyton story. The grand plan has somehow gone badly awry. It's a familiar scenario to me, except that all those years ago the fascinating slot machines with their flashes, bells and whistles ate only pennies, not pounds.

Looking on the bright side, you can have as many games of beach football as you want for the grand sum of absolutely nothing, so the next day we leave the twisting maze of lanes and alleyways, and head three miles north of Whitby's tourist-jammed town centre to the wide, peaceful shores of Sandsend, some of us travelling by car along the swooping shore road and the rest of the party on foot.

It is possible (not to say advisable) to walk the entire distance off road, starting from the cliff paths at the northern edge of Whitby town centre, just beyond the whale's jawbone and the statue of Captain Cook (who was apprenticed to a shipowner here in the 1740s), continuing below the golf links and then over the rocks and along the shore itself to Sandsend Bay.

When rain swoops in, we scuttle up the wooden steps to the beach-shack café overlooking the sands. There, we fill up on strong tea, crab sandwiches and soup, and look out at the North Atlantic swell under low-slung grey clouds. Next door is a hut selling the same brightly coloured mélange of plastic buckets and spades, toy boats, shrimp nets and shiny windmills that I hankered after as a child.

Early evening, my dad and I are leaning on the railing over the Esk harbour, looking at the high stacks of wooden lobster cages, the pleasure boat that offers rides around the busy fishing port, the steamy windows of the greasy-spoon café and the rock shops and candy-floss stands where the air is heavy with hot sugar. That sickly, evocative smell is as much a part of the authentic taste of Whitby as the local fresh crab and lobster, the lemon buns at Botham's Tea Rooms or the haddock and chips at the legendary Magpie Cafe just along the front.

Studying the view of the old town on the other side of the harbour's iron swing bridge, where you can queue up to buy a pair of the legendary Fortune's kippers, and at the 199 steps that lead up to the dark skeleton of the seventh-century abbey, we agree that it's hard to see that anything has changed in Whitby over almost 30 years. Its rustic charms, as well as its seaside tackiness, have been well protected and beautifully preserved. Then, what do you know, it's time to head back to the cottage to catch the latest instalment of Dr Who.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with GNER (08457 225 225; www.gner.co.uk) from London to York, from where a bus connection runs to Whitby. From Darlington station, you can alternatively take the scenic Esk Valley Railway ( www.eskvalleyrailway.co.uk) to Whitby via Middlesbrough. Advance purchase return fares to York start from £19 standard class or £59 first class, with similar prices to Darlington.

STAYING THERE

The writer and her family stayed in The Bakehouse, a Grade II-listed luxury cottage, as guests of Shoreline Cottages (0113 244 8410; www.shoreline-cottages.com). Summer rates range from £890 to £1,150 per week.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Whitby Tourist Information Centre (01723 383637; www.discoveryorkshirecoast.com).

Yorkshire Tourism (0870 609 0000; www.yorkshirevisitor.com).

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