Back in the decade when flares were in fashion, my kid brother loved a bad joke, “Knock, knock. Who’s there?”, “Dr”, “Dr Who?”. He didn’t laugh when it came on the tele’ though. Nor did I; at the first sign of a Dalek we’d scuttle off behind the black leatherette settee. I’m reminded of this when I come eye to stalk with one in a shop window. I’m tempted to take it home, but can’t help wondering how I’d get it upstairs… Besides, who needs the Doctor when you can travel back through time in Whitby?
You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit befuddled when you step off the train here. If you disembark in March, you might find yourself reflected in a multitude of mirrors, atop Vespas, Lambrettas and their like. Though the names conjure the cool charisma of urban Europeans, their fronts are festooned, “that’s got more lights than a Christmas tree!” Their bespoke, polished paintwork transforms them into the mobile, motorised works of art their owners couldn’t afford the first time around.
Portlier, but still sharply pressed and dressed, peacock Mods display their colours; Fred Perry shirts, Harrington jackets, haircuts á la Paul Weller. The target motif is a badge of belonging; a raffish reminder of carefree days spent in teenage bedrooms, before boredom in the boardroom paid their bills. Scooter weekends once struck fear in the hearts of seaside shopkeepers, but these are the revival of a revival. Watching the boys revisit their youth, takes me back to mine.
Our neighbour was so slender, she earned the epithet “Polythene Pam”. There wasn’t much of her, but she was full of fun. One airless afternoon, my brothers and I played French cricket in the street. As big sister, I insisted on going first, forgetting that no stumps meant they’d be bowling at the batsman. With my ego as bruised as my shins, I refused to field and retreated into the shade. Inevitably, once indoors I grew restless. I mithered my minder though I could see she needed to focus. Snapping a length of cotton from the reel, she moistened the end between pursed lips. Narrowing her eyes, she attempted to thread it through the elusive eye of her needle, sighing each time it snaked its escape.
Although “Aunty Pam” was no more a seamstress than a sister to Mum, she’d have a go at anything for her loved ones. What she lacked in technique, she made up for with invention. She once spent hours collecting newspapers for a fancy dress costume whose body was born of papier-mâché. The remainder was rolled and stuffed into four pairs of tights, dyed green with food colouring retrieved from the back of the pantry. She couldn’t risk laddering the legs as she had no spares, but the more she filled them, the longer they became. When her daughter finally donned the octopus, her schoolmates couldn’t get close enough to play.
This project was another labour of love, Pam was struggling to sew a bar towel emblazoned with the Union Jack across the shoulders of a green fishtail parka. Trying not to curse in front of me she tut-tutted her frustration, forcing the reluctant needle through the thick fabric in an effort to please her eldest son. Though the reinvented rallies are better, brighter reincarnations of a youth left miles behind, truth is tied to vintage threads. There should be a special label for such customisation, “Handmade in Whitby, with a Mother’s devotion”.
Time marches on; come October, travellers from Pickering to Ruswarp and all stops in between, pack up their troubles and embark on a sentimental journey. The whistle blows, announcing the steam train’s gentle approach. Whitby’s answer to the Chatanooga Choo-Choo chugs and hisses as it rolls slowly home. The passengers now arriving on Platform One, have brought the second world war along for the ride.
Elegant women wear their hair in victory rolls, their shoulders wide and their skirts cut close. Precious, seamed stockings come in American Tan and lips are rouged. When a lady asks to be excused so she can powder her nose, it’s not entirely a euphemism. Military gentlemen resplendent in crisp uniforms of beige or blue stand to attention when she leaves the table and open the door. Lucky lovebirds parade along the prom’ in pairs, empty gloved hands swing suitcases as they go.
Gulls can’t find their footing on the bunting which criss-crosses the street. Shop windows display their wares through paper tape, while budget conscious buyers beat the carrier-bag charge with creaky wicker baskets. Everyone carries protection from chemical contamination, masked by brown parcels hanging from strings. Though it’s hard to believe in the face of our forces, German officers occupy Levisham, just a few stations away.
However, this weekend is all about leisure. One detachment spies the bridge and heads East; the Blitz café offers shelter and Camp chicory, with essence of coffee. Behind the chatter, Bing does his bit to cheer on the Brits, but The Andrews Sisters sing for the Yankee dollar. The Allies follow, not far behind; Willy’s jeep decants the officer’s wives. They sail into view like a Joyce Grenfell tune, barking orders at the little man with a white apron who stumbles in his hurry to serve them.
