In mid February, you can feel a bit blue no matter where you are. So when our friends Geoff and Carolee said that they were coming to visit from Canada, it was just the lift we needed. Together we planned a quick trip to the north east coast of England, in search of perfect places.
Years ago, Carolee and Geoff had been to Whitby. They had loved it and wanted to go back so we took a train from London to Leeds, picked up a rental car and headed out to coast of North Yorkshire.
Whitby is a quiet fishing village surrounded by the North York Moors.
It is remote and isolated by the moors so it never became a major trading centre. However, its natural geography, a wide estuary between two cliffs, made it a valuable port.
By the end of the 18th century Whitby was renowned for shipbuilding and whaling. Captain Cook and William Scoresby (an Arctic navigator who began on the whaling ships) both learned their sailing skills here. Whaling in particular brought money into the town, and the wealth eventually encouraged Whitby’s development as a spa tourist destination.
The area is also a primary source of the mineral Jet, and the streets are lined with jewelers’ creations. The village has lovely quiet cobbled streets, spectacular views, and a terrific selection of good restaurants. Even in the dreary days of February there were a fair number of tourists – it must be packed in the high season.
High above the town sits the ghostly ruin of Whitby Abbey.
The first abbey was built in Whitby in 656. Called Streoneshalh (the old Norse name), it was a “double-monastery” for men and women and became a great centre of learning. It was here, in the 7th century, that Caedmon, first English poet whose name is actually known, wrote his poems in praise of God. This first abbey was ruined by the Danes and a second was built on the site in the 11th century. However, it was destroyed under the reign of Henry VIII and left to crumble and to suffer additional damage during the Second World War.
The Whitby Abbey ruin has been an inspiration for people throughout the centuries. It formed part of the setting of Dracula, by Bram Stoker so it is a contemporary Goth pilgrimage. We didn’t don our black garb, but we did huddle in the cemetery, battling in fierce winds that threatened to blow us off the cliff.
Most tourists would not chose the North Sea as a destination in February.
A walk along the coastal path was invigorating, exhilarating and damp, just the kind of thing to spark a good appetite for a pint of local ale and an order of fish and chips. Whitby also specializes in smoked kippers, which has got to be the best breakfast in the world if you are planning a journey out on the Moors.
Just across the Moors from Whitby is the town of Goathland. Goathland (the “h” is slient) known all over the world as the fictional town of Aidensfield, the setting for the BBC series “Heartbeat”. Carolee has been researching her family tree for years and she had traced a distant cousin to Goathland, so off we went.
Goathland is a tiny village of about 400 people. There are lovely stone paths and access points to footpaths on the Moors. The area is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (basically, the Queen) and her Scottish Blackface sheep have a right to graze anywhere. There are no fences and the sheep roam everywhere, very much in ownership of the village. You have to watch carefully where you walk.
Little has changed in the 3 centuries since Carolee’s cousin Richard Middleton lived in Goathland, although he wouldn’t have seen the North Yorkshire Moors steam train station that was certainly a highlight of our visit.
It is the station that was used in the Harry Potter movies for the Hogsmeade stop. With Dracula, Heartbeat and Harry Potter, I was beginning to wonder if the entire area was real or imagined.
One of Tim’s preoccupations on this trip has been to try to find “the perfect seaside village”. So while in this part of England, we decided to take a day trip north to Alnmouth, which Tim thought he had seen from the window of a train many years ago. We wanted to find out if it was real, or imagined.
To get to Alnmouth, you need to go through Alnwick, a medieval market town dating from 600 AD. In 2002 Alnwick (pronounced Annick) was voted by Country Life as “the most picturesque market town in Northumberland, and the best place to live in Britain.” It has thrived as an agricultural centre and its history is intimately linked to the castle that rises above it.
Alnwick castle is still privately owned. It has been in the possession of the Percy family since 1309, making it the oldest continuous family-owned castle in the UK, other than Windsor Castle. Perhaps the most famous Percy was Sir Henry, known as Harry Hotspur, who lived there from 1364-1403.
“… and by his light did all the chivalry of England move to do brave acts” Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2
The Castle is picture perfect.
It, too, has been used as a film set (Harry Potter, Black Adder, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). The Percy family was at home, so we were not able to go in to visit. Instead, we walked through the town and found a surprisingly good place to eat a light tapas lunch before heading out to the seaside town of Alnmouth.
Alnmouth was an important trading port at the mouth of the river Aln.
The town was very prosperous in the 18th century when the river was used as a major shipping route for grain and smuggling. In 1748, John Wesley described it as “A small seaport town famous for all kinds of wickedness”. But a huge storm in 1806 destroyed much and diverted the river, changing the fortunes of the town. Today, there is a population of only about 600, none of whom seemed particularly wicked.
It surprised me to find sandy dunes in England. The beach was dotted with winkle and clam shells, and smoothly polished natural coal.
The wind was fierce, throwing a spray of fine sand in our faces. There is a reason why tourists are not out picnicking on the beach in February.
Alnmouth is on St. Oswald’s Way, a 97-mile walking route in Northumberland that stretches from Holy Island to Heavenfield. It sounds like the route that we might take another time, as we continue the search for the perfect place.