By Mark Horton
Last updated 2011-02-17
The ruins of the 13th-century abbey church on the headland at Whitby are the source of one of the classic images associated with Britain's coast. The medieval abbey represents just a part of the long history of this site, its most important moment being the time of the great synod held here in AD 664. This was the gathering that decided the fate of the Anglo-Saxon Church, and it was most likely held within the newly established monastery (it was a double house for both monks and nuns) that once stood there, under the town of St Hilda. Excavations have uncovered part of the monastic cells and workshops of this monastery, and a boundary ditch, as well as numerous artefacts, including many made of jet, a stone that is found locally.
It is thought that there may also have been a Roman signal station here, but it is impossible to be sure as no walls remain - if they ever existed they have long since fallen into the sea. Recent archaeological discoveries, especially where the cliff is eroding away, also suggest a Dark Age town or port, possibly just outside the monastery gates. There was a savage attack on Whitby by the Danes in 867, and the monastery may have been abandoned at that time. Its new foundation dates to 1077, when a new Augustinian abbey was built.
At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, the abbey fell into the hands of the Cholmley family, who demolished much, and rebuilt other sections as Abbey House (now a youth hostel). Their banqueting house (1672-1683) and its gardens are a notable survival of that period. The Norman parish church has a memorable interior, with 17th- and 18th-century box pews, galleries and pulpit.
The walk up from the town and harbour to the headland is along 199 worn and winding steps. Reaching the top, one is faced with one of the great romantic views of Britain, with the ancient abbey now a jumble of ruins and buildings. Perhaps it is not surprising that Bram Stoker used this setting in part of his novel Dracula, published in 1897.
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