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Whitby Abbey is one of the most atmospheric locations in England. The desolate ruins stand stark above steep cliffs overlooking the old whaling village of Whitby in North Yorkshire, a testament to the town's former religious significance.
The abbey was founded in 651AD, and was the site of the Synod of Whitby in 664, when a vote was held to decide if the church should adopt the Celtic or Roman date for Easter. The vote favoured the Roman date and this led to a decline in Celtic Christianity. The abbey's influence decreased in the 9th century, and it was destroyed and looted in the bloody Viking raid of 867AD. In the late 11th Century a Norman knight came to Whitby and was inspired to rebuild the abbey, which continued as a place of monastic life until the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. Tradition holds that Henry's men had the abbey bells loaded onto a ship, which sank - in heavenly retribution - not long after it had left the shore. In bygone years young lovers would listen for the sound of the bells in the depths, as this was thought to be a fortunate omen for their future.
Whitby itself is steeped in folklore and legend, which, along with the abbey's foreboding ruins are said to have provided inspiration for Bram Stoker's gothic masterpiece Dracula. In the book Whitby is the destination for the doomed ship Demeter, which carries Dracula to England.
The first Abbess of the abbey, St Hild, became a focus for folklore and legend through the centuries and was said to have performed many miraculous deeds. Tradition tells how she rid the town of snakes, lopping off their heads with her enchanted whip. Fossil ammonites, frequently found on the shore, were once seen as the headless remains of these petrified snakes.
The abbess Hild was also once thought to make an appearance. Crowds from far and wide used to gather at the west side of Whitby Churchyard, between 10.00 and 11.00 in the morning, where there was clear view of the north side of the abbey and the highest window. When the sun shone on the window it created an illusion of a woman's form wrapped in a shroud. This optical illusion was presumed to be the ghost of abbey's founder, tradition grew that she also walked the abbey as a phantom.
Other Whitby traditions include: a phantom coach and horses, which thunders to a halt outside the church, a headless spectre at Fitzsimmon's steps, and a mischievous sprite called Hob (which is a generic name for a mischievous goblin), who haunts the dark country lanes around the town, and associations with the giant Wade who lived nearby. The first poet of England is also lived at Whitby in the 7th Century. He was given the gift of poetry after having an angelic vision.
An ancient festival called 'The Planting of the Penny Hedge' is held on the shore here on the eve of Ascension Day. Wooden stakes are cut from Eskdale side and carried through the town at sunrise to the shore, where they are woven into a strong hedge before the tide turns. The name Penny Hedge is thought to relate the price of the knife used for cutting the hedge. In legend the ceremony dates back to 1159 when the Abbott of Whitby imposed a penance on three hunters and their future generations for murdering a hermit. To save them from execution they had to make a stake hedge that would resist the sea every year until their descendant had died out. The festival is probably related to the renewing of old boundaries around the parish.
Whitby is an inspirational place to visit if you are interested in the folklore and traditions of Britain. The abbey has an archaeological display and gift shop open most of the year.
Directions: Whitby reached via the A171 from Scarborough or Middlesborough, or the A174 coastal road.
Below, Whitby Abbey by Colin Boulter.