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Diary: Pat Ashworth

20 January 2023

ISTOCK

Saturation coverage

WE HAVE been so steeped in nativity throughout December that, as our play finishes its mini-tour in the spectacular setting of St Mary and St Laurence, Bolsover, I fear that my wonder at the season could have run its course by the time we reach the event itself.

But I’m wrong. We throw all the trappings of the tour into the spare room, shut the door on them, and decamp to Robin Hood’s Bay for my first ever Christmas away from home. We can’t resist the enticement to carols on the dock on Christmas Eve, even though we know that it’s a long haul back, up a near-vertical cobbled street that takes no prisoners.

It is high tide, and the dock is a sea of bobble-hats, and dogs in Christmas jumpers. Light pours from the Bay Hotel — for ever, in my mind, the finishing line of Wainwright’s coast-to-coast walk, over which I stumbled 15 years ago, after ritually dipping my boots into the same North Sea as now laps at the dark foot of the slipway.

And that experience mysteriously becomes bound into the patterns of life and death which have found us here, now, in this moment. Christmas has a habit of doing that. We happily embrace “Hark! the herald” and “Frosty the Snowman”, played by four fiddles, trombone, and keyboard. Good will and community are here in lashings, and fuel us for the journey back.

 

Out of the deep

I CONFESS that the poet in me had been wishing that Christmas Day morning service could have been in St Stephen’s Old Church, Fylingdales: the fishermen’s church, high up on the hillside leading out of the Bay. Now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, it has been likened to an old mariner gazing out to sea.

I would have endured the chill that would have crept into my bones for the chance to sit in its Georgian box-pews and hear the sermon resound from a three-decker pulpit that incorporates a sounding-board the better to propel the preacher’s voice.

What words, though, could possibly have been spoken from here that would have been of any consolation for the hundreds of lives lost at sea — here, and in far-flung places across the seafaring world? The memorials in the windswept graveyard are a litany of heartbreak — like this one, a memorial to William Storm, who died on 2 March 1827, aged 71 years. It says, with an anguish and simplicity worthy of Wordsworth: “By storms at sea two sons I lost Which sore distressed me Because I could not have their bones To anchor here with me.”

It brings vividly to mind the siren lure of the sea in Kipling’s “Harp Song of the Dane Women”: “What is a woman that you forsake her, And the hearth-fire and the home-acre, To go with the old grey Widow-maker? . . . She has no strong white arms to fold you, But the ten-times-fingering weed to hold you — Out on the rocks where the tide has rolled you.”

 

Wonder anew

SO, I acknowledge a grudging attitude of accepting second-best as we head for St Stephen’s New Church on Christmas morning. But “new” proves a misnomer: rather, it is Victorian Gothic, built between 1868 and 1870 by G. E. Street, architect of the Royal Courts of Justice.

I learn that that the Revd Robert Jermyn Cooper, who arrived in 1857 and remained in post until his death half a century later, was a devotee of the Oxford Movement, and impatient to change the style and focus of the worship here: “No triple-decker pulpits for me, lads. Just give us a bit of High Church grandeur.”

Cooper joined forces with a local landowner to pay for the new building. The gaunt, offset tower looks, from the outside, oddly industrial, but, inside, the church is beautiful, and the welcome is warm. I apologise to God. We sing seven verses of “O come, all ye faithful”, including one that I have never come across before; and “While shepherds watched” is punctuated by a glorious burst of the “Hallelujah Chorus”.

But it is when an elderly man from the small congregation makes his way to the lectern to read the Christmas Gospel that I know for sure that my wonder at the season is not exhausted. He reads it with the familiarity of one who has known the text all his life.

But he also reads it with a sense of awe and wonder, as though he is coming to it for the first time — as if finding the Babe “lying in a manger” is, indeed, extraordinary. The text has a freshness that makes us feel that we are hearing it for the first time. I shall never forget it.

 

A mug’s game

WE CAN never come up to this bit of the coast without visiting Whitby Abbey. But I am disconcerted to find that the English Heritage shop went so full out for the 125th anniversary of the publication of Dracula in 2022 that merchandise relating to the vampire and his bat-army has completely sidelined Abbess Hilda, Caedmon, and the rest.

Admittedly, we did clean the shop out of souvenir Hilda mugs when we presented one to every cast and crew member of Not Just Fish and Ships, our play about the Synod of Whitby. But that was back in 2019 (Diary, 6 September 2019). At the counter, they assure me that the Abbess will be restored to her rightful place; and I shall hold them to that in 2023.

 

Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.

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