Whitby Weekend: Night Lights

We had, finally, booked into our hotels and headed back into Whitby to join the rest of the party for dinner. Arriving early, there was time to wander the darkened streets for a while and, eventually, call for a swift half at one of the sixteenth-century inns in the old part of town.

First, though, we had to walk across the swing bridge that divides the Georgian spa town, served by its three chalybeate springs, from the old town, watching as we went, the reflections in the tidal River Esk, looking one way, out to sea and the other towards the upper harbour where the Penny Hedge is planted every year, as penance in perpetuity for the murder of a hermit.

Three hunters chased a wild boar, but it took shelter in a chapel. When the hermit who lived there tried to protect the animal, the hunters killed him. He forgave them before he died, but the penance imposed was that they and their descendants should plant a hedge near the spot that could withstand three tides, cutting the stakes with a penny knife. The ceremony has been carried out every year bar one, when the tide was too high, since 1159.

We crossed the bridge into the old town. I love this corner of Whitby. Almost all my memories see it crowded with the hordes of sunlit holidaymakers that throng the narrow streets all summer long. There are tiny shops selling jet, souvenirs and fossils, the famous ‘Lucky Ducks’ that were always made before your eyes… all housed in a ramshackle jumble of buildings that span the centuries. The goods in the windows may have changed, but the old quarter of Whitby has a timeless air.

I have often wondered how many people stop to look up, above the storefronts and plate glass, at the real history of what was once a tiny village? How many who climb the one hundred and ninety-nine steps up to St Mary’s church realise that the ‘landings’ where they take a break and look out over the bay were made to let pall-bearers rest when carrying coffins up to the cliff-top churchyard, now crumbling into the sea?

We were lucky enough to have much of the old town to ourselves; the chill and early darkness of a December evening had sent many already into the warmth of the pubs. I admit, I loved having the town so empty for once and would have loved to explore, but food and good company awaited… followed by a very long evening, talking and catching up, in the bar of the pub where we were staying. That is one of the joys of these weekend workshops; Whitby, after all, will be there long after I am no more than a memory… but time with friends that you see all too rarely, once lost, does not come again.

5 thoughts on “Whitby Weekend: Night Lights

  1. That is some legend of the hermit. I’m not sure I understand the penance… could you explain? What is a penny hedge and knife? Is it replanted near the sea and every year? And most of all, why?

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    1. I’m not sure I entirely understand its relevance either, Eliza. Planting a hedge hardly seems to fit as just penance for taking a life. The hedge, which is no more than several stoout branches driven into the earth that have been cut with a knife ‘costing no more tan one penny’, may be a survival of the temporary pens into which game was driven during a hunt.
      Like many legends, there may be no, or little truth to the story of its origins, but the fact of the ritualised planting, continuously performed for so long, makes it one of the oldest surviving traditions.
      Whitby Museum’s website has a full version of the story and the arguments against the veracity of the legend here: https://whitbymuseum.org.uk/whitby-history/penny-hedge/

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  2. I enjoyed the account of this little town and all the history surrounding it. Like Eliza, I too wondered about the Hermit. What is jet? I saw it mentioned in the account and I have no clue. This was a very good accounting. Thank you.

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    1. Whitby Jet is a fossilised wood from Jurassic trees that grew on the coast over a hundred and eighty million years ago. It is a deep, rich black, as a rule and was much prized by the Victorians for making mourning jewellery.

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