We climb the steps to the Abbey at Whitby, aware that something different is happening; that the curtain of time is being drawn back… for as long as we can keep the critical mind at bay
The years pass away. From the present keepers back through years of being a rich man’s possession… As – in a mist – we see the year 1539 and the sacking and wrecking of King Henry’s agents as they work the carnage of ‘Tudor Dissolution’.
It was dark, but not late, as we drove at a leisurely pace back into Whitby, expecting the streets to be as quiet as the previous night. As we approached the bridge, though, a drumbeat began… and at, the same moment, I saw the distinctive shape of a well-known banner, black against the harbour lights. In unison, Stuart and I…like children seeing Santa Claus… cried, “FOXES!” And suddenly, it was all about finding somewhere…anywhere… to park.
We’d had no idea they were going to be in Whitby that weekend! What were the chances? With one thing and another, we had not been able to see them dance this year and we were both missing that.
Gary, of course, hadn’t a clue what was happening… and to be fair, neither Stuart nor I were a lot of help, at least not in any coherent sense. Just saying ‘its Mister Fox’ repeatedly is hardly going to be illuminating.
Where do they come from?
They come out of the night…
Where do they go to?
Back to the night they return…
They dance in the dark to pipe and drum and fiddle
They dance in the dark with fire and brandished flame…
No-one knows who they are…
I drove across the bridge.. and back again, looking for somewhere to park the car. Pulled into the station, sent the menfolk off to watch and set about trying to work the parking meter in the dark.
By the time I got there, Crow had vanished and the dance had begun. I hadn’t a hope in Hades of finding the menfolk in that crowd, so shuffled around trying to find a space where I could, perhaps, get a few decent shots for the next Mister Fox book.
With the demons from the afternoon’s Krampus parade that we would have watched had we not been engaged elsewhere, we watched the Foxes dance.
It was a wonderful surprise and a perfect end to the day. (There is a superb panorama of the demons on Facebook.)
I caught sight of Stuart and Gary in the crowd opposite me; one of them bobbing and dancing to the familiar music. Not that I could keep still… I had the camera aimed at the dancing ground, was counting steps for when to press the shutter without looking at the camera and grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
The fire, the smell, the smoke and the music… between them, what the sea had begun, the Foxes completed… and by the time we got back, starving, to our hotel, I felt so much better! You just can’t beat Mister Fox for a moment of sheer exhilaration!
Although not, strictly speaking, part of the official Silent Eye weekend, it was very much a part of my weekend… and one of those fortuitous gifts that just seem to happen when the time is right. It was just a shame that the others were not with us… that we hadn’t known they would be there… although, the surprise made it all the more special.
But our timing was perfect. As Stuart pointed out, had we made any other choices, or done anything other than what we did throughout the entire course of the day, from when we left the café or the Abbey, to when we left the Cod and Lobster, we would not only have missed them, but probably never even known we had. It really was a gift.
It is rare, on one of our workshop weekends, to get a moment to yourself outside of your room. There is so much to do and any free time is generally spent catching up with people you too seldom see. But, given that I was in no fit state to join the others for their cliff-top walk, I found myself in the car-park above Staithes on my own.
Staithes is a pretty village, once a major fishing port with every available inch of land holding fast to a cottage. The narrow streets and gay colours of the houses give it a welcoming feel… but I had completely forgotten about the hill that leads down to the bay. And this is not a hill anyone should be able to forget. Down is relatively easy… although the bits of me that were aching disagreed… but getting back up would be hard work. Still, I had a while to wait and, with the last light of the day tinting the sky, I wrapped my cloak around me, thankful of its warmth, and sat down to watch the sea.
There is a lot of history in Staithes, and I should probably mention that Captain James Cook had lived and worked here as a boy before the sea caught him and him on the waves, but to be honest, the only thing I could think of was that the sea had me too. I have never wanted to become a sailor, but the sea has always pulled at my heartstrings. Perhaps it has something to do with being as islander… something we tend to forget when we live inland. The sea is in our blood and, although many of us see it but rarely, it is never really very far away. I have lived inland all my life, but sometimes closer to the sea than I am now. For years, I did not see it at all, and even now, when I get to the coast a little more often, there is a childlike excitement and a sense of coming home.
The waves beyond the little harbour crashed and foamed, within the embrace of the walls, the sea was mill-pond calm…at least on the surface… as the sun went down. I watched a family of children collecting shellfish along the waterline, a lone mallard duck looking out of place amongst the seagulls. And I watched as the tide turned, listening to the song of the waves and the beating of my own heart. There is healing in such moments of peace and communion, when there is nothing to do except be and the sea always works her magic.
