After two nights in Whitby, I am leaving with a brand-new love for a place I had barely heard of. My calendar shows a saint’s commemoration for “Hilda of Whitby,” but the person and the geography were just words to me before yesterday.
Doing travel research and laying out an itinerary is a lot like collecting shells on the beach. Every single option looks more lovely than the previous one, and before you know it, your pockets can’t possibly hold all the pieces you’ve picked up. So you sort and throw out, either randomly or with reasons that make sense only to you.
The plans for my journey around the UK got quickly and completely out of control and had to be wrangled into submission. I have a nostalgic/Anglophilic weakness for ruined abbeys, and that helped me with the sorting. Looking for a destination about a four-hour train ride from Edinburgh, I dropped a pin at Whitby. It has an abbey. And it’s on the coast. That would be cool.
I ended up in this seaside town without knowing anything about it. As it turns out, it’s an enormously popular destination, and the spring bank holiday ensured a crowd. Super-historic and adorable with narrow streets, shops, and cobblestones, Whitby also has its share of crap-shops, temporary tattoo booths and “attractions” like every other tourist town.
But by far the most wonderful thing about Whitby is the ruined abbey atop the cliff, 99 steps above the street and overlooking the North Sea. The present ruins are from Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries around 1540, but they rest on more ancient monastic ruins dating to the 600s. Adding to the moody atmosphere on the clofftop is the fact that the graveyard of the nearby Church of St. Mary the Virgin is where Dracula met his first victim upon his arrival in England.
St. Hilda (614?-680) was the founder and abbess of a co-ed monastic community. Hilda was so respected by the Anglo-Saxon kings and religious leaders that her monastery was the site of a key council of the church in 664. For reasons more political than religious, the Synod of Whitby decided that the still-new Christian religion in the north od England would follow the practices and the calendar of Rome, rather than the Irish and Scottish (Celtic) ways. (More’s the pity, I say.)
The abbey is an English Heritage site, of course, and as such is a prime location for costumed interpreters. During my long afternoon there, “Benedictine monks” were introducing visitors to the temporary labyrinth mown into the lawn below the abbey. Even more than abbey ruins, I am a sucker for a labyrinth, so it was a wonderful surprise to find one there for the walking. It was mostly tourist attraction: racing kids and laughing friends made it an interesting semi-devotional, communal experience.
I said someting to one of the monks about “that damned Henry VIII” and he, in a perfect (and unintentional) impression of Hugh Grant said: “Yes, well. HE’LL have some things to answer for, won’t he?”