It was a pity that we could not fit into our Wilfrid pilgrimage in 1999 a visit to Whitby, just an hours journey from York. The headland site of St. Hilda’s renowned monastery was where Wilfrid had his greatest triumph at the Synod of Whitby in 664. This had left me after the pilgrimage with a strong desire to return to Whitby someday to continue the research into our Saint’s life.
All the events surrounding Whitby around the 7th century are of course vividly described in Bede’s ‘The Ecclesiastical History of the English People’. I was fascinated to learn that this manuscript not only inspired me to return to Whitby but also motivated a very influential Norman knight nearly 1,000 years ago!
Viking raids ransacked Hilda’s monastery in 867 and all monastic life ceased for the next two centuries. However, thanks to Bede, the record of Northumbrian monasticism was kept intact. Shortly after the Norman Conquest Reinfrid, one of William’s knights, read Bede’s History (then over 300 yrs old) and visited the ruins of Hilda’s monastery. It is said that what he saw at Whitby converted him to a life of religion and in 1073-4 Reinfrid and two companions Aldwin and Elfwig set out from Evesham to visit the northern shrines they had rediscovered in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. This became known as the ‘Mission to the North’ and the monks first settled at Jarrow, where Bede had lived, later taking in Jarrow’s sister house at Wearmouth and in the late 1070s Reinfrid settled at Whitby. The monks built with great industry, particularly the magnificent cathedral at Durham, and, more modestly at Whitby. Reinfrid’s abbey was again rebuilt in the 1220s and it is the impressive ruins of this latter building that we see today.
A business trip to Banbury in October gave me the incentive to carry on northwards and realise my ambition to visit Whitby! I searched the internet for places to stay and was rather taken aback to find them all full. I had forgotten that it was half term and that week was also the Captain Cook Festival, followed a week later by the Gothic Society Goths Festival. My preconception of a sleepy little fishing town was rapidly changing!
Fortunately I managed to reserve a room in The Old Hall Hotel, a Jacobean mansion built in 1603 in Ruswarp, just on the outskirts of Whitby. I decided to take the route from the M1 past York and Pickering over the desolate Yorkshire moors. As I started to descend from the moors down towards Whitby and the sea, sunshine broke through the clouds and the vista was simply breathtaking. The hill down towards Whitby was very steep and I mused on how difficult this road would be to navigate in snow; little was I to know that I would return over the moors on Monday morning in the eye of the great storm in massive snow blizzards!
My concern about staying at Ruswarp rather than in Whitby was evidently unfounded. The Old Hall Hotel turned out to be very cosy and much closer than I imagined. I was rather surprised to learn that all I had to do was walk down the paved path in the fields alongside the hotel garden, join the railway track which runs alongside the river Esk and follow the line into Whitby! The journey was just one mile and took me through the peaceful, lush and very beautiful Esk valley with a great brick viaduct spanning the river, all as described in Chapter 6 of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula written in 1897.
As Whitby came into view, all the fishing boats and harbour activity reminded me that this was still a very important fishing town and there, towering over everything on the eastern headland, were the magnificent ruins of the great abbey and the separate (and surprisingly older but still very active) St Mary’s church.
Whitby is situated on a geological fault where the river Esk joins the sea and breaches the forbidding cliff line, the scene still of much coastal erosion. The old port town buildings are clustered in winding cobbled streets on the east side with the ancient abbey and St Mary’s church towering over everything on the most imposing headland site.
On the West Cliff there is the Victorian seaside development that followed the introduction of the railway, the quay with the fish buildings and the bustling shops. An impressive swing bridge joins the east and west sides.
Whitby prospered during the Middle Ages as a fishing port and it is still an economic mainstay. For a time Whitby was an important whaling port and a reminder is the Whalebone Arch on the West Cliff by the Royal Hotel. Whitby was also where some very famous seafaring people lived including Captain James Cook whose voyages (1769-75) were in ships actually built at Whitby.
One of the highlights of my trip was to attend the special service to commemorate the birth of Captain Cooke at St. Mary’s church on Sunday 29 October. Hymns that included ‘Eternal Father strong to save’ seemed to take on a new dimension coming from such a historic seafaring church and aided by the glorious singing of the Marske Fisherman’s Choir.
To get to the church (and the adjoining abbey) on foot you have to climb the 199 steps from Church Street, but only after visiting the Abbey Steps Tea Room at the foot of the steps for the best cream teas you will ever taste! The church was built between 1110 and 1120 and therefore predates the ruins of the existing abbey by over 100 years! This reminded me that the townsfolk were not permitted to worship at the abbey and had to have their own place of worship. One blessing was that the church did not suffer as the abbey did on 14 December 1539 from Henry VIII’s suppression of the greater houses.
However, as the population of Whitby expanded, extra isles and galleries were added culminating in a large addition to the north west side in 1819, bringing the seating (of a church the area roughly of St. Wilfrid’s) to over 1,500!
All the original box pews are intact and there are a number of reminders of what it was like to attend church in the days that it was compulsory and social status very much dictated where you sat and who you looked at. Architecturally the most disturbing example of the class aspect is the pew used by the Lords of the Manor known as the Cholmley pew. The pew was erected around 1600-1625 in the most conspicuous place possible, above and hiding one of the finest surviving examples of Norman arches and facing away from the alter and towards the congregation!
I am most grateful to guide Joan McDougal and Churchwarden and Organist Ray Conn for all the time they spent with me discussing the local history. It was Ray who recommended I stay at Sneaton Castle at St. Hilda’s Priory run by the Sisters of the Holy Paraclete.
So much more to tell but out of space! Just take my advice and see Whitby for yourself.