I could have gone inside and waited in the pub, but I was perfectly happy where I was. By the time the others arrived… and not by the path I was expecting… the sea had receded and so had the pain. All I needed was a coffee and a little warmth to feel better than I had all day. Everyone was tired, and the pub was packed, so instead of an early dinner, we parted and made our way back to Whitby and our hotels. At least, that was the plan. The night, though, had an unexpected treat in store…
I dropped my companions at the next stop, the tiny, hidden hamlet of Part Mulgrave. They were to walk along the clifftops for a couple of miles… a walk I would have loved under normal circumstances… but once again, I was obliged to take the sensible option and the car. At least it wouldn’t hurt to have a vehicle poised at the other end of the trek.
Which left me with about an hour to kill, I thought, before meeting them all at the Cod and Lobster in Staithes. So, when I noticed the little church on my way back to the main road, it seemed a good idea to stop, especially as the nominal said it was dedicated to St Hilda, the erstwhile Abbess of Whitby.
The first recorded church in Hinderwell, a village named for the Saint, dates back to the twelfth century. The church that now stands on the site is a mere baby, dating from 1773. It was also locked, which was a disappointment… until I caught sight of an information board and followed its lead to an unexpected gift.
The story goes that, fourteen hundred years ago, the area was suffering the effects of drought, so the villagers petitioned St Hilda and asked her to intercede through prayer. Or else, that she was passing through the village and called forth the water. Either way, the spring was born in answer to her intercession and has flowed ever since, rising through the churchyard to become the main water source for the village for many years. It became a place of pilgrimage and its waters were credited with healing properties, especially for those with complaints of the eyes.
On Ascension Day every year, local children would bring a stoppered bottle with a stick of liquorice root inside, filling the bottle from the spring and shaking it to make a sweet drink. I remember chewing liquorice sticks as a child too, so smiled at the old custom. The event was called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ and is still remembered with an alfresco service every year.
Much of the old well housing remains, though the facings were repaired and replaced by a local benefactor who shared the saint’s name, a weathered sandstone bowl still remains as part of the structure that seems older somehow.
It was a peaceful spot to while away a little time, with a beautiful old yew sheltering the church. I wondered, as I watched the water, just how old this ancient well might be, and whether it had always been the object of Christian veneration? When Hilda founded her Abbey in 657, Christianity was already the nominal religion in the area, but old beliefs die hard, especially in rural areas and close to the sea, where offending the Old Ones and the faery folk would have been seen as taking a needless risk.
Celtic Christianity had grown around the customs of the various tribal systems. It was, perhaps, closer to the earth and nature than the Roman canon. For many in the early faith, the Christ may have been seen as just another god to add to their pantheon… one whose story echoed those they already knew. The debates between the various religious and political hierarchies would barely have touched their lives. Faith was just something you lived. Whether you left an offering for the spirit of the spring or its saint, both the gift and the reverence would have been the same.
So it was with a sense of standing at the centre of a web of light that brought together many threads of faith and belief, across all of human history, that I poured the drops for the gods.
We did not visit the Church of St Mary, perched on the edge of the cliffs. I have to wonder for how much longer it will stand and was glad to have spent some time there on our previous visit to Whitby… even if it is one of the strangest and most claustrophobic churches I expect to see. With that cliff edge coming ever nearer as the land erodes, it has been suggested that the Whitby headland, along with its archaeology, could fall into the sea by 2030 and there is a lot of history to explore before it disappears.
There was an Iron Age settlement at the site that seems to have been used for metalwork and glassmaking. Before that, archaeologists have found carved stones that may be either boundary markers or ritual stones, dating the human use of the headland back to a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.
However, neither the church nor the headland was on the itinerary for this visit. Instead, we entered the converted seventeenth-century manor house of the Cholmleys, passing through the unusual pebble garden graced by a replica of the Borghese Gladiator.
The manor now houses a small museum, tracing the Abbey’s history back to its founding and beyond. Oddly, there was a greater press of people packed into the shop selling gifts and replicas than we saw at any other time over the weekend and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
The Abbey itself is a beautiful but empty shell. We have visited so many ancient sites and churches over the past few years that I have lost count, but I have never felt a place as empty as this one, as if it had been scoured of all life and sanctity. I loved the place as a child and was especially drawn to the well… I do not remember it feeling so skeletal and lifeless, as if even its ghosts had gone, erased by the sea winds and the passage of many feet. But even as a child it was never the grand ship of stone that attracted me, so much as the older ghost of the first Abbey and beyond.
Although we were following ‘in the footsteps of St Cedd’ for the weekend, examining how to find unity from division, the Abbey is most associated with St Hilda, or Hild. Her name means ‘battle’ yet although she was a strong character, she was a woman of peace, called to be Abbess of the Celtic religious community founded here in AD 657. She was a princess of the Deiran royal line, but took the veil to become the Mother of her community of monks and nuns, sharing a life of faith together.
