HISTORY hangs heavy here. Dickens once stayed; Cook recruited sailors for his voyages.
The dark narrow bar, with its bare floors and high chandeliers, holds an eerie sense of the past, as though three hundred years of stories have been absorbed into the brickwork and might ease themselves out after dark.
Beside the stairs up to the bedrooms, huge framed documents of conveyances and indentures in a tight and florid Victorian script tell some of the story of this ancient place, old photographs of smiling street urchins and pinafored fishwives show a little what Dickens himself might have seen when he visited the town.
Beyond, on a wind-ravaged headland high above the slate grey sea, is the stone husk of Whitby’s great abbey, established in the seventh century and sacked in the ruinous Dissolution of the sixteenth. In its abbey grounds is an ill-placed mansion established by the Chomley family in Tudor times. Friends to the King, they latched onto the monks’ misfortune to seize the land and further enrich themselves.
150 years later, Sir Hugh Chomley built the pub, taking as its name the creatures which graced his coat of arms. Beside the main door is the entrance to a rear yard where “Good stabling” was offered to travellers seeking a place to rest themselves and their horses.
Few arrive on horseback these days, but the White Horse and Griffin remains true to that time-honoured purpose. For much of the 20th century it lay empty and unloved, used merely as storage for fishing nets, but a sensitive restoration gave it new life in the 1990s. Ten beautifully-decorated bedrooms have been fitted into the quirky, archaic geometry of its four floors, a dark, low-ceilinged cellar re-purposed as a restaurant.
But we start in the bar, where a careful refit, blended with the genuine patina of age, has created an intimate drinking space long on atmosphere and short on furniture. The panelled counter at the end of the room has space for just two handpulls and three fonts; the former are dedicated to Yorkshire classics Landlord and Black Sheep. From here, it’s a short drop to a dining room of flagged floors and bare brick, chunky old pine tables, gnarled oak beams, the flicker of tealights and the glimmer of polished glass. We’re halfway underground and can see only the lower halves of passers-by on the cobbles.
For my starter, small mounds of Whitby crab are delicately presented with slices of watermelon and slivers of radish (£8); my partner’s pairs gin-soaked smoked salmon with cubes of beetroot and yellow pepper (£8).
From this seafood opener, we move quickly to red meat. I’ve gone for the lamb, juicy chunks of rump with some fragrantly cheesy Dauhinoise potatoes, leeks, celeriac and mushrooms (£19). Across the table, a slab of sirloin is surrounded by all the usual suspects though the jug of stinging green-pepper sauce is an optional extra (£21).
In a town where no visit would be complete without fish and chips on the sea wall, watching the boats beneath the constant cry of seagulls, The White Horse and Griffin is the high end of the market, its quality dining and first class accommodation the antithesis of Whitby’s budget B&Bs. Yet few places anywhere can offer so vivid an experience of that other-worldly sense of slipping into the past.
Church Street, Whitby
Host: Ed Henebury
Type: Bar, restaurant and hotel
Opening Hours: Noon-10pm daily
Beers: Timothy Taylor Landlord (£4), Black Sheep (£3.90), Dortmunder Pils (£4), Guinness (£4), South West Orchards Cider (£3.90)
Wines: Great selection available by the glass or bottle
Food: Quality menu served daily
Accommodation: Ten ensuite bedrooms
Disabled: Slightly cramped access and no special facilities. No lifts.
Children: Welcomed but no special facilities
Beer garden: None
Parking: None. Pay and display car parks available nearby in town centre
Telephone: 01947 604857