• Janette Frawley

'I want to flit my eyes like skipping feet over red-top tiny crooked houses, down tiny crooked lanes

Is it cheating to drive to the Whitby Abbey carpark?

Not the way we have planned our day.


We DID drive up to the Abbey carpark. But the Visitor's Centre is closed and there is a note on the door advising visitors to walk around the outer wall to the museum to gain entry to the Abbey grounds. Today is not quite as clear as yesterday. Scudding grey clouds promise rain, but I'm perhaps not as worried about the rain as I am about the wind. We have already been to Sainsbury and Aldi this morning to buy thermals because the weather is far colder than expected. Hunched inside my coat and scarf wound around my face, I try to protect my delicate Australian skin from the ravages of the icy blasts that are hitting me from all directions. I struggle to walk against the wind that is blasting from the sea and feel that I am taking two steps back for each step forward.


Finally, I find a protected spot where I find relief from the relentless icy gusts as I enter the gates and make my way to the museum. Within seconds of entering the museum, I am perspiring. Why do they set the heating so high?


Built on a headland overlooking the North Sea in the 7th century, Whitby Abbey was originally a Christian monastery before becoming a Benedictine Abbey. The abbey was built, destroyed, and rebuilt before King Henry VIII destroyed it in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monastries. It was purchased by the Chomley family whose mansion next to the abbey is now used as the museum. During World War I, it sustained considerable damage when it was bombed by the Germans.


Walking out of the museum building, the ruins beckon. Standing on this cliff for centuries, buffeted by winds and bombs and everything else that time and politics and wars have thrown at it, it stands proud and tall and is not only a mighty landmark, but sparked the imagination of Irish author Bram Stoker in his famous novel, 'Dracula'.


'The great tempest broke rapidly and without warning in the darkness. The sea around Whitby convulsed, waves rising in growing fury, over-topping one another, beating white-topped on the sands, rushing up the cliffs and breaking with great spumes over the piers of the harbour. Adding to the difficulties and dangers of the night, a huge sea-fog drifted inland, ghost-like, its wet clouds so dank and cold it was as though the spirits of those lost at sea touched the living with the clammy hand of death. One by one, fishing-boats running madly for safety made the harbour, guided by a great searchlight mounted on the top of East Cliff.' (Bram Stoker 1847-1912, Dracula)


Standing on the east headland, high above the sea, the abbey ruins soar high in the air and it's not hard to see how they inspire authors, artists, photographers, and historians. Centuries of history reverberate through the remains, whilst the workmanship of stonemasons and builders of the Gothic era is very much in evidence. It's hard not to get lost in its magnificence. Just touching the stone walls is like taking a snapshot of history and listening to its story. But no matter how romantic or thrilling this visit is, the cold hard reality of the outdoor elements quickly moves us towards the Church of St. Mary just below.


The Church of St. Mary dates from 1110 and was originally of Norman architecture. The interior dates from the 18th and 19th centuries and it has been renovated and extended over the centuries. The church graveyard was also mentioned in the novel 'Dracula'. The most famous feature of the Church, however, is the set of exactly 199 steps leading down to the cobbled streets of Whitby below. The existence of the steps has been recorded since 1370 and had been originally made of timber. These steps are the most direct route from the town to the church for funeral processions and platforms designed to provide mourners and pallbearers the chance to rest en-route to the church are still in existence.


We walk down the steps from the Church of St. Mary, stopping to take in the exquisite views and to take photos. Our descent into the tiny winding cobbled streets below is like walking into a time warp. Not much has changed the appearance of the shops and houses here. Their doors lead directly to the streets and the quaint shop fronts still display things like Whitby jet and other typical wares.


We wander happily through the narrow streets before crossing the River Esk to the busy pier where fishing boats had brought in their catch earlier today. We are about to taste some of the local catch at the iconic Magpie Cafe, which is famous for its fish and chips. I've already made up my mind about what I am ordering.

What must come down must also go back up.

Our car is still waiting for us at the Abbey carpark and whilst Natasha takes one route, I take the stairs. The early sunset has seen the sun finally peeking out from behind the clouds and it is showing the town in a different light. Above me, the reflection is glinting off the Abbey, bathing it in gold. I have never seen anything like this sight and although I'm always in the wrong spot to get a photo that depicts exactly what I am seeing, I can only see it like that in my memory.


I dawdle around the walls, peeking over the walls periodically to watch the sun's golden reflection gradually disappear from the Abbey. As daylight dissipates into the ether, the shadowy, dark, and creepy abbey emerges. The Dracula abbey.


Tonight we have booked into Castle Smeaton. We are staying inside a real castle, albeit in the 'servants' quarters, I'm sure.

Title Quote: Kevin Eaglefields 'Whitby'




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