Perched high on the top of the East Cliff, standing next to the old Parish Church, dominates the view as you approach Whitby. There’s been an Abbey here since Anglo Saxon times, indeed the presence of the religious community is the reason why the town exists.
The first monastery was founded in 657 AD by the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, Oswy who had converted to Christianity. The original name of the settlement was Streoneshalh, becoming known as Whitby only after the area was occupied by the Danes in the 12th Century – Whitby being derived from “white settlement” in Old Norse.
Ruled by an abbess, Hilde, the Anglo-Saxon monastery was one of a few known examples from the Anglian period of a ‘double house’ for both men and women and was an important religious centre in the Kingdom of Northumbria. In 664 it was the location of the Synod of Whitby, which established the dominance of the Roman Church over the Celtic tradition. Nothing remains of that building today as it was destroyed following the Viking raids in the 9th Century. The site was deserted for a couple of hundred years until after the Norman invasion when a new Benedictine Abbey was founded in 1078. This was a Romanesque (Norman) building; it was replaced by the current Gothic structure constructed over a protracted period between the 13th and 15th Centuries.
The Abbey was closed by Henry VIII in 1540 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and it gradually fell into ruin. Today it is preserved under the stewardship of English Heritage.
We decided to climb the 199 steps from the bottom of the East Cliff on the Sunday, the first full day of our holiday. However on reaching the top we were greeted by this
The Abbey was shrouded in mist which had blown in from the sea and was soon covering much of the town. It looked very eerie and it was easy to understand why it featured in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
We felt there was little point looking around when our view was obscured by the mist, so we decided to leave the visit until later in the week.
Entry is cheap, £8.40 with a Gift Aid donation, £7.60 without, but although there are decent views from outside the walls, we stumped up to get a closer look.
The majority of the structure is in the Early English style of Gothic architecture with distinctive, tall, narrow, pointed lancet windows
richly moulded arches and distinctive ‘clustered’ columns
The west end was built during the latter part of the prolonged period of construction and so reflects the Decorated Gothic style,
as illustrated by these large windows with the remains of elaborate tracery.
There’s a visitor centre which has a display of archaeological material excavated at the site. I found it a little disappointing. But that’s a minor quibble as getting close up to the ruins made the visit more than worthwhile.