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What you see is not what you get at Whitby Abbey

28 June 2019

English Heritage has just spent £1.6 million to improve the experience of visiting Whitby Abbey. Paul Handley looked round

English Heritage

THE ruined abbey church towering above the harbour town of Whitby, in north Yorkshire, is one of the most striking historical sites in the north-east. What could be simpler to understand, or more enjoyable to walk round (in the right weather), than an uncomplicated pile of stones?

The problem for English Heritage, curators of the site, is that what can be seen above ground is a fraction of Whitby Abbey’s history. The ruins are what is left of the last church on the site, part of the Benedictine abbey begun in about 1220. There were two before it: a Romanesque church, probably begun in 1109; and, before that, the minster of the abbey founded by St Hild in 657.

It was here that the influential Synod of Whitby was convened in 664, when the Anglian King Oswiu invited representatives of the Celtic and Roman traditions to defend their different practices — among them, conflicting methods of dating Easter. According to Bede’s account, when Oswiu heard the Roman party cite St Peter as their authority, he pronounced: “Peter is the guardian of the gates of heaven, and I will not contradict him. I shall obey his commands in everything.”

English HeritageThe renovated visitor centre

Bede’s reputation for accuracy is slightly dented by his translation of Whitby’s name at the time, Streaneshalch, as “the bay of the beacon”, when neither strean or halc means “bay” or “beacon”.

Hild’s abbey is presumed to have been sacked and destroyed in the ninth century by the Vikings, who settled around the harbour to the north of the headland and gave it its new Danish name. The area was devastated once again during the “harrying of the north” after the Norman invasion, and the land was parcelled out to William the Conqueror’s favourites.

The Benedictine foundation followed, surviving until its dissolution in 1539. The property was acquired by the Cholmley family, who left the abbey church standing but unused (the parish church is near by), and used the stone from the rest of the buildings to construct a house in its lee. The house was neglected and rebuilt by turns through the next three-and-a-half centuries, until much of the headland was taken into the care of the Ministry of Works in 1928. Before then, in 1914, the depredations of the weather on the abbey ruins were augmented by a German naval bombardment, which destroyed the west end.

Church TimesThe new priory at Whitby

In 2000, English Heritage began building a visitor centre in the shell of a 17th-century wing of the house. This now houses a new collection of artefacts connected with the site, designed to help interpret the history of Whitby Abbey. The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first, landscape and environment, looks at the geology and natural resources of the site, and why the first people settled there.

The second section attempts to piece together the abbey’s spiritual history. There are a handful of tiny artefacts from the Anglian period, and one large one: the remains of a stone cross, c.700, thought to be one of the first free-standing stone crosses in England.

The third section, culture and imagination, embraces the town’s literary history and the obsession with Dracula and Gothic horror which has grown up since Bram Stoker set his 1897 novel here. The curators have tried to link it with older legends, such as the story of St Hild’s banishment of snakes on the headland.

English HeritageThe new permanent exhibition

Visitors are invited to seek out where some of the finds in the exhibition were discovered, with the help of an electronic ammonite, on which different coloured lights are activated when the person holding it passes near the site while walking around the ruins — if the battery in the ground is still working. The best help remains the excellent A4 guidebook by Steven Brindle.

Those wishing to stay near by can contact the Order of the Holy Paraclete, who have just completed a move from their home for the past 100 years, Sneaton Castle, into a purpose-built priory.

The new site, next to the castle, has a guesthouse containing 17 en-suite rooms, now kitted out to hotel standard, with television, WiFi, kettles, etc. Guests are invited to join the Sisters for services in their bright chapel; and the Order cater for individuals and small groups on retreat or on holiday. There are also small rooms for counselling, etc.

For details, email Sister Hannah OHP at hospitality@ohpwhitby.org.uk; or phone 01947 899560, direct line 899600.

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