Whitby is one of England’s most loved and visited seaside towns, but there is more to it than meets the eye. Here are five intriguing facts about Whitby that will add to your knowledge of the town.
The Whalebone Arch
On the West Cliff you will find an unusual landmark. The whalebone arch commemorates the past links that the town had with the whaling industry. The original arch was erected around 1853 and is preserved in the Whitby Archives Heritage Centre. The current one was installed in 2003, and was donated by Alaska.
Penny Hedge Ceremony
This is an ancient tradition, which is still performed on the eve of Ascension Day. It commemorates a punishment that was meted out to three murderous poachers who killed a hermit in Eskdaleside in the Middle Ages. Their punishment was to cut wood in nearby Eskdaleside with a penny knife and make a barrier, or ‘hedge’ that would stand for three tides in Whitby Bay. You can see their penance performed on the east side of the upper harbour to this very day.
Since the Bronze Age, jet has been mined from the cliffs around Whitby. This beautiful black mineraloid is organic in origin, and is created from wood that has aged under great pressure. The Romans used jet from Whitby extensively, making rings, hairpins, beads, bracelets, bangles, necklaces and pendants. You can see some examples at The Yorkshire Museum. In the Victorian era, jet ‘mourning’ jewellery was very popular, due to Queen Victoria’s preference for Whitby jet as part of her mourning dress after the death of Prince Albert.
The extraordinary explorer Captain James Cook set sail from Whitby. He is possibly the greatest cartographer the world has ever seen. His ship, HMS Endeavour, was built here in 1764 by Thomas Fishburn, and took Cook on his amazing journey to Botany Bay. Whilst Cook did not have a permanent home in Whitby, he grew up near by. He oversaw every aspect of his voyage from here and would have stayed close by whilst preparing for the trip.
Whitby has a Dracula Museum, which celebrates the connection between the town and the famous novel by Abraham (Bram) Stoker. The novel tells how Dracula arrived on a ship, which was washed, ashore into the harbour. This draws on the local folklore tale about the Russian ship Dmitri, which transformed into Dracula’s ship Demeter. Much of the action is set in Whitby. Visit the excellent Dracula Museum for more background on how the story ties in with the town. If you are a fan of the Gothic, why not visit Whitby on a bi-annual Gothic Weekend?