Thursday , December 1 2022

Lobster pots, wild moors and Dracula: a car-free break in Whitby

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The harbour ripples like shot silk. The smell of fried fish drifting past lobster pots on the cold granite dock makes me nostalgic. I’ve been lured to Whitby in winter by Britain’s most scenic bus ride, and the chance to stay in a spa hotel with sustainable ambitions. And for a walk up the wild Esk Valley to the wilder North York Moors.

Whitby map

The 50-mile bus journey from York to Whitby takes longer than the 200 speedy miles by train to York from London. But a ride on the 840 Coastliner bus, which goes past York station and arrives in Whitby 2½ hours later, is an end in itself. It is officially Britain’s most scenic bus route, having come top in a 2018 survey of thousands of travellers. The 840 rolls through hills and treacle-stoned Malton. At Kirby Misperton you can spy emus and antelopes as the bus passes Flamingo Land; in Thornton-le-Dale a roadside stream runs past thatched cottages and chocolate shops. But none of this prepares you for the climb past Dalby Forest on to the endless moors.

A chirpy inflight commentary on the moorland section makes much of the cosy village of Goathland, where sheep are grazing by the road. It was the location for ITV’s Heartbeat and played Hogsmeade station in the Harry Potter films. The upbeat voiceover (which runs even after dark) also highlights the huge water-carved hollow known as the Hole of Horcum. Legend says a giant called Wade was arguing with his wife and grabbed a mighty fistful of earth to throw at her. I’ve ridden on and written about the Coastliner buses before, but today’s views are better than ever: blue sky over green hills and bronzed bracken freckled with late-autumn russet and gold. From the top deck, I can see for miles: across scattered villages to the glinting sea or over an ocean of heather to the Cleveland Hills, where distance fades into cloud.

The North York Moors Railway near Goathland.
The North York Moors Railway near Goathland. Photograph: Daniel J Rao/Alamy

It’s nearly lunchtime when the bus arrives in Whitby so I have an early fish-and-chip lunch by the harbour. From late November, there will be an ice rink and Christmas market nearby, part of the Whitby Winter festival. Across the water, horses are grazing the grassy slopes below the abbey and above the piled-up houses of the red-roofed town. These details have not changed much since Bram Stoker’s day. The author of Dracula stayed in a guesthouse on Whitby’s Royal Crescent in 1890. He was working on a new novel, starring a character called (at the time) Count Wampyr. Stoker borrowed names from gravestones, library books and tales of a Russian ship wrecked here five years before his visit. His heroine, Mina Murray, who starts out as young teacher, notes in her diary: “Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes …”

Whitby Abbey.
Whitby Abbey. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

I join the other tourists climbing the steps towards the abbey and wander round clifftop St Mary’s church, which is crowded with Georgian box pews and twisty-columned galleries (free). “Please do not ask staff where Dracula’s grave is as there isn’t one,” says a notice on the door. The visitor centre in Whitby Abbey reopened in 2019 after a major revamp (£10/£6) ). The permanent exhibition maps the overlapping layers of Whitby’s culture, geology and history, encompassing jet and ammonites, paintings by JMW Turner and verses by local cowherd turned monk Caedmon, the first named English poet.

From here, I hike three miles south along the undulating coast path, past the sea stack and octagonal lighthouse near Saltwick Bay. A sign points inland to Hawsker and the Hare and Hounds, from where bus X93 runs back to Whitby. There’s also a popular footpath and cycleway, the Cinder Track, on the course of the old railway to Scarborough.

Morning walk along the sands from Sandsend to Whitby.
Morning walk along the sands from Sandsend to Whitby. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

The track, through a tunnel of broad-leaved willows, passes Jo’s honesty-box tuckshop, selling marvellously sticky flapjacks for 50p, and Trailways cycle hire. The sun is setting as I cross the 13 towering brick arches of the Larpool Viaduct, another landmark that appears in Dracula. Mina’s diary reads: “The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers …”

Next day, I catch a train west from Whitby to the village of Danby and walk 10 miles back as far as Egton, following the Esk Valley Walk. Waymarked by leaping salmon symbols, the track climbs gently over Danby Beacon, with a 360-degree view across the North York Moors. There are dozens of ancient tumuli, and black grouse are churring in the heather. Down in the valley again, the route winds through riverside woods and meadows. My favourite stretch, along a steep-sided valley, follows part of the Coast to Coast walk that runs all the way from Cumbria. The steep, still-golden beechwoods have a late-autumn smell of wet leaves and woodsmoke. There’s an old watermill and ferns are sprouting from mossed trees beside the path.

