No visit to the North Yorkshire coast is complete without a day trip or short stay to the delightful seaside town of Whitby dominated by the ruins of a thirteenth century abbey. Situated on the eastern edge of the North Yorkshire moors Whitby lies at the mouth of a valley formed by the River Esk, approximately 30 miles south of industrial Teesside and 20 miles north of the coastal resort of Scarborough and at a point where the towering North Sea cliffs open to the sea.
Whitby is very easy to explore on foot and the harbour, fish dock and piers with their light houses are always places of interest.
From early beginnings to present day attractions
Whitby dates back to the seventh century and owes much of its livelihood and development to the sea and is well known for its former links to whaling, Captain Cook, the Victorian jet jewellery industry and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The town is divided into two halves by the harbour and river which is crossed by a swing bridge. To the west lies the largely Victorian and more modern town with shops, hotels and amenities catering for all tastes, whilst to the east in the old town smaller shops, cafés and a market jostle side by side in a labyrinth of little streets and alleyways beneath the abbey.
During the mid nineteenth century Whitby became the centre of the jet industry. Queen Victoria after the death of Prince Albert popularised the wearing of black jet, formed from the fossilized remains of the decaying monkey puzzle tree and found in the nearby cliffs, as jewellery. At its peak thousands were employed in the industry and it is still made and sold in local shops today. The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre is situated in Church Street and houses an 1867 Victorian workshop which is open to visitors.
To read more, see below:-Whitby, Gemstone “Jet” Industry
What to do and where to go
Whitby has numerous attractions and places of interest to occupy the visitor.
Climbing the 199 steps to St Mary’s church, the graveyard and the abbey ruins beyond is both a challenge and very rewarding! The views from the top over the town and along the coast make the climb more than satisfying. The famous steps are also the very steps which Dracula bounded up in the form of a dog in Bram Stokers nineteenth century novel.
Adjacent to the church the atmospheric ruins of the abbey itself and the adjoining information centre, which tells the story of the abbey’s history and development, are certainly well worth visiting.
James Cook is synonymous with Whitby. In 1746 the famous British explorer and mapmaker came to Whitby served his sea going apprenticeship with a local ship owning family. His first voyage was aboard a ship named the Freelove taking a cargo of coal to London. He lodged in a house on the harbour side which is now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum containing a fine collection of Cook memorabilia. A statue to Cook stands on West Cliff adjacent to another local landmark, a whale’s jaw bone arch, a reminder of the town’s important former whaling past.
Whitby’s Gemstone “Jet” Industry
Not all visitors to the quaint North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby are aware that the area was once the centre of a thriving gem stone industry employing hundreds of craftsmen making items from jet.
Jet is a semi precious stone, the colour of the deepest opaque black when polished, formed from the fossilised wood of the monkey puzzle tree of the Jurassic era and found in seams of shale rocks. Although this black stone can be found in many places throughout the world some of the highest quality ‘hard’ jet, used for working into the finest jewellery and ornaments, was discovered in the cliffs of Whitby and on the rugged moors of North Yorkshire.
Although individual hand crafted pieces of jet have been found in Bronze Age burial sites throughout the United Kingdom it was the Romans from workshops in Eboracum, the modern day city of York, who began in earnest to make ornaments and items of jewellery fashioned from the black stone to export to all parts of the Roman Empire.
However, it was in the 19th century that the jet industry really took hold in Whitby. The first workshops appeared in the early 1800s and by 1850 it is thought there were up to 50 established in the town. Jet had become the fashionable jewellery adornment for those in ‘mourning’ and with Queen Victoria setting the example after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861 there was soon wider public demand for jet jewellery. The industry was probably at its peak in the 1870s with up to 1,500 men employed in 200 workshops, and many more involved in working small mines and tunnels driven into hill sides and coastal cliffs searching for deposits of the stone which were then transported to the Whitby workshops for crafting into jewellery.
The heyday of the industry did not last for long. The vagaries of changing fashions and the imported use of inferior ‘soft’ jet saw the demise of the industry which had all but ceased in Whitby by the early 1920s. The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre (http://www.whitbyjet.co.uk/) still employs craftsmen making items of jet jewellery and tells the local history of the industry. There is also an actual Victorian jet workshop on display, found by a builder several years ago in a derelict property in a sealed up attic. A unique time capsule of a bygone industry.
And finally, for all those eagle eyed visitors walking along Whitby’s beaches, it is still possible today to find a small piece of fossilised monkey puzzle tree or jet washed out of the cliffs and onto the sands.