On the waterfront: Frank Meadow Sutcliffe's Whitby

People flock there now for its perfectly picturesque seaside and Rick Stein's fish and chips, yet in Frank Meadow Sutcliffe's day, Whitby was a place of Bram Stoker stories, gambolling urchins and an endlessly photogenic sea.

Christopher Hirst
Saturday 04 February 2012 01:00

A curious cluster on Whitby's West Cliff indicates how this isolated Yorkshire fishing port has punched above its weight over the centuries. First, a statue of local lad Captain James Cook ("a great Yorkshire seaman") directs his piercing gaze south to Australia. Nearby, a slender arch formed of the lower jaw bones of a Greenland right whale, presented by the Municipality of Anchorage, commemorates Whitby's whaling industry, which rendered "over 25,000 seals and 2,761 whales" on the harbourside between 1753-1833. Leaning against the giant mandible, a cardboard notice reminds us of Bram Stoker's adoption of Whitby as a setting for the most potent of all vampire yarns: 'In Search of Dracula Walk: From the Whale Bones Tonight 8pm'.

Across the narrow river valley cradling the town, the ruins of the Abbey on the East Cliff mark the spot where the Synod of Whitby organised in 664AD by Abbess Hilda, a Mrs Thatcher of her day, established the date of our Easter. If that wasn't enough to be going on with, Whitby and environs inspired one of the greatest early photographers. Today, you encounter the quietly resonant images of Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) throughout the town. His immaculate prints of old salts, sailing vessels, placid country scenes and gambolling urchins are displayed in the town museum in Pannett Park and sold in the Sutcliffe Gallery on precipitous Flowergate. They adorn the marvellously preserved Botham's Tearooms, where the clock stopped in 1925 ("Jess Wright is playing her harp most Saturdays"), and the exterior walls of the Poundland supermarket.

The humanity that Sutcliffe posed so carefully (the customary expression is bemused resignation) has shed its briny whiskers, clay pipes and sou'westers but the same types can still be seen. My wife's nephew Tom would be a spit for his ancestor Anna Mary Middlemas, one of Sutcliffe's favourite subjects, should he ever feel the urge to don head-scarf and fish-spattered apron. The Kirk Douglas-style chin dimple is a particularly strong genetic inheritance.

The community that Sutcliffe photographed is little changed structurally. You can still stroll the narrow lane of Sandgate in Whitby's Old Town, though the cobbler, ironmongery and carpet-maker in his shot have now become touristy art galleries and knick-knack shops. Like him, you are likely to photograph Argument Yard (said to be named after a Whitby family) and the 199 steps leading up to the cliff-top church of St Mary with its box pews and three-deck pulpit. "It is one of the churches one is fondest of in the whole of England," declares Pevsner.

The big difference between Whitby then and now is tourism, partly prompted by the popularity of Sutcliffe's images. Isolated by the surrounding North York Moors, Whitby draws visitors from Scarborough to the south and Tyneside to the north. As a result, the photogenic heart of the town, wedged like grouting into the deep gorge cut by the River Esk, is packed at weekends and throughout the summer. Parking is a nightmare. It is a very concentrated version of the British seaside. Despite going there four or five times a year from our holiday home 30 miles to the south, I've rarely visited Whitby without at some stage feeling a drastic plummeting of the spirits.

The town was clogged in the dog days after Christmas when we last paid a visit. By noon, the culinary shrine of the Magpie Café was already full with a 16-strong queue waiting on the steps outside. Though the Magpie is acclaimed by Rick Stein, I felt little desire to join them. The haddock and chips we had there in the summer were mediocre (the skin had not been scaled) and the Thirties ambiance has been spoilt by the installation of big video screens displaying daily specials. There is no shortage of alternatives for fish-and-chip addicts. We found some very decent cod and chips at Green's restaurant near the swing bridge whose opening in 1908 was recorded by Sutcliffe.

