Stairway to Heaven

Visitors climbing the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey''w132407c
Visitors climbing the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey''w132407c

by Maureen Robinson

Wonderful Whitby is the main fishing port along this coast. The newest part spreads behind West Cliff. The old town on the east bank of the River Esk is connected by a swing bridge.

This fabulous, exhilarating walk of five miles departs from the east bank, with most interesting buildings, a maze of narrow streets and an abbey standing above the town dominating the scene.

Enjoy the inner harbour; the 199 Church Stairs; St Mary’s Church; Whitby Abbey; the old alum works; the Hawsker Bull and Lighthouse, along with a country bridleway linking farms.

Access. Take the A171 road to Whitby and enter Church Street alongside the River Esk, with parking in one of the public car parks or beside the road.

Start. Follow Church Street northwards by the inner harbour noting Scoresby House, where the whaling skipper once lived, and the Seaman’s Hospital.

Reaching the old town, the cobbled lane, fascinating shops and Market Square, head towards the parish church of St Mary’s.

Leap the 199 church stairs which were converted from wooden steps to stone around 1774, and see the adjacent Donkey Path. At the top, admire off left the carved sandstone memorial cross to Caedmon who was a monk at St Hilda’s Abbey in the 7th century. He became the “father of English sacred song”, and the country’s first hymn writer.

St Mary’s Church, dated from around 1110, is well worth visiting. From the cliff edge there have been cliff falls. This has necessitated a diversion of the Cleveland Way from the Abbey Plain. Just cross the car park to follow the path beside right walling with the abbey beyond. The abbey is in the care of English Heritage. The ruins which overlook the town are in one of Britain’s most dramatic sites.

Seek almost immediately, off Abbey Lane, a Cleveland Way sign indicating your turn off left. Follow the well-maintained sandy path which becomes enclosed between post and wire fencing.

This public footpath heads alongside fields towards Saltwick Nab, seen as a black rocky spear lunging out to sea. Many unsuspecting ships have been impaled here, including the Rohilla hospital ship in 1914.

Passing holiday homes and an erosion control notice, descend 15 steps to Saltwick Nab, National Trust. Continue through the holiday park keeping to the left metalled drive with children’s play area; mini market; launderette; cafe; amusements; reception and holiday home sales.

Keep straight forward and discover off left, a footpath descending into Saltwick Bay – best saved for another day! Just admire the bird’s eye view. The Cleveland Way leads to two stone pillars and walling. Just beyond is a kissing gate to your left. Enter, and your path follows the cliff top alongside fields punctuated by several kissing gates and wooden steps. Ignore any cattle – they’re used to walkers! Disused alum works are noted. Alum was a flourishing industry during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Shortly, there looms ahead t’awd bull! Have no fear, this Hawsker bull has no bellow. It’s a foghorn dating from around 1898.

When visibility at sea was poor, the foghorn bellowed and kept folk awake at night. It operated until 1987 when modern electronic navigation meant the Hawsker bull could be silenced forever!

Beyond the white fog station, the cliff path veers alongside the white walking of the lighthouse to meet a Cleveland Way post near a wall stile. Here’s a good spot for a flask of coffee!

The lighthouse is another victim of progress. Known as the High Light, it has sent its welcome beams across the waves since 1859. The lighthouse keeper’s cottages are now to let for holidays.

Mount the wall stile on to a metallic lane which is a public bridleway. Turn right to pass the private entrance to Hornblower’s Lodge, before ascending to Ling Hill Cottage and elbowing right to High Barn. Crossing a cattle grid, descend a fine track banked either side, with open fields and stone walling reminiscent of the Dales. You’ll see a silo ahead. Enter a farmyard, keeping the silo to your right, and passing between farm buildings, meet Hawsker Lane. Turn right, and passing the entrance to Whitby Holiday Park continue to a farm. [The hedges along here are laden with blackberries in season!]

Cross the road with care to seek an exit off left.

It’s near stone walling and is indicated by a yellow waymarker. The narrow field path is in line with the telephone wire. High walling features to the left. Leave by a kissing gate at the far end. Spital Vale lies below, as you follow a flagged footpath with houses to the right elevation. This concealed path becomes a road at Folly Gardens. Cross the road and enter The Ropery, with St Hilda’s Business Centre to the left. This was once a hospital. Pass the Business Centre to veer left off The Ropery to white cottages close by. Descend a routed footpath between cottages dated 1595, and Sandglass Cottage. Flights of steps down this intriguing alley are known as Saltpanwell Steps. They were an ancient route to and from the town. During the 16th century they led to salt pans in the harbour. At the foot of the steps is Church Street with Scoresby House to your right.

Just turn right, and across the road beside the inner harbour you’ll see in the walling, details relating to the Penny Hedge ceremony held here each year. Do read all about it, and attend next year maybe?

With your route completed, why not explore more of Whitby, or take welcome refreshment in one of many dining options?

Distance. 5 miles, allow 2.5 hours.

Refreshment. Take a picnic or find facilities in Whitby.

Map reference. Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL27. North York Moors Eastern Area, scale: 2½ inches = 1 mile.