Saturday morning dawned bright and clear. Allowing a wonderful view over the fields to the Abbey which would be our destination later that day. The plan was to meet on the top of the west cliff, walk down into, and through, the town, before ascending to the Abbey on the top of the east cliff.
But first, we had to get there and, walking through the town to climb the hill, both Gary and I were reminiscing about childhood visits to Whitby. Gary, who had come over for the weekend from the Czech Republic, recalled painting the Abbey and buying winkles from one of the harbour-side stalls, while I have fond memories of the beachside café that used to let you bring a tray of hot drinks onto the beach. My favourite was Horlicks. No plastic cups back then to litter the beach and add to the pollution of the seas, but proper teapots and crockery. That set Gary off with a craving for Horlicks… it is odd the things you suddenly miss as an ex-pat.
The weather was surprisingly mild for December as we walked beside the harbour. Gulls cried and an incredible number of green-eyed cormorants fished or roosted on the quayside stalls. I remember being taught, as a girl, about how cormorants are used for fishing in some countries, but had never considered the possibility that we might have them here until I saw one on our travels. Since then, I see them so frequently that I can only conclude I wasn’t looking for most of my life.
That is one of the gifts. both of carrying a camera and of turning to a spiritual path that develops awareness; you begin to notice what you are seeing, rather than the mind taking only a fuzzy and general snapshot of what the eye registers. Details that would once have been overlooked, even as they were filed in the archive of memory, begin to make their way into consciousness. The only sadness is that it makes you aware of how long you have walked the earth missing the marvels around you.
Had we not been so close to the meeting time, I would have suggested a wander on the little beach… as much for nostalgia’s sake as anything. I have fond memories of paddling there in hand-knitted sweaters, so full of sea water they reached the knees… but it was better than the summer chill. As it was, we headed instead for the steps up to the monument to Captain James Cook.
I remembered the climb as longer than it was, which it must have been for legs even shorter than they are now, but even so, I was struggling by the time I reached the top. Bits of me were not behaving and, without the painkillers that I can’t take if I’m driving, were to make some parts of the weekend unwise or impossible.
We were the first to arrive and had time to take in the splendid views of the town and harbour from the whalebone arch at the top of the road named Khyber Pass… both reminiscent of less than savoury moments in British history. However, we view the idea of hunting whales today, though, at one time it was seen as an essential industry in which Whitby played a major part. The huge jaw bones of the whales would once be fixed to the prow of a returning whaler to show the families anxiously waiting on shore that there had been no lives lost to the hunt. The arch has stood here since 1853, although this is its third incarnation, as deteriorating bones have been replaced over the years. These fifteen-foot bones came from a bowhead whale, hunted under licence by Alaskan Inuits and were unveiled in 2003.
Beside the arch is the eight-pointed directional star with a statue of James Cook at its heart. Cook was a mapmaker and explorer, credited with the first European navigation of the eastern coast of Australia, amongst other ‘discoveries’. The Endeavour, arguably Cook’s most famous ship, was launched from Whitby in 1764. It is odd to think that ancestors of mine, one of whom came from Lythe to marry a Master Rope-maker in Whitby, might have helped make Endeavour’s rigging.
The rest of the party arrived and we once more descended into the town in search of morning coffee. After which, deciding that common sense should prevail, given how I was feeling, I took the car to the Abbey for our next stop, rather than the much-preferred route up the hundred and ninety-nine steps with the others. I felt bad enough about having to do so, without the disappointment, as climbing those steps had always been a treat when I was small. The cliffs you see from the steps have changed a good deal since then, with landslides carrying many of the graves… and their skeletal occupants… from the clifftop churchyard down into the town. But then, there are tales to tell of that churchyard…
It was, famously, an inspiration for Bram Stoker when writing Dracula after he visited the place in 1890. In one scene from the novel, a large, black dog is seen to run up the steps that lead to the churchyard. There is a legend of a Barguest haunting Whitby….and well as the Barguest Coach that can be seen. The tales tell that it appears on the third night after a sailor is buried there who has died on land. It dashes up Green Lane towards the church and Abbey, carrying skeletal passengers and pulled by headless horses, to collect the sailor’s soul, only to plunge over the cliff and drive out to sea.