The requirements were simple: A weekend debrief with my close mate Paul, somewhere in Europe we’d both never been, easily accessible for both of us, preferably warm and exotic. Quite how we came up with Yorkshire is a bit of a mystery. But, so they say, the idea of travelling changes as you get older, and a lot has changed for both of us in the six years since our last European weekend debrief together. We’re both married, for one thing. And Paul is only a couple of months away from becoming a Dad.
But perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on Yorkshire. After all, during his two years living in London back when we were in our twenties, Paul succinctly summarises the extremity of his English travels as “Luton in the north, Gatwick in the south, Stansted in the east and Heathrow in the west”, whilst my previous experience with Yorkshire was limited to a brief stop once in the centre of Leeds. That makes it a tick in the ‘never been’ category. England is an easy and normally inexpensive hop from Switzerland for me, whilst Paul had returned with his English wife to visit the UK for a wedding, and after leaving his in-laws’ place in Peterborough and driving a couple of hours north on the A1 we were in our chosen region before well lunch time. Chalk that one down for ‘easily accessible’. The sun was shining (more or less) through the clouds and the expected temperature was getting up towards twenty degrees, so that gets a seasonably adjusted pass for effort on the ‘warm’ constraint. Lastly, while picking up supplies in a supermarket in the town of Thirsk we purchased some bottles of beer infused with banana, and the mature aged check-out chick finished every single sentence with a cheery “my luv”. I’d say that counts as exotic.
Yorkshire’s two great National Parks are the Dales and the Moors. We’d opted for the latter, mostly due to its proximity to the coast, and only a couple of miles out of Thirsk we entered the North York Moors National Park. One of the things I’ve immediately noticed about National Parks in the UK is that they are very different to those in Australia. I’m used to the locked away tracts of bushland or desert of Australian parks, where roads are very few and far between and very often gravel. Save for a visitors centre and/or a basic campground, no development is allowed in the parks whatsoever. But British National Parks look very much like the countryside around them. There are busy arterial roads, working fields, indeed whole villages and towns located within their borders. Life appears to go on inside the national parks in the same way as outside them. If it weren’t for the welcome signs on the roadside, I’d never know I was in one.
The reasons for the vast differences between them are obvious. The concept of a National Park to protect landscapes and preserve wildlife is only a recent concept after all, while permanent ‘white man’ settlements have had at least a couple of thousand more years in the UK to spread across the land and become entwined with the terrain than in Australia. As if to illustrate this, our first stop was in the tiny village of Rievaulx, where tucked away behind a cow paddock loomed a sizeable 900 year old abbey, which has been standing in ruins for over 450 years. From there we continued to skirt the southern edge of the National Park and admired the mesmerising vibrant yellows of the flowering canola fields near the busy tourist town of Helmsley.
We made to cross the entire length of the park, and once climbing past the single street hamlet of Hutton-le-Hole, the English standard “green and pleasant land” changed markedly. To me England is such a crowded place, and with the dense population and other pressures on the land I’d thought it impossible to escape the tell-tale signs of civilisation – regular vehicular traffic, buildings, power lines and the like – and really feel like I could get away from it all. But now I ate my words. Reaching a plateau, the wild, desolate and windswept moors spread out flat all around us. Other than the narrow ribbon of bitumen we were driving along, there was no other sign of man’s attempted taming of the earth in any direction we could see, and the views spread out across the plateau for miles. I stopped the car for a short while and the only sound we heard was the wind whistling through the stark brown heather.
But I hadn’t stopped just for the serenity – I have a bladder the size of a serial philanderer’s conscience. Oh, the adventures I have had while travelling when, just like a dog, I somehow have the urgent and immediate need to mark the territory as I roam. And this time I just happened to be busting for a leak in quite possibly the only piece of England with no trees, fences or hedges to hide behind. But that was OK, because as it turned out there wasn’t anyone else passing to have to hide from.
Once back on our way in the car, just as I was getting accustomed to the unexpected solitude of this wilderness, rolling green hills and valleys dotted with livestock suddenly returned, and we met a busy A road which would take us to the coast. England really is a compact little spot, and it’s amazing to see the variety of timeless landscapes that have been packed into its small size.
And so to Whitby, a town perched above coastal cliffs and spilling down the hillsides either side of the mouth of the Esk River. With the sun beginning to set, Paul and I started out walking south for a while along a coastal pathway at the edge of the cliffs looking out to the North Sea, to an accompanying soundtrack of the wind, seagulls squawking, and the periodic chuff-chuff-chuff of steam trains setting out along the riverside carrying steam enthusiasts along a restored railway line to the Moors.
At sundown we ventured down into the town for dinner, and in Whitby that invariably means fish and chips. For a small town of a few thousand there seemed a slight over supply of fish and chip shops and restaurants, from the average takeaway joint up to the excessively posh and expensive. Though whether costly or not, in the front window of almost every place there was a sticker pronouncing the premises as an award winning purveyor of Yorkshire battered haddock or cod and strings of potato. Some had honours for more than one year. How on earth can that be? Admittedly the years of the awards stretched as far back as a decade ago, but how many different annual fry-off competitions can there possibly be in a small town like this? It was like a primary school athletics carnival where every kid gets at least one ribbon for participation, regardless of how crap they run. I know this because these were usually the ones I got.
