The harbour you see today is the result of many centuries of man-made improvements to the original natural harbour formed by the estuary of the River Esk. Contrary to most people’s instincts the piers lie to the East and West of the harbour mouth, which actually faces due North. Whitby is one of the few places in the UK where you can watch the sun rise and set over the sea in summer.
The West Pier is easier to access and an excursion along the pier and pier extensions makes a fine evening stroll. From the land side, you approach through the fine ornamental gate, erected and dedicated in 2005 to Whitby’s generations of seafarers. On the way to the 80 foot-high lighthouse you pass the capstans and mooring posts, recalling the days when ships were ‘warped’ (hauled) in and out of the harbour by sheer manpower.
Leaving the pier, the bandstand at Scotch Head, hosts visiting musicians and performances through the summer. Across the road, at the foot of the Khyber Pass, lies the Lifeboat Museum recalling the many heroic rescues since the first lifeboat was stationed here in 1826. The current lifeboat station lies directly opposite, on the East Side of the harbour.
Continuing on the West Side, the shellfish house, ice house, and fish market occupy the rest of the waterfront along Pier Road. The harbour is still a busy working environment with the dredger waging constant battle against silt and mud. A small vibrant fishing fleet and a host of yachts and pleasure craft fill the upper and lower harbours, separated by the swing-bridge. Non-sailors can take a trip to sea on a variety of boats, whether for a day’s sea-angling or simply a short trip to enjoy the views and experience the sea spray.
The swing-bridge offers a great opportunity to watch the many craft on the move, particularly during bridge openings which take place in the 2-hour period either side of high tide and are marked by the ringing of a handbell by the bridge-men. Quite a sight to see 75 feet of roadway on the move – complete with its street lights!
On the water, you may see the inshore lifeboat crews at practice and admire the local rowing crews in training for the annual Whitby Regatta, the townsfolks’ own holiday festival held in August. The tall sailing ship, usually moored at the Dock End, is the Grand Turk seen in the TV Hornblower series and other nautical films. The old Whitby lifeboat, the Mary Ann Hepworth; the mini-replica of Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour, the yellow boats and traditional fishing cobles all add colour and character to the harbour.
The Upper Harbour, above the swing-bridge, holds the marina yacht berthing. There is a riverside walk alongside the marina, offering fascinating views across the harbour to the Abbey, while on the opposite bank lies the busy Parkol shipyard and dry dock. Yet further upstream beyond the high-level road bridge, the Esk slips into its quieter, though still tidal, reaches where a host of wildlife thrives on the steep-sided, wooded banks of the river and swans glide serenely on the water.
People used to say that ’the only road to Whitby is the sea’, because crossing the North York Moors was very difficult until the first turnpike road was built in 1764. Thus, while many towns centre on a market square, Whitby’s heart is its harbour. The bottle-shaped estuary of the River Esk was the only natural harbour along the 100 miles (160 km) of treacherous coastline between the rivers Tees and Humber. By the early 1300s merchants from Lombardy and all over Northern Europe were sailing to Whitby, to trade with the wealthy Abbey. The natural harbour was improved with quays, a bridge and a pier – perhaps the first attempt to shelter the harbour from the full force of the North Sea. The main export was salt herring, with imports of wine and other supplies for Abbey use. Interestingly, coal was shipped to the Abbey from Sunderland as early as 1392 – the first record of the trade that was to make Whitby’s fortune.
Alum shale was discovered locally in the early 1600s, but required large shipments of coal and urine (for ammonia) to produce the finished product. Local fishermen had the navigational skills needed for coastal cargo shipping but required much larger vessels so shipyards developed along the west bank of the Upper Harbour. Sir Hugh Cholmley, the Lord of the Manor, commissioned a stone-built West Pier in 1632 and a new draw-bridge in 1634.
Whitby’s ship-building and repair industry expanded rapidly, driven by demand from the alum trade and the shipping of coal from Newcastle to London. Such was the growth that by the early 1700s Whitby ships were sailing regularly to the Baltic to secure the large quantities of timber, pitch and hemp needed for ship-building, sail and rope-making. At its peak in the 1790′s, Whitby vied with Newcastle to be the second largest producer of merchant ships, after London. The 14 shipyards with many dry docks, plus the sail-lofts and timber ponds extended along both sides of the upper harbour, to beyond where the high-level road bridge now spans the river.
From 1702, every passing collier ship paid a toll towards maintenance of the piers so vital to Whitby’s role as a harbour of refuge on this perilous coast. The sands between Tate Hill Pier and the East Pier are still known as Colliers’ Hope. If a storm-tossed ship could reach that small beach, then she was safe – at least until she set sail again. The piers were altered and extended several times, to better guide shipping safely into harbour and to lessen silting of the channel. The West Pier lighthouse was added in 1840 and that on the East Pier in 1856. The pier extensions were added around 1912 and the present swing-bridge opened in 1909.