Like nearly half the places I travel to, I decided to go to Whitby, England after someone told me I should check it out. Previously I hadn’t heard of Whitby and, other than the few facts I learned from these friends, I really didn’t know anything about the place. But I was able to find a nice inexpensive place to stay in Whitby so while in York I went to the Tourist Information Center and bought a one way bus ticket. It was July 4th and after a beautiful two hour upper deck coach ride through the North York Moors National Park I arrived. Although there were no fireworks for me on this Independence Day (for some reason they don’t celebrate July 4th in England like we do in the States!), it was a sunny, beautiful day, and I was in a new place so I got to walk around and explore (one of my favorite things to do!).
After a visit to the Tourist Information Center to get a map, and a visit to the grocery store to get dinner, I walked to my hostel, my home for the next two nights. I was a little early and couldn’t check in for an hour so while chatting with the other guests I picked their brain for things to do. And the area has a lot of things to do! Here’s a small list:
- Whitby Abbey
- Church of Saint Mary
- Whitby Museum
- Whitby Beach
- Many different lengths of hiking trails
- Pitch and Putt Golf Course
- Whitby Jet Shopping (local jewelry, check it out)
- Fossil Hunting (including dinosaurs!)
- Relax watching the tidal River Esk (which is what I did after dinner my first night)
After a relaxing first night in Whitby I went out in search of adventure on day two (actually, not true…I went to see some of the sites). I started at the surprisingly awesome local museum (which has, among other things, many fossils, all found within 20 miles of Whitby over the last few centuries, and many pieces of art carved from Whitby Jet). Then walking toward the beach I stopped after coming across a game of bowling. Not ten pin bowling like we know in the US, but lawn bowling. Its similar to bocce ball except played with slightly different balls on a large, square, almost golf green-esque, well…green. Hoping they would ask me to join them, I sat and watched for about 15 minutes as two locals played at this local bowling club. I could tell they were playing a ‘real’ match, as part of a men’s league or something similar, and wasn’t surprised when the invitation didn’t come. Leaving slightly dejected but glad I got to see an unfamiliar game being played I wandered along towards the beach.
Whitby lies on the North Sea and for people coming from more tropical beaches that might seem a cold place to get a taste of salt water. Not true, at least on this hot summer day. The beach sits under the natural cliffs above and to get down there are many switch back trails that all lead to the iconic Whitby beach houses. These changing rooms are for rent for the day or week by people visiting the area and give life to this beautiful coastline.
After people watching for a while and dipping my toes in the cool North Sea water I continued down the beach toward Whitby Pier and the mouth of the River Esk. On the way, away from the beach goers, I found an interesting mix of sand and stone that’s only uncovered during low tide. This is where I started looking for Whitby Jet. Whitby Jet is a soft stone formed over millions of years from decaying wood under extreme pressure and heat. Apparently, although I can’t attest to it since my search came up empty, you can find freshly uncovered-by-the-tides pieces of jet lying on the beach. It must be true as I wasn’t the only one searching in the area; hopefully others had better luck!
The other stones searched for in the area, and more interesting to me than jet, are fossils. The fossils range from small sea creatures, to prehistoric ammonites and birds and plants, to crocodiles and dinosaurs. Seeing them in the museum was nice but luckily, at my hostel previous guests have left a small collection of jet and fossils (ammonite and squid). They look just like the raw jet and fossils in the museum but I got to touch them! One interesting note about searching for jet is you will find three different stones that look and feel like jet (it’s very lightweight). You will find just regular black stones, which is what I found. You will find coal. And you will find jet. The easiest way to tell jet from coal is to mark on a piece of paper with it. Coal will mark the paper black and jet will mark the paper brown. The black stones I found don’t make the mark on paper.
By the end of my first full day in Whitby I didn’t want to leave so soon so I added another night to my stay at the hostel which allowed me to spend a whole day hiking around the area as well as visit the Abbey and the Church of Saint Mary.
Whitby Abbey has seen better days. Initially a Benedictine Abbey it hasn’t really been used since the late 1530’s in the time of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of Monasteries. From then up to and including WWII there were many events that caused parts of the structure collapse, but since being taken over, managed, and preserved by English Heritage it has become an interesting and, as you can see, beautiful site to visit. Sitting atop the eastern cliff above the River Esk its seen from many areas of Whitby, including the patio of my hostel where I took the tidal picture above (look in the upper right corner). Sitting near Whitby Abbey, now dangerously close to the cliff face, is the Church of Saint Mary. It has been there, in various forms, for over 900 years and has the most unique church interior I’ve ever seen. All the pews have chest level walls as well as doors and it’s been this way for nearly 250 years! It all makes for an interior that feels very ‘busy’.
If I get the chance to return to Whitby I’ll go without hesitation. The advice I got saying it was a beautiful place to visit was spot on. There is so much to see and do in Whitby and being a smaller tourist destination, for me, allows Whitby to have a less touristy feel even with thousands of people there daily during peak season.
A couple of additional notes on Whitby. For those Dracula fans out there: Whitby is where, while on holiday, Bram Stoker changed the name from Wampyr to Dracula after reading something in a book from the library and the Church of Saint Mary graveyard is a setting in the novel. Equally interesting is that Whitby is where Captain Cook sailed from on his great voyages.