Graeme Garvey finds ghosts of Vikings and a large black
North Sea beats endlessly against the Whitby shoreline. It washes
along the fringing beaches. It insinuates itself into the harbours
safe haven, bringing tidal ebb and flow as it has done for aeons.
It is doing so at this very moment, and this, and this. It will
continue doing so for ages to come.
The year is 664 A.D. and folk are making their way eastwards along
the coast road towards the new abbey of St Hildas in Whitby.
On their left, a vast expanse of sea accompanies them for the final
miles. Meanwhile, others are trekking across what we now call the
North York Moors, skirting on their journey a huge natural amphitheatre,
the Hole of Horcum. Neither path is easy; tarmac and cars are waiting
more than twelve centuries ahead. Sandal-shod foot, horseback or
cart are the only land ways these people know. Some have crossed
seas first, gathering others on their travels. Time and place, people
and event make history as Celtic and English clerics meet King Oswi
of Northumbria, here at Whitby, and agree to unify Christian worship,
diverging with a unity that shall hold for nearly 900 years.
Breeze, tidal flux, desire and need continue to bring Angle, Viking, Dane
across these waters as decades, then centuries, slip by. Some come to
settle, others to take, each leaving their imprint.
Into Bram Stokers imagination now, and the wild shoreline has provided
him with the perfect place for Count Dracula to arrive in England. No
ordinary entrance is possible in a gothic novel and thus a shipwrecked
Dracula enters in the form of a huge black dog that runs up the long,
stone stairway from town to abbey.
When you visit St Hildas Abbey these days, you can spare yourself
that lung-burning, dramatic dash since a car park stands on the hilltop.
Cross into the abbey, though, and be immediately cast adrift on times
insistent, whispering tide. Roaring surf subsides to echo within the ruined
naves incredible stillness, as clouds, wind-billowed, pass over.
Hold quiet as you watch that same North Sea wash in again and again. Think
of Whitbys enduring power to attract, whilst being sheltered by
the defiant ruins of an abbey that took years to build and but days to
The town owes its life to the sea, feeding its sons and daughters off
a seemingly endless supply. Generations of hardy fishermen, scudding over,
battling against, ploughing through their provider have hauled home all
manner of marine creature from whelk to whiting to whale. Captain James
Cook was born in these parts. From here he sailed the world. The waters
which first separate and then connect every man, woman and child, he spanned
drawing an invisible thread which links Whitby with Australia, New Zealand
and, ultimately, Hawaii. Each one of us, now, can pull on that thread
and draw in to Whitby.
Visitors throng to the town and the locals dont seem to mind. I
think they are quietly proud, in fact. They are used to it by now since
people have long been drawn to its quaintness, its character and because
it is largely unspoilt. Fishing craft still crowd the quayside, their
catches providing sustenance but it is the tourist money which has brought
wealth. There are now all the trappings of tourism, notably an abundance
of gift shops, many selling jewelry fashioned from that blackest of black,
the jet stone for which Whitby is renowned. There are seafood restaurants,
pubs, amusement arcades. You can even visit The Dracula Experience.
These things will pass but on the hillside facing the abbey stands a mighty
whalebone arch. Were you to stop by it, a panorama unfolds. Hill, town
and sea provide a better idea of what endures, as Whitby makes light of
© Graeme Garvey 2002
More places and journeys in Hacktreks
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