Paul and I settled on a pub right by the river which, while the fish and chips were not advertised as award winning, could be easily accompanied with “traditional ales and stouts”. We then drifted between a few more pubs until closing time. Whitby seemed like a peaceful, late middle aged kind of place to spend a Friday night, with a comfortably local and mostly bald or grey clientele at ease in the fading fixtures of the various lounge bars we passed through.
It had been a few years since I’d last stayed in a hostel dorm, and I’d be lying now if I said I had missed the blind groping in the dark to climb to an empty top bunk and trying to get settled as quietly as possible, not knowing how irritated the stirring stranger below is at being woken. But Whitby’s hostel was one of the better ones I’ve stayed in, and came with complimentary admission to the remnants of the adjacent eleventh century abbey, which even in its heyday would probably have had far more privations for the monks than I had had for the previous ten hours.
There have been a lot of changes from Whitby’s time as an abbey and small fishing village through to the elegantly fading seaside resort of now. On the opposite headland, across the river mouth from the abbey, were a couple of reminders of the interim centuries. The first was a pair of whale ribs that harked back to the days when the town was a whaling port. Right beside that was a statue of James Cook, to commemorate the Yorkshire man who arrived in Whitby at the age of 18 to start an apprenticeship in the merchant navy in 1747, as well as the ships he later went on to command in his famous exploratory voyages in the Pacific a couple of decades later (both HMS Endeavour and HMS Resolution were originally built in Whitby as coal carrying cargo vessels before being purchased by the Royal Navy). Cook’s statue stands with a rolled up parchment in his left hand and a compass in his right, which I’d like to think of as a subtle lesson that, while a compass might create some mischief as a weapon in the hands of a troublesome schoolkid in a boring maths class, it is no match against a tribe of angry Hawaiians.
Beyond these monuments and down a steep embankment was the empty sandy beach. With the whipping wind and intermittent drizzle it was easy to see why, once the age of affordable jet travel allowed, beach-bound Brits have buggered off to the warmer climes of the Mediterranean for their summer holidays in their millions. Though even today a stoic remnant stay on, winding down by reading the papers and knitting whilst sheltering away from the elements in their brightly painted dressing sheds. Never let it be said that Yorkshire folk are not a hardy bunch.
All in all, Whitby was an appealing fishing town with enough going for it to continue to live on, and I was pleased to have made its acquaintance. But there was more we were endeavouring to see.
Paul and I headed south to Whitby’s bigger, brasher neighbour Scarborough. Scarborough had started out a thousand years ago much like Whitby, before it became a popular spa town in the mid-seventeenth century. The appeal of taking in the sea air and bathing in the open waters grew steadily from the mid 1800’s, helped by the development of railways and construction of hotels, and the readily accessible stretches of sand at Scarborough went on to become the seaside resort of choice for working class families from the nearby industrial cities of Middlesbrough, Newcastle and beyond. But the bigger the boom the harder the bust, and the donkey rides on the beach, tacky amusement arcades and tattoo parlours Scarborough offers seem to have it so much more desperately clinging to nostalgia than Whitby, just like a washed up Hollywood siren long past her prime resorting to sad, gimmicky cabaret acts.
I really wanted to give Scarborough a chance, to try and discover some hidden charms. But the rain was much harder now, and only a miserable looking bunch of children in raincoats remained on the beach gamely working on their sandcastles. Given the unappealing inside activities on offer, neither Paul nor I wanted to stick around.
The decline of the great British seaside holiday is well documented. But perhaps it’s just a matter of perception, and what these coastal English towns really need is a zippy moniker that people will fall in love with the sound of. Australia’s Elston was nothing until renamed after the town’s pub (Surfers Paradise) in the 1930’s – and from experience I’m dead sure it rains often enough between the sunshine in that re-badged tourist mecca to adversely impact many a sun-seeking holiday. Admittedly Scarborough isn’t so bad, but there’s nothing at all about the sound of Blackpool or Bognor Regis that make me want to dash there for a holiday by the beach. But then the English are fairly understated in their naming standards – just take their theme parks for example. Amusement/theme parks are supposed to sound so enticing, thrilling and magical you can’t help but willingly shell out an exorbitant sum given the promise of a grand day out. The best titles that England can muster, Alton Towers and Drayton Manor, just manage to sound like high-rise public housing estates.
And that was where our coastal foray concluded, as we followed the lure of dryer weather inland to the historical focal point of England’s largest county. York has been that place for much of recorded history, and was the only real stronghold the constantly pillaging Vikings managed to secure on this island. Eventually, the industrial revolution shifted some of the Yorkshire wealth to cities like Leeds and Bradford, and it is perhaps this that has helped conserve York’s city walls and massive cathedral from redevelopment in recent centuries.
As such a historic centre, York attracts a big reputation with visitors. Without a doubt, the river and parklands around the Minster were stunning, and the Tudor buildings overhanging into the medieval laneway of the Shambles were well conserved. But I must say York was not the perfectly preserved city centre I was expecting. Plenty of stocky mid-twentieth city concessions mar the shopping streets, and I found it a little difficult to fully appreciate York’s heritage when so many incongruous modern clunkers sit nearby. But then, it’s a little difficult to expect time to stand still in such a large and important commercial city like York.
And with that it was time to return Paul to his wife and in-laws, where I was treated to join them for a great family roast lunch the next day. I was thankful to have had these two days to spend with my close mate, what with living so far away from each other and long-term responsibilities just around the corner there may not be so many more opportunities for us to get away quite like this. And the North Yorkshire countryside had done its level best to fill our brief. I’d definitely go back, though perhaps to the Dales next time, where there are fresh fields for me to water.