Whitby and Eskdale

Whitby – St Hild and the Synod

In the days before Viking settlement fell upon Yorkshire, