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02/14/2013 Archived Entry: "Whitby Abbey & Valentine's Day"
I’m writing this in my cosy study while outside it is a winter wonderland and the snow is coming down thick and fast. Last time we had extreme weather like this, my car was marooned in the drive for two weeks. When eventually I got it back onto the road we took the opportunity stock up on provisions at Helmsley Market, so now we have a full larder. Just like ferocious winters on the moors!
The view from my window this afternoon is very picturesque but the wintry conditions are frustrating for motorists who are going about their business. I can see a bus, and several cars struggling to get up the hill out of the village and several intrepid travellers are out there with shovels and grit trying to get everyone moving again. I should go out to offer help.
This situation is in complete contrast to the conditions last Saturday: it was a gloriously sunny day with not a breath of wind. Two of our grandsons were staying and we took them out for the day. As they settled in the car, Joey wanted to know if we were going to an abbey. We’ve done Byland and Rievaulx many times because we know there’s nothing our boys like better than scrambling among the ruins. “Maybe”, I replied, “but first we’re going to the coast.”
On the way across the moors above Farndale, we showed them Young Ralph’s Cross and explained how in the old days travellers would leave coins on the top of the cross for the benefit of poor people.
In no time at all we reached Sandsend and let the boys loose to scamper along the beach. They were like puppies off the lead. When they tired of racing around, we scooped them up and went on to Whitby for a bite to eat at the charming Vineyard Restaurant in Silver Street. After that I took them through the old snickleways which meander down from the West Cliff to the harbourside. As a young bobby stationed in Whitby, I got to know all the hidden passages away from the tourist trail. I showed the boys where the smugglers used to land their illicit goods from boats and transport them via a secret tunnel to an ancient pub higher in the town.
From the harbour, we made our way over the old swing bridge, along Sandgate where the boys bought their mum a little glass ‘lucky duck’ from a craft shop. There was a lively market in the square as we made our way to the bottom of the famous 199 steps. After a bit of huffing and puffing from the grandparents, we all made it to the top of the East Cliff, the boys counting to make sure there were exactly 199.
There’s an elaborately carved cross at the top of the steps. It is dedicated to Caedmon who was an uneducated cowman living and working at the abbey when Hilda was Abbess. He is said to have had a vision where someone appeared in his sleep and asked him to sing to the praise of God. Caedmon had always been extremely shy about singing, but the vision gave him strength and he began to sing about the Creation. From then on, Caedmon composed and sang songs that inspired holiness in all the brethren at the Abbey. Experts credit him with being the first English poet.
After this short history lesson, we did a quick tour of St Mary’s Church with its quaint box pews and three-tier pulpit, all now perilously close to the crumbling cliffs nearby. From there we entered the grounds of Whitby Abbey where the first monastery was founded by Hilda in 657, the site having been given by Oswiu¬, King of Northumbria. The ruins are not extensive, but nevertheless impressive and so the boys got their game of hide and seek while we sat on a seat to take in the splendid views. It was a magical day for us all.
As I write this on the eve of Valentine’s Day, I am reminded how it is a special day for me. Back in 1956 I was a lonely National Serviceman at RAF Ouston near Newcastle when a friend in our billet gave me a spare Valentine card. I didn’t know what to do with it but eventually decided to send it to Rhoda who I’d often admired from afar. A few weeks later, when I was at home on leave, we met at a village dance and, to cut a long story short, we’ve have been together ever since. I’m going to take her for a special Valentine celebration at the much-rated White Horse Inn in Ampleforth. I can guarantee there’ll be a warm welcome, a roaring fire and good food, not to mention my favourite Black Sheep Ale. So three cheers for St Valentine.