Oliver Cross: Sun, sea heritage and food make visits to Whitby great

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Last week, with the weather on my side, which doesn’t happen much these days, I visited Whitby to celebrate my partner Lynne’s birthday.

The bits I like most about Whitby are the remnants of its days as a major whaling, shipbuilding and fishing port; the busy harbour, the working boats still setting out for sea, the big houses built by the captains of the fleet, the packed, many-levelled hovels (now tastefully converted into holiday lets) which once housed the sea-workers.

I also admire the Captain Cook Museum, a reminder that one of the very few people who really did change the world once lived here, in crowded apprentices’ digs overlooking the quayside and, while the other apprentices behaved as badly as you would expect of healthy young people, studied late into the night with the help of candle-ends charmed out of one of the maid-servants. It was this combination of hard work and social skill (evidenced by both his treatment of his crews and his maid-servant ) which took him to the ends of the earth.

The best time to see the town is on a bright, early-spring, midweek day when, swept clean by the east wind and before the Goths, folkies and other tourists arrive, you can walk through the narrow streets of the old town without having to breathe in and shuffle yourself about to make any progress; or you can do the walk to Sandsend, sharing the beach only with a few dog-walkers and their absurdly happy dogs, for whom paradise is an empty beach and some seawater to shake their tails in.

And at the Captain Cook Museum, which, being an old house rather than an exhibition hall, would be rather difficult to negotiate in peak season, it’s possible to give all the exhibits the attention they deserve, which involves much gawping and lingering.

A few attractions are closed but the gypsy fortune-teller who is guaranteed to change your life is still there, after waiting for decades to change my life, as is the queue to get into The Magpie fish restaurant, which, despite its puzzling name (magpies and fish…where’s the connection?) has become a Yorkshire institution. I wouldn’t normally queue for institutional food but visiting The Magpie off-season a few years ago, I found that it really is very good, particularly because it employs mature – meaning over-21 – waitresses who are happy to be waiting, rather than to be finishing their dissertations, communicating their latest thoughts on Twitter or speculating on how they’re going to spend the rest of their evening.

The Magpie now has a rival almost next door; the Quayside, which has recently been named, by the National Federation of Fish Fryers, the 2014 fish-and-chip restaurant of the year.

We tried a takeaway there, because fish and chips always taste better against a background of squawky gulls and ozone.

The fish (plump, white and fresh) and the chips (chunky and crisp), were par for just about any Whitby chippy because a below-par seaside chippy couldn’t survive the fierce heat of competition, unlike a below-par bank.

I’m not sure why the awards judges chose to honour the Quayside, but it may have been because, instead of issuing take-away customers with a fairly useless little wooden fork, the restaurant provides them with a full-sized, sturdy plastic fork. In a crowded field, little things mean a lot, particularly when it comes to handling mushy peas.

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