To reach the town's one mandatory gastronomic destination, you have to negotiate the crowds on Church Street, a cobbled lane in the Old Town lined with tearooms, jewellers selling Whitby Jet and sweetshops specialising in the archaic confectionary for which northerners have an insatiable appetite: Soor Plums, Invalid Toffee, Black Bulletts, Pontefract Cakes... But the struggle through the shuffling horde is worthwhile. At the top of Henrietta Street, you'll find Fortune's magnificently tarry smokehouse. Sadly unrecorded by Sutcliffe, it produces the sweetest, plumpest kippers known to mankind. From 1872, visitors have been squeezing into Fortune's tiny stone-flagged shop in order to acquire these fragrant delicacies wrapped in pages of the Whitby Gazette. Since Dracula is set in the 1880s, it is likely that when the Transylvanian Count bounded ashore from the wrecked ship Demeter in the form of "an immense dog", the air was perfumed with kipper smoke.

Though they seem not to buy souvenirs from Fortune's, Dracula fans drawn to Whitby are catered for at boutiques such as Pandemonium (Marilyn Manson figurines), The Great Goth (faux fur evil rabbit scarf) and Gothic Crafts ("50 per cent off excluding alchemy, goth and silver"). They can stay at the Bats and Broomsticks Gothic Guest House while attending the Whitby Goth Weekend on 26-30 April. Such is the popularity of St Mary's churchyard for black-clad, ashen-faced poseurs that photography has been banned. It was here that Count Dracula put the bite on his victim Lucy Westenra among the wind-eroded tombstones: "There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure... she put her hand to her throat and moaned".

Those oppressed by Whitby's tourist crush can take a stroll on the twin piers that form the harbour walls. This never-quite-meeting pincer movement tends to draw more hardy souls, particularly if they are venturing on the balustrade-free eastern pier. Away from the clustered haven of the town, conditions can be bracing. As one book on Sutcliffe notes: "In his photographs, the open sea is rarely placid and serene. Beyond the still waters of the harbour it is always there, waiting menacing". On one summer visit, I was tempted to take a cruise on one of the vessels plying for trade in the harbour. My wife issued a firm refusal, which was perhaps as well. Soon afterwards, we saw the boat pitching violently in the North Sea.

Yet even on the busiest days, tranquil spots can be found just outside Whitby. On the edge of the town, the 13th-century ruins of the Abbey are fringed by ponds and fields, just as in Sutcliffe's photographs. A three-mile walk along the beach to the north takes you to the village of Sandsend, a place of almost clichéd picturesqueness that was recently described as "the new Southwold". To the north and south, the coastal villages of Staithes and Robin Hood's Bay are mini-Whitbys packed into steep fissures running down to the sea. Inland, the North Yorks Moors offer some of the most stupendous scenery in England, particularly in late summer when the heather erupts in psychedelic bloom. Climbing from the River Esk up to the Moors, the tranquil village of Sleights could scarcely offer greater contrast to the crowds of Whitby. Though one book maintains that Sutcliffe "never tired of Whitby", it was in Sleights that he died at the age of 87.

For more information, visit yorkshire.com

Yorkshire treats

Raithwaite Hall

The country retreat, which opened in 2011 after a £30m facelift, will soon open the UK's first dedicated pooch pad and spa. Raithwaitehallwhitby.co.uk

David Hockney trail

A new trail has been installed across parts of east and west Yorkshire, taking visitors to the artist's home in Bridlington, and through some of his favourite painting spots. Yorkshire.com/hockney

Bempton Cliffs

The RSPB has linked up its viewing station at this nature reserve to a series of newly-installed cameras – one overlooking hundreds of gannet nests on the cliff-tops. Rspb.org.uk

Olympic tour

The windswept beach at Scarborough is worth a look any time of year. On 18 June, the Olympic torch arrives at the UK's oldest seaside resort. Yorkshire.com/olympics

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