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Graeme Garvey finds ghosts of Vikings and a large black dog

The North Sea beats endlessly against the Whitby shoreline. It washes along the fringing beaches. It insinuates itself into the harbour’s 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 Hilda’s 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 Stoker’s 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 Hilda’s 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 time’s insistent, whispering tide. Roaring surf subsides to echo within the ruined nave’s incredible stillness, as clouds, wind-billowed, pass over. Hold quiet as you watch that same North Sea wash in again and again. Think of Whitby’s enduring power to attract, whilst being sheltered by the defiant ruins of an abbey that took years to build and but days to destroy.

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 don’t 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 it all.

© Graeme Garvey 2002


Graeme Garvey

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