Sacred Places Journal
11 October, 2001: Whitby: You, Alone, O Lord
Durham is a city of bells, and Whitby a town of seabirds' cry. Everywhere the white soaring wings against the blue sky and sea and their joyous cry.
The bus would have taken us almost to the priory, but no self-respecting pilgrim would fail to walk up Caedmon's Trod to the top of the hill. We go first to St. Mary's church. Because Bram Stoker had a family holiday home in Whitby and was inspired to create Count Dracula from bats he encountered as they swooped around the parish church beside the ancient ruined priory, the idea took hold that Dracula was a real person-buried in St. Mary's churchyard. The church has been inundated by costumed vampire hunters, especially on All Soul's Eve. Therefore, the churchyard is posted with frequent notices: This is hallowed ground. Enter the area with respect.
St. Mary's Church in Whitby
I shelter behind a tombstone to make notes, then enter with respect to examine Caedmon's Cross, a 10-foot-high, beautifully carved cross commemorating the first lyric poet in the English language: "To the glory of God and in memory of Caedmon the father of English sacred song fell asleep hard by 680". Figures on the cross show Christ, David, Hilda, and Caedmon. A cowherd at Hilda's abbey, the shy Caedmon was always terrified when, in Anglo-Saxon style, the harp was passed around after dinner. Caedmon always fled back to his cow byre rather than be humiliated by his inability to sing. One night God asked him in a vision, "Will you not sing of me?" Caedmon broke forth in a beautiful song to the glory of his Creator. Hilda recognized the cowherd's talent and encouraged him.
Caedmon's Cross, in the graveyard of St. Mary's Church
Inside the church is a stained glass window with a most lifelike portrayal of the poet. And also a tiny American flag next to the prayer candles. I add a light and a prayer before moving on to the ruins of Whitby Abbey, standing an imposing sentinel on the green cliff above the town. The first abbey was founded in 657 by King Oswy of Northumbria. Its abbess was Hilda, a great granddaughter of a Northumbrian king. She established a double monastery of monks and nuns. Under her leadership the reputation of the abbey grew rapidly. In 663 it was host to the most important church assembly in the north-the Synod of Whitby, which determined the future organization of the church in England, placing it under the leadership of Rome.
Hilda's abbey was destroyed by Vikings in the ninth century and lay in ruins for 200 years. A new abbey was established in 1078. The existing buildings were begun in 1220 and closed by 1539 by Henry VIII.
St. Mary's Church, with the ruins of Whitby Abbey beside
Whipped by the wind, we descend the 199-step Church Stairs beside the steeply cobbled donkey path, as we look out over red-tiled roof tops to the beautiful harbour and the cliffs beyond. Swans and sailboats glide between the curving sides of the graceful sea walls. As Durham is the quintessential medieval city, Whitby is the quintessential Victorian seaport town, the town from which Captain Cook set out on his round-the-world expeditions, the home of a busy whaling fleet and kipper-smoking industry, and the home of Whitby jet-the black jewelry made fashionable as mourning jewelry when Queen Victoria wore it after Prince Albert's death.
Our pilgrim work done, we catch a bus to a nearby village and hire cycles for a ride along the North Yorkshire cliffs toward Scarborough. We don't make it that far, though, because we get sidetracked in picturesque Robin Hood's Bay, where we stop for tea on a stone veranda overlooking the sunny bay and the storybook village clustered around the smuggler's cove below.
Church Stairs, better known as the 199 steps, along with the parallel Donkey's Road, was originally used for processions on religious feast and high days.
Along the route we stop to see the Hawsker village church and make a quick stop, just as the sunlight fades, to take a picture of the old Wesley Hall, which was built in 1901 after the Methodist Church which John Wesley had dedicated fell off the cliff into the sea.
It has been a day of adventures and misadventures. After a frustrating time spent searching St. Mary's churchyard for the hat I thought I had lost, Elizabeth finds it in my bag. A few minutes into our bike ride I apply my brakes too sharply and flip over my handlebars onto the gravel. Then Elizabeth gets a nose bleed. We take time to recover, give thanks that all is well, then proceed with caution. The peace and beauty of Compline are very appropriate tonight. "In peace we will lie down and sleep. For you alone, Lord, make us dwell in safety."
Fishing boats in the Whitby harbour