Whitby Weekend: St Hilda’s Well

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.

Whitby Weekend: Within the Abbey

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.

St Hilda, from St Mary’s Church

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?