Summer’s end at Whitby

24 September 2008

Simon Parke

AMID the fading glory of our Indian summer, there is no harm in one last look back over our shoulders. And I am looking back to Whitby, where we spent a happy week.

Whitby — an outpost of rusting boats and crumbling abbeys — can be found on England’s north-east coast. It sits north of Scarborough, south of Middlesbrough, and is the home of Dracula — for Bram Stoker wrote it here, amid the seagulls and the beach that comes and goes.

It is certainly worth checking the tide before setting off. At low tide, the sand is expansive and fine; at high tide, there is nothing; just cold sea licking at Whitby’s foundations. And it is cold — only my daughter Chloë and I braved the water.

Whitby is all about the abbey and the harbour. It has other things, of course; and, overall, a nice English balance of class and tat. Fine houses, cobbled streets, little alleys, and, towards the beach, amusement arcades aplenty, and “the full spooky Dracula experience if you just step this way, sir!”

And, of course, it has fish and chips. Almost every chip shop in Whitby has won some award or other. “Best chunky chips 2002”, “Best fish in Whitby — Whitby Enquirer Awards, 2006”, and perhaps less convincingly, “Best batter 1997”. So everyone eats fish and chips endlessly. They eat it when they are walking, talking, sitting, or sighing for just one sunny day.

I spent time in a witches' shop, listening to two perplexed pagans. One had joined a breakaway coven, and things were tense. “Barry only left to form his own coven because he wanted more power.”

“That’s not true, Mandy; it wasn’t about power. He said you didn’t respect the eight truths of Wicca.”

“As interpreted by him, perhaps.”

“Barry believes you’re diluting the essential teaching.”

On the street corner, an old man plays electric guitar to a backing track, collecting from passers-by who are appreciative of the live music. Only, it is not live. I ask a local who fills me in. “He’s been doing it for years. Can’t play a note. It’s all backing-track.”

More truthful and pleasant is the regular rumble of the two-carriage train to Middlesbrough, and the toot-toot of the steam train to Pickering, pulling out from Whitby’s quaint village station.

But, really, Whitby is all about the harbour, where sea-salty boats rest and rust, amid the lingering ghosts of shipyards past. And it is about the abbey ruin, high upon the hill, a grand if corroding memory of reli­gious importance — where only ducks tread now, or any who are fit enough to climb the 199 steps.

This may be our Indian sunset, as the autumn chill bids us let go, but we will not let the summer fire die. Not yet.

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