Despite the doilies, perfect circles mark the dark wooden table-tops because the little teapots leak and spot. Steel sieves strain to catch the leaves, sparing those who don’t want to know what the future holds. Sitting among the ladies, I’m struck by how instinctively we modify our behaviour to suit our surroundings. Though I usually drink from a chunky mug, today I sip delicately from a china cup and carefully balance my saucer.
Hardy souls brave the exposed Western front to get to the dance hall, taking their partners by the hand and twirling their girls while they still can. Mary Jane’s swing across the sprung floor. Though the Lindy Hop leaves them breathless and smiling and Glenn Miller gets them in the mood, the last waltz is the one they’re waiting for. Pale blossoms fade and fall back into line, wishing they could be picked or disappear completely. Green with envy, sullen in their silent admiration, wallflowers watch while lovers sway.
Cheek to cheek in the public arena, the Private makes the most of the moments they share. Tenderly tucking a smooth, dark lock back behind the deep red bloom above her ear, he whispers his undying affection. Their embrace is so close, only an army can part them. So long as the band continues to play, they forget the outside forces that will soon separate them.
Out of step and out of time, I linger in my reverie, conjuring the picture that hangs in my home. Grandad sports a double-breasted suit and a stripy tie; Nan wears a wide-collared coat with a big buckled belt. He’s tall, but leans protectively towards his petite bride. Despite strappy heels and her hair piled high, she can’t disguise her diminutive size. There’s no buttonhole or big, white dress, just a slender gold band and a light sprinkling of confetti. But her arm fits snugly in the crook of his and their happy eyes shine above broad sepia smiles. It’s clear that they have all they need.
I wonder how they’d feel about the re-enactors, playing at war for the weekend, people who weren’t there enjoying all the fun without the fear. Would they delight to see the bulldog spirit alive and well, or would the wail of a siren resurrect the pain? Nan shut herself in when thunder clapped; did she still hear bombs blasting the city into rubble?
As a little girl I grew curious about the few photo’s my Nan had framed. My favourite was tinted and perched on top of the china cabinet, where all her treasures were displayed. I was intrigued to see the face I knew so well worn by a young woman I had never met. One afternoon the rain pattered and ran down the window in rivulets, denying her a means of escape. Worn down, she submitted to my persistent questioning, “But first I’ll make a cuppa”.
Sliding the image from the frame she read the photographer’s pencilled dedication aloud, “Dearest sister of the late Ernest Field”. I didn’t understand what he meant by late, but felt an uncomfortable wriggle of guilt in my tummy when I saw the match shake in her hand. Inhaling deeply on her second cigarette while the first still smouldered in the ashtray, she explained her big brother had volunteered, along with most of the boys in her village. Ernest was 24 when he was killed in an ambush, the same age my mum was then. His death brought her family to the end of their line, just six months before peace was declared.
Seeing my now crestfallen face, she smiled reassuringly and read me the rest, “Best Water Colours. Uniform – A.T.S.”, then picked me up. “I never did like being told what to do, but it taught me a lesson. I haven’t joined so much as a Christmas club since!” I can’t help wishing I’d hugged her harder. There isn’t always time for a last goodbye. Queen Victoria showed a nation how to mourn. Thanks to her majestic lead a steady trade developed for prized Whitby jet and consumer demand for the polished black gem remains alive and well.
Should you arrive on All Hallows Eve, follow the lights of the Abbey until you reach cobbled streets, where quaint stores proffer treats you won’t find elsewhere. Famed for its unspoiled beauty and connection to Bram Stoker, the town has long been the favourite haunt for devotees of the Gothic scene. Inspired by the author’s magnum opus, ladies are laced into Victorian gowns. Sumptuous satins trail in their wake as they perambulate the length of Church Street. Their beaus are lavishly suited and booted, blood red cravats complete their attire. Society gathers to see and be seen.
For a price, ghost-walkers will take you to places others fear to go, or you can tread the time-worn path alone, up the 199 steps to rest a while in the churchyard where Mina first glimpsed her immortal lover. If the 19th century is somewhere you’re not yet ready to go, you could dip your toes in the main event instead, where the 1980’s continue unabashed and everyone craves their fix of The Cure.
Don’t imagine Whitby is behind the times though; a notorious presenter recently showed us the future in the shape of a car, which demonstrates that everyone is welcome here. Someone once said that sea-air is good “for what ails ya”, I can attest that the fear of imminent extermination soon fades once you’ve seen a Dalek Morris dance. And therein lies the joy; when you travel here, you can try on other lives for size and find kindred spirits who understand your passion. Perhaps in doing so, you’ll rediscover those who meant so much and helped you on your way, as I did. These are some of the reasons visitors leave the city behind and flock to our shores. So the only question you should be asking yourself is, when will your train arrive?