One pilgrimage almost every visitor to Whitby makes is the climb up the famous 199 steps. Looking back at the harbour mouth where the North Sea nudges the twin piers, a panoramic view stretches inland up the river Esk to the high-level bridge. I once heard a lady escorting a foreign visitor remark here was "an old English type fishing town". Whitby is certainly that, but also much more; a community founded on religion but sustained by the bounty of the sea. A blend of ancient and modern.
The town, then known as Witebi, Whitteby, Wyteby, Whiteby or Whitbye, was first brought into prominence by the building of the first monastery under the guidance of St Hilda in 657 AD. Prior to this period, although the Romans kept written records, local history was generally passed by word of mouth among the uneducated population, and it was only in religious institutions, the occupants being literate, that records were kept.
The first recorded voyage from Whitby was in AD 684 made by Aelfleda, the princess who succeeded Hilda as Abbess, and by 1088 the town had been officially recognised as a port as the head of the monastery collected harbour dues from fishing boats. The vessels would have been fairly crude, built locally, although the first craft mentioned by name was the Maribote in 1326. As Whitby’s stature grew (the population greater than Scarborough in 1811), the number of boats and ships registered multiplied dramatically. In 1676 they numbered 76, doubling within 50 years and by 1790 amounted to 260, some 49,000 tons, employing almost
Below: Whitby's current lifeboat (2011), George and Mary Webb, on her berth on the east side of the harbour. The 199 steps can be seen in the back-ground curving up the cliff to St Mary's Church.