Nothing now remains of her Abbey, a wooden building, sacked and destroyed by Danish invaders in the ninth century. What stands there now is the ruin of a grand affair, built between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, which fell into disrepair after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the monasteries, and was further damaged when it was shelled by German battlecruisers in 1914.
We wandered through the Abbey ruins for a while, seeking a spot that would symbolise what we had learned from the sequence of words we had chosen at random the day before. Each of us found a place and explained it in terms of how it might relate to our own lives, both in a general and personal sense.
For all the Abbey had been the venue for the Synod of Whitby that chose to follow the Roman model of Christianity rather than the Celtic version, there are many Celtic-inspired symbols still clinging like apologies to the crumbling masonry. At the time of the Synod, Christianity itself was but a few hundred years old and they were already arguing over exoteric details. I wonder what was lost by focussing on the form, rather than the spirit, of their faith?
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.
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.
There’s a certain ‘presence’ about kindness. Like the spiritual – or, more likely, as a part of it – the act of unexpected kindness drops into our lives like a messenger from the ‘Gods’.
So it was with our visit to the ancient church of Lythe in the middle of the Friday afternoon of the Keys of Heaven workshop. The village of Lythe lies just north of Whitby and marks the the beginning of the towering cliffs which run northwards as far as Saltburn. Within this landscape, Lythe is set on its own hill and has commanding views all the way to Whitby Abbey in the distance.
It felt odd driving down the steep hill to Runswick Bay. I had walked down… and back up… that hill so many times before, equipped with a bucket and spade or a fossil hammer, skipping along beside my grandparents. Little legs remember hills and although mine may not have grown much since those childhood forays, they have carried me far away from those times.
I love the Yorkshire coastline and walked most of it as a child, with parents, grandparents and great grandparents and it felt strange to watch the shade of that curly-haired girl walk with the dead on the screen of memory, carried by love and laughter to places that promised excitement and adventure.
In the half-light of dusk, as the setting sun reflected pink and gold into the receding waves, I was never alone. Not only was I surrounded by friends I love and with whom I was sharing the weekend, I was also accompanied by ghosts, animated memories and a child’s wonder.
Call it nostalgia, if you will, a longing for a simpler time when the weight of adulthood did not bear down so heavily on small shoulders. When life was an adventure yet to be lived, innocence as yet untouched by the shadows of human betrayal and trust was still the natural state of an open heart.
But, like a hologram flickering with uncertainty, the images are no longer my reality. There are gaps in memory, the scenes no more than vignettes. I remember the words that were spoken, but many of the voices have been lost to time. I can still hear my grandmother’s rich chuckle, I can no longer hear my grandfather’s voice at all… it remains only as an echo, a feeling, a taste in the heart.
Although I have played on these shores with uncles, aunts, cousins and brothers… even with my own sons when they were small… it was the memories of those walks with grandad that were haunting me. We would walk along the shoreline, seeking fragments of jet, interesting pebbles and gemstones to take home and polish in the tumbler. We would rummage in rock pools, looking for the strange creatures the sea had left behind. Or beneath the eroding walls of the cliffs, where every storm revealed new surfaces and fossils could be found with ease. We seldom went home without a fossilised shellfish or an ammonite.
As we walked, we talked. I learned about the birds and the wildflowers, the relationship between moon and tides, geological time, history and prehistory. I would think, then ask this apparent oracle those unanswerable questions that occur to us when the world is still new. He would answer the questions of a child as if she were an adult, able to understand the strange concepts that he explained. He never assumed I would not understand, but, I suppose, chose his words to meet my need. More than anyone, it was he who revealed the intersecting maze of paths that could open before my feet and showed me how to feel my way forward until I found the one that was right for me.
So it felt right, more than right, to stand on that beach with my companions in the fading light, watching the cormorants, gulls and turnstones play with the remnants of the day. Now, it is I who am the grandmother and growing old, with stories to share and answers to find for those unanswerable questions that all children ask… and trust you to know. My ghosts gathered round, a circle of love around the circle of light that we wove in the sand, as I held in my hand, and as my heart, an empty vessel filled only with possibility.
For a moment I was a child once more. Then realised that I will always be a child beside the beautiful Being upon which I stand. That we are all children, taught by great Nature as much as we can encompass, in ways we may begin to understand. That I am less than a child… a grain of sand upon an infinite shore…but without which, that shore would be incomplete. I am no more than a spark of possibility against the vast backdrop of time and scintillating space that surrounds us. That we are all sparks of possibility… and every one of them matters, for without a spark, no flame can ignite to bring light and warmth to the world. And that my ghosts were never lost spectres of the dead, but gifts of love and life, given by those whose stories I will always carry, in my genes, in my memory and in my heart.