I thought it would be appropriate to share some graves, fine English Gothic Architecture and incredible stone, as this month’s blog has landed on Halloween. I have visited Whitby in North Yorkshire many times and many of my childhood holidays were spent there. I could never put into words the intriguing sense of awe, eeriness and mystery that I experienced whenever I passed by the abbey ruins and through St Mary’s churchyard. The church and abbey is built on a site with a long history – a Benedictine monastery was founded here in the mid-7th century. I made a journey along the top of the East Cliff, through the graveyard and past the abbey daily from the campsite where I stayed, to the fishing and seaside town at the mouth of the River Esk below.
Below are some pictures of the graveyard, followed by the Abbey with a few notes. I hope the images and annotations can begin to illustrate the aura of mystery and intrigue this place emits alongside a more uncanny atmosphere, which is difficult to put into words.
The cemetery overlooks the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby. The environment here can be harsh; the stormy weather and strong North Sea winds loaded with salt, have eaten into the tombstones over the years and created interesting erosion effects in colour and texture. Due to recent landslips from torrential rain and damaged drainage, the pathways along the East Cliff have now been closed.
The graves date from the 1600’s. Many of the grave stones have names of ships, trades or professions, a name and the place where the person died or is buried. There are 924 names recorded on the monuments and tombstones that mainly belong to local sailors, fishermen, royal navy seamen and lifeboatmen. The 199 stairs that lead from the narrow cobbled streets of the town, up the steep hill to St Mary’s and the Abbey, also form part of the churchyard. Below are some closer details of the weathered stone.
St Mary’s Parish is a Norman church that dates from around 1110. It has been added to and altered over the centuries, but still stands like a fortress ready to take on what the North Sea has to throw at it. It is not surprising that this graveyard was the setting chosen by Bram Stoker for a major scene his book ‘Dracula’.
“For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible… It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.”
Whitby Abbey is classified as a major monument of Early English Gothic architecture and some parts still stand at full height.
There are some gorgeous colours and textures to be found in the stone walls between the church and abbey, below are a just few examples. The erosion and direct environmental effects over hundred’s of years have created a range incredible tactile surfaces. Also notice the fossil embedded in one of stones.
A mixture of bold golden ochres and rich terracotta colours harmonise with pure whites, slate greys and deep chocolatey browns to make up the Abbey and its walls. Some of the colours and textures collide in a variety of ways creating vivid effects. Colours that have mixed and merged naturally in the materials of the stone appear as marbled effects, overlapping patches, waves and splashes of colour, speckles and streaky linear markings.
The view above is out onto the headland surrounding the abbey, towards the East Cliffs and North Sea. The ruins of the medieval abbey church stand in magnificent isolation within this large open expanse of land. Originally, however, the church would have been at the centre of a large group of monastic buildings.
Above are a few overview images of the abbey and below a view from the Abbey looking out to a huge storm brewing over the sea. The shell of the abbey church remained mostly complete until the 18th century; it was then weakened by erosion from wind and rain. This resulted in the collapse of the south transept in 1736, followed by the nave in 1763 and the central tower in 1830.
The stone seems to fascinate me the most, possibly because of the layers of history trapped within it, alongside its natural tactility, sheer mass and strength. A long history of this area including Viking raids and shelling from the German High Seas Fleet in 1914, is marked in its stone, etched, imprinted and engraved in its surface. This gives the stone its own stories over space and time and unique build up of character. Fossils embedded in the stone can tell us about once living creatures in the area, the textural markings can tell us about the changing atmospheric conditions and the sea, and colours can tell us about the types of clay and minerals available naturally in the surrounding earth. The remains of the abbey church that can be seen today date from the 13th century onwards.
The abbey is a good example of fine Romanesque masonry and the remaining North and East transepts (built in the 13th Century) were most likely inspired by the transepts at York Minster Cathedral. They represent the time when English Gothic came into its own and shifted from heavy French gothic influence – so it was created at an important time and an example of one of the first truly English Gothic monuments.
Colossal comes to mind when viewing the above photos… The distinctive ‘clustered’ columns of the abbey and its richly moulded arches are a typical example of the Early English Gothic style. Also again, these images highlight all the wonderful colours and textures and I’m sure I can see some monstrous faces etched into the stones and protruding outwards.
Between 1920-1930 major excavations at this site revealed evidence of the Anglian settlement that once existed here where the abbey stands. Also between Between 1993 and 2008 English Heritage carried out excavation and survey work to rescue archaeological remains, threatened by steady erosion of the East cliff. The excavated artefacts formed important evidence for all periods of the abbey’s history and evidence of this spot in Whitby being one of the most important religious centres of the Anglo-Saxon world.
A few final pictures…