The coast path looking back towards Whitby.
The coast path looking back towards Whitby. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

It’s easy to find shorter or longer variations of this walk, using village stations on the Esk Valley Railway. Trains run every couple of hours and there are pubs near many of the stations. The North York Moors visitor centre at Danby has a cafe and I stop at lunchtime in the Beck View tearoom in Lealholm for a toastie and homemade coffee cake. The Horseshoe Hotel next to the stepping stones over the river in Egton Bridge looks tempting, but it’s time to head back to my own hotel on the cliffs just north of Whitby.

The swimming pool at Raithwaite Hall looks out into a dell of evergreen laurels and banks of fallen beech leaves. A grey wagtail hops around the cascade and a moorhen wanders through the waterweed. The gardens, with their wooded valley and green lake, are sprouting orchards and polytunnels as part of the hotel’s sustainability strategy. Gooseberry bushes and squash-laden vines straggle over raised beds, supplying the bar and restaurant. A forest garden, growing fruits, nuts, herbs and flowers, is next on the agenda, partly fuelled by vodka from UK firm Sapling that the Raithwaite’s guests have consumed. The company plants a tree for each bottle sold (generating the brilliant tagline “buy one, get one tree”).

River Esk in Whitby.
River Esk in Whitby. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

MasterChef semi-finalist Ollie Hunter began work here in 2021, around the same time as publishing his second cookbook, Join the Greener Revolution. The Raithwaite kitchens source four-fifths of their food from within 30 miles, are aiming for zero waste by the end of 2023, and list their veggie options at the top of the menu, where they are more likely to be chosen. The top main dish today is a perfectly cooked celeriac steak with smoked almonds and crispy kale. I follow it with ginger parkin in spiced syrup. Next day, there are mashed peas on toast for breakfast, with a hint of nutmeg and a chilli salsa. It makes me wonder why we needed avocados. There are fresh blackberries too, and yoghurt from an organic Yorkshire farm.

Even the coasters are biodegradable, with seeds embedded so you can plant them. The little milk pots still seem to be plastic though. And, like most tourist destinations – especially rural ones – Raithwaite steers clear of addressing the motorised elephant in the room: visitor transport. Hourly bus X4 stops at the gates on the main road and, as I walk up the drive in the dark, owls are calling and answering in the woods and a small deer is stepping through the undergrowth.

Hole of Horcum from the bus window.
Hole of Horcum from the bus window. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

On my last morning, I stroll half a mile or so through woods and over a grassy headland to the nearby village of Sandsend. When the tide is low, you can walk from here to Whitby along the beach. Ahead of me the abbey is silhouetted against a wintry sunrise. There’s still time before my bus leaves to take a 20-minute boat trip (£4). We chug out through the curved jaws of the harbour into the open sea. The clifftop statue of Captain Cook, who worked on coal ships here before he joined the navy, is now shrouded in white cloud. The gulls chuckle and a wave-pitched buoy clangs like a church bell.

Raithwaite Hall.
Raithwaite Hall. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

It’s the perfect unheimlich weather to glimpse the gothic abbey ruins through the haar. Bram Stoker’s Mina describes grey days of drifting sea mists, lost horizons, and a rocking buoy “that sends in a mournful sound on the wind”. Back on land, I buy a sandwich from Botham’s bakery and a Winter Brack to take home. This seasonal version of Yorkshire tea loaf, best eaten with cheese, is spiced and stuffed with cherries (£4.50). The bus has tables upstairs, power and wifi. Riding over the drizzle-darkened moors, where the Hole of Horcum is a bowl of fog, I have a picnic and catch up on emails. Back in York, the Christmas market is just starting: 160,000 seasonal lights are strung across the city centre, and the medieval walls are floodlit.

Accommodation and food were supplied at Raithwaite Hall (doubles from £121.50, room only)

Rail travel was provided by Grand Central (singles from King’s Cross to York start from £13.30. Bus travel was provided by Transdev (day tickets on the Coastliner buses £17.50pp or £30 for a group)

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