Before the church bells, prior to the buskers, and shortly prior to the smell of kippers, there is the sound of Keith Gilpin's dust cart trundling over the Church Street cobbles, St George's flags flying proudly. This is how a Whitby early morning starts.
" Take a look at that," says the 62-year-old street cleaner, sweeping a high-vis arm towards the sea view. "Inform me what's much better than this, lad? I like a beer and I like a bet, but you can't beat a dawn. Of all life's enjoyments, often the free ones are the best."
Keith has a point. The old fishing port of Whitby, on the North Yorkshire coast, has some claim to being the most stunning town in England. The eye is captured initially by the destroyed abbey high up on the east cliff, then zigzags down to the waterside through a labyrinth of higgledy-piggledy cottages with red roofs. The curved arms of the twin piers draw the gaze out to sea, their shape mirrored by the whale's jawbone arch that crowns the cliff to the west.
That view alone is reason enough to come, but now there is another: Whitby has planted a flag on Britain's food lover map. Andrew Pern, well known for his Michelin-starred gastropub in Harome, claims that the town is on its way to ending up being "the Padstow of the north", to which end he has actually opened The Star Inn The Harbour. "Whitby is famous for the sticks of rock, the kiss-me-quick, the fish and chips, but there's a lot more that the North Sea has to offer," the chef states.
'woof' and chips from The Star Inn The Harbour.
His restaurant, in the former traveller info structure on the harbour, has a nautical look-- ropes, creels, framed postcards-- but it's tastefully done, not the complete Captain Haddock. Beginners consist of woof soup: "Scarborough woof" is a local name for the Atlantic wolffish. Mains include Whitby crab salad with seaside veggies and avocado ice-cream. Those two meals are ₤ 7 and ₤ 16 respectively, which is dear for Whitby; undoubtedly, a glance at the menu prompts my father-in-law, whose Yorkshireness starts at his wallet, to ask his favourite rhetorical question: "' Ow much?"
If you desire fish and chips, the Star Inn uses that, too, although enthusiasts of the Magpie, the town's most celebrated chippy, will be pleased to discover that it has opened once again for takeaways following a fire that ruined its roofing system.
On the other side of the harbour, across the popular swing bridge, is Whitby's other cult food stop. Fortune's kipper shop is on Henrietta Street, as it has been because 1872, a child's illustration of a structure with barely a straight line in it. Old images on the walls portray the 6 generations of one household who have worked here. The small smokehouse next door, where the herring hang for 18 hours, is among the town's sacred marvels, the walls glossy black and dripping with tar developed over decades. It resembles being inside a pirate's lung or a Mark Rothko painting. They scrape the tar out, it is reckoned, about once a century. No have to hurry these things.
Like other seasonal economies, Whitby counts on eastern European immigration-- most significantly, the arrival from Romania in 1897 of one Count Dracula. Bram Stoker, influenced by a see, set part of his book here, and this association with the Transylvanian count is now a substantial traveller draw, in among the masses who flock here for Whitby Goth Weekend in April and October.
How important is the so-called "velvet pound" to regional companies? "Enormous," says Kev Riley, who runs the Bats & Broomsticks guesthouse (doubles from ₤ 75), where guests breakfast by candlelight and delight in the music of the Damned with their cornflakes. "We cater," states Kev, "for individuals who want something various."
Whitby has a deep geological strangeness-- as if some fault occurred around the time ammonites ended up being fossilised in the seaside, and the town has been strange since. By all methods take your ferret for a walk along the beach; feel free to impersonate a vampire while shopping in the Co-op. Nobody will bat an eye; nobody will eye your bat.
Back on the west side, near the Magpie, is a little cabin covered in happy composing inviting passers-by to learn their future from the "Spiritualist & Clairvoyant" within. The cabin was inhabited for practically half a century by Lee Ester Alita Lee, mom of the present occupant, Elizabeth Connie Smith. "In 2015 was me mam's last season. She has dementia and began to drift, so this custom was handed down to me. I have actually had the present since I was born."
Smith is 54. She uses palm and crystal ball readings in a cosy consulting space decorated with signed pictures of customers past: Chas and Dave, Big Daddy, Cher, the cast of Heart beat. It is all part of the seaside experience.
What, then, does she anticipate for the town itself? "For Whitby?" she thinks about with a smile. "I believe the future's looking very good certainly."