The Church of St Mary the Virgin sits high on its cliff above the town. It was founded around 1110 AD, during the time of Abbot William de Percy and the exterior reflects the twelfth century architecture in golden sandstone. The interior, though dates mainly from the 1700s and is a strange a place as you will see. Historically, it is an important survival. Aesthetically it is a claustrophobic jumble.
It is difficult to make sense of the space. High sided eighteenth century box pews, like cattle pens… some marked ‘for strangers only’… fill the main body of the church while upstairs galleries look down. The ‘walls’ of the box pews are so tall that I, for one, could not see into them from the aisles between without making an effort to do so. Some are plain wood, others lined with green baize and others still bear red velvet cushions. A social hierarchy of comfort or piety? Although all is painted in bright, fresh tones, and lit by the huge brass chandeliers that hang from the ceiling, it has, to me, an overbearing atmosphere.
Right in the centre of what should be the nave is an incongruous, but doubtless practical stove for heating. There is also a three-tiered pulpit, all polished wood and red velvet, illustrating the importance of the sermons in the eighteenth century. While, doubtless, this central position is also practical, allowing all the parishioners to both see and hear the minister’s perorations, I could not help feeling that it deprived attention from what should, perhaps, be the focus of the worship in a Christian church… the altar, invisible from most of the church.
The place has a strange and cluttered feel. In the few spare corners left by the pews, odd treasures lurk; an iron bound chest, a Saxon coffin for a babe… art and history tucked away in every nook and cranny. The chest is interesting though. It is around three hundred years old and has three locks… one each for the vicar and the churchwardens. It used to hold the church plate and parish records, but it was stolen in 1743 and thrown over the cliff. The chest was recovered, but the contents were gone.
It was with a feeling of relief that I approached the quire… a more ancient and traditional space altogether. Here the lovely tones of stone are left on display. The steps are lined with flowers and flanked by a pair of medieval fonts. Three lancet windows are set deep in the east wall of the church and a simple Celtic style cross, carved in wood, hangs above the altar.
The glass depicts those whose history is entwined with church and Abbey, including St Hilda and Cædmon, along with saints and the dignitaries of the church, for Whitby held a critical place in the history of Christianity in England.
One thing I really did like, however, was the lack of electric lighting. Until recently electricity was only used in the church to power the organ and a television monitor. While there is more lighting now, the church when light is required, is still lit with candles… there are no light bulbs in the chandeliers and sconces. Perhaps when the flames are lit and the shadows dance with warm light, the little church with its square stance and battlemented tower might come into its own and show an inner beauty that transcends its odd appearance. And maybe, after all, that is the real point of such places.
Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven,
the might of the architect, and his purpose,
the work of the father of glory
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders;
he first created for the children of men
heaven as a roof, the holy creator
Then the guardian of mankind,
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth,
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.
Cædmon’s Hymn, composed between 658 and 680AD.