Stairway to heaven

Deborah Glessner, a fellow creative-type from the Open Group for Bedlam Farm, asked us to share our favourite black and white images earlier today and it got me thinking. This is often dangerous and should be avoided at all costs on a Friday, but once started, there’s no getting the Eumenides back in Pandora’s box now…

The view from the east Cliff can be spooky...
The view from the east Cliff can be spooky…

I went a-wandering earlier this summer with my trusty Canon and snapped some images of my favourite places. Whitby, on Yorkshire’s north-east  coast, was where I grew up – well, one of the places at least. I was packed off to boarding school at the age of fourteen, orphaned after the death of my mother and fortunate enough to be taken in by my much older brother, his wife and his family of five children. I didn’t object at all, in fact it was a wonderful opportunity and I thrived during my four years at St Hilda’s, a convent school located in a Victorian folly – Sneaton Castle – on the outskirts of this small town, with a very intriguing and lengthy history dating back to the Iron Age.


Dracula's tale is so easily evoked at Whitby Abbey
Dracula’s tale is so easily evoked at Whitby Abbey

Whitby is the place where Bram Stoker’s Dracula is reputed to have first come to mainland Britain, to terrorise and suck the life-blood out of innocent victims in their sleep. These days, the town relies heavily upon  this legendary tale to promote its tourism industry, enhanced by a variety of cinematic and televisual productions that have used the town as backdrops for their storytelling. The gothic nature of the Abbey and St Mary’s church, which lies adjacent to the ancient ruins atop the East Cliff are the perfect ruse for wild imaginings.

However, as a student at the convent dedicated to Saint Hilda, the seventh century Abbess who presided over the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, I have other tales to tell about the town.

St Hilda was famous in the Dark Ages for her part in bringing the Light of the World to English society. She was assisted in this endeavour by a local shepherd who looked after the abbey’s flock of sheep, named Caedmon. He reputedly had ‘visions’ that helped him to become the first Anglo-Saxon, accomplished and inspirational Christian poet whose name is still known. He was written about by the Venerable Bede who described his work as remarkable because he wrote in the English vernacular language so that ordinary people could understand his reverence and awe in the presence of his God.

Every year, on November the 17th, the anniversary of Saint Hilda’s death, we were required to make a short pilgrimage from the school grounds (about a mile from the West Cliff) to the Abbey on the East Cliff, via the one hundred and ninety-nine steps that had been carved and laid to lead up the steep cliff from the town, presumably about the time the abbey was built in around 652 AD. There is much debate about these steps – their number is frequently called into question as is their origin. But they are infamous thanks to references to them in a variety of English literature ranging from Stoker through Lewis Carroll to Robin Jarvis (his ‘Whitby Witches’ trilogy).

Some of the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey
Some of the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey

It’s a feat of endurance to climb these steep steps and on each occasion that I have achieved this, I am impressed by their worn appearance, imagining early settlers there huffing and puffing as they too scaled the cliff’s precipitous path in order to take in the magnificent views. To the east lies the vastness of the North Sea, to the west the glorious Blue Bank, herald of the Moors and to the North and South lie vast swathes of heritage coastline, rich in dinosaur fossils. I find myself able to hear their Old English oaths, cursing the height, the incline, the wicked winds that sweep in from the sea. The screeches of the seagulls are echoed across centuries, reminiscent of those early times, accompanied by bleating sheep and gently lowing cattle, just as Hilda’s community would have seen and heard. It’s a magical place.

When you reach the top of the steps, you are greeted by a stone marker, which is intricately carved with effigies of Hilda, Caedmon and references to symbols of the Northumbrian Court.

The White Rose of Yorkshire
The White Rose of Yorkshire
The turtle doves of St Hilda
The turtle doves of St Hilda

The turtle doves and the white rose are two examples of these symbols and are continually referenced wherever you turn in Whitby.

The magnificent Abbey at Whitby
The magnificent Abbey at Whitby

The Abbey itself now lies in ruins of course, but if you look carefully and listen with your heart, you can hear the ghosts of times past, singing their praises to God with cheerful voices.

‘Hail! St Hilda, dearest patron, saint of Whitby by the sea! We will  love the faith you cherished, and our hearts will set us free!


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