At first, the appeal of Whitby out of season is pathos. The shutters are down on the candy-floss and flip-flop stalls. A lone gull flaps past the empty bandstand. Sand-mud coats the iron cliff lift, which is resolutely in suspension. Everything, it seems, indicates an absence: tourists. Instead of multi-coloured, striped towels and tanning oil-shined bodies, the span of beach is staked with driftwood. A bone-chilling northerly whips an old Summer Specials menu wild through empty streets.

I pull my coat collar tighter and hurry along the bleak stone pier out into the raging January sea, to a point where I can get a perspective.

Seen from beyond the lighthouse at the end of the West Pier, Whitby is a town of red-roofed tiny houses tumbled into two harbour clusters split by the River Esk, guarded by emblems of its past on the skyline. Facing each other from opposite cliffs are Whitby Abbey and the Captain Cook monument.

Put a pink plastic bucket on Cook's bronze head, crown the Abbey with a jet-jewelled hair comb and you have the component parts of Whitby's economic survival through history - tourism, the jet carving industry, sea faring and Christianity. It is a peculiar mix.

Tourism, for the tourists anyway, should be about fun. Jet boomed in the 19th century because Queen Victoria adopted it as the gem of mourning. The 18th-century maritime legacy embraces Cook's discovery of the cause of scurvy. The 7th-century founding of Whitby Abbey by St Hilda represented a bloody victory of Christianity over paganism. Today, tourism both exploits and bestows new life on these events, with a network of museums, statues and plaques.

Alone on the end of the pier, even through careful sweater and thermal layerings, I am chilled by the tones of the Hawkser foghorn. Yet it is also strangely comforting: that it is a signal implies it is signalling to someone. I look into the town and spot a woman scurrying across the swing bridge. A teenager dashes from a car to the harbour-side arcade hall. It's as if I've glimpsed the town's ghostly real owners. The appeal of Whitby changes from pathos to voyeuristic curiosity. What do residents do beyond "the season"?

One thing, of course, is prepare for the next season. From spring through summer, John Brennan skippers cod fishing trips for touring angling clubs. Come autumn, he cranes his boat, Achates, up on to the harbour's floating pontoon for de-barnacling and engine-fixing work. Meanwhile, his wife, Wilma, shuts up her tea-room and shop, Time and Tide, and retires to her garage-workshop, where she can be spied through the dust-layered window transforming fossilised peat into jet jewellery with high-powered dentist tools.

Jet carving is anti-social - "in its natural state, it stinks like a bog," Wilma explains, so it has to happen before the tourists arrive, as does John's leaflet printing and mailing if he's to maximise his time out with angling parties. But however much preparatory work there is to do, John and Wilma prioritise their passion for 17 and 18 mile-long moorland walks in winter.

"Without the string vest brigade and that overpowering smell of bodies, Whitby is as it should be - more fragrant," thrills Wilma. "You get a real sense of the salt, the tide, the seaweed. I really savour the serenity." And while the love of off-season peace and quiet is shared, "we like to keep ourselves to ourselves," states John curtly.

Ice and heavy moorland snowfall often cut off the road and rail routes that connect Whitby and the outside world. The two piers curving out into the sea look ready to clamp shut and seal in the harbour. A concave wall of cliffs at once protects and imprisons the town. Whitby physically looks in on itself.

Standing exposed on top of East Cliff, I shiver. The abbey's is a bleak site. Salt wind has scoured the gravestones to blank, as if denying that people, even the dead, have any lasting place here.

Then my eyes are drawn along the horizon, toward the defiantly intact carvings of Caedmon's Cross and down the hillside curve of the 199 stone steps into a clutch of town that seems from this perspective to be defying the laws of gravity. Washing strung on a line in one jutting back garden flaps hold of a nearby chimney pot. On a cold February day, it feels like Whitby is exclusively mine. I understand what locals mean when they speak of "the pull": the sudden desire to come and live here.

I think ahead to Whitby on a sunny July day, crawling with Goths who'll reduce the abbey's status to just another sight on the Dracula Trail leaflet, price 30p. Ancient streets will be erased by caravaners, hostellers, day- trippers and their crisps-packet and lolly-paper rubbish.

My illusions could not survive even minutes into the season. However strong - urgent, almost - it is now, I can't imagine I would feel "the pull" in summer.

Josie Barnard's first novel, 'Poker Face', is published by Virago on 22 February, price pounds 7.99.

St Mary's Parish Church, East Cliff

Dating back to 1110, this is a charming architectural hotch-potch with a maze-like quantity of 18th-century box pews and unique triple-decker pulpit hung with ear-trumpets.

Sutcliffe Shop and Gallery Turn-of-the-century Whitby photographs by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe.

Whitby Abbey The religious community founded here in 657 by Abbess Hilda produced nine saints and hosted the seminal Synod of Whitby, which decided the system for dating Easter.

Whitby Museum and Pannett Art Gallery Even in winter the museum is busy, with schoolchildren scribbling notes about Whitby's jet, maritime, fossil, flora and fauna legacy.

Museum of Victorian Whitby Includes the wheelhouse of a 19th-century whaling ship and a unique collection of miniature room settings.

Whitby Lifeboat Museum Includes a flimsy-looking RNLI hand-rowed boat that helped the Whitby crew earn more gold medals for gallantry that any other crew in the country.

Captain Cook: from Whitby to Hawaii

In the end, Whitby's global hero took one trip too many. On Valentine's Day, 1779, Captain James Cook died on a Hawaiian beach in a fracas over petty theft. But in the previous 20 years, he completed journeys that would be the envy of many a modern traveller.

His first voyage of exploration was to map the St Lawrence River into what is now the Province of Quebec. Cook's reward was the 18th-century equivalent of a South Pacific airpass. On his first voyage to the world's largest ocean, he visited Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. His landfall in the latter was at exactly the same spot (Botany Bay) asthe runway at Sydney airport juts out into the bay.

He mapped the east coast of Australia assiduously, casually giving names according to the calendar (the Whitsundays), misfortune (Cape Tribulation) and even compass malfunction (Magnetic Island). At the northern extreme of what is now Queensland he claimed the territory for the Crown and called the whole lot New South Wales.

By now Captain Cook was clocking up the Sea Miles at a furious rate. His subsequent voyage took him below the Antarctic Circle, by way of New Caledonia and the Norfolk Islands. He sailed first to New Zealand then, by way of Hawaii, to Alaska and the Bering Strait. He returned to the Big Island of Hawaii and anchored in Kealakua Bay. As a monument at the bay relates, the captain "fell near this spot on the 14th day of February 1779".

He never reached Melbourne, but that did not stop the city fathers trying to capitalise on the Cook connection. In 1934, his Yorkshire cottage was dismantled and moved stone-by-stone to the Fitzroy Gardens in the heart of Melbourne. The former home of the first man to explore both the Arctic and the Antarctic stands in a twee little garden close to the "Tudor Village". Such is tourism.

Simon Calder