I’ve always had a soft spot for Whitby. Even the trip to get there from my childhood home takes you across the North York Moors and if you are lucky enough to go in summer, chances are the heather will be in full bloom from horizon to horizon. This time, however, we just had the bitter winter wind. Not that this was a bad thing at that moment… it made the climb up the 199 worn sandstone steps less of a warming experience. In summer it is hot work. Like all such things, there is the tradition that you cannot count them. I, at least, have never managed it… I get distracted.
From here there are wonderful views over the little town and its harbour. Whitby still depends on the sea for most of its income, though the whaling and herring fishing has long since declined to be largely replaced with tourism and the manufacture of jet jewellery… and fossils of course. There are so many to pick up on the beaches here, released by the constant erosion of the cliffs.
As we climbed up to the church and saw the disappearing cliff face over the town, I recalled that it is not only fossils that the wind and rain releases. That cliff face has eroded by a good distance since I was a child and human bones from the graveyard have been sent into the streets below by the landslips that have placed homes beneath the cliff at significant risk. If that sounds like something from a horror movie there is reason for that too… Bram Stoker set much of his book Dracula against the stark silhouette of the Abbey and church atop the cliff.
There are a lot of literary associations with Whitby through the ages. The Whitby Gazette carried the first published works of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, back in 1854. But perhaps more importantly it was the home of Cædmon, the earliest English poet whose name is still known to us.
Cædmon tended the beasts at the Abbey during the time of St Hilda when was the Abbess here. (657–680) The venerable Bede, writing a few years later tells us that ‘the art of song’ came to Cædmon in a dream and that, writing in Old English, he was able to take the stories of the scriptures and transpose them into works by which “…the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.” Only a fragment of his work survives today… just nine lines.
As we reached the top of the 199 Church Steps we saw the carved stone cross erected in his honour upon which the lines have now been carved… a modern version, erected in 1898, very reminiscent of the cross at Ruthwell that we had seen days before, even down to the inscriptions running along the edges. Some of the patterns were taken from the Lindisfarne Gospel… and to see the cross here linking back through the centuries and our journey, at a place so pivotal to the history of Christianity in Britain, was a strange feeling. These threads all tie together, part of a richer tapestry whose design we are perhaps too close to see.
It was going up for three o’clock as we headed towards the church, seeing the gentle scars of the changing building in its mellow stone. Once again we were lucky and found the doors open to visitors in spite of the time of year. We wondered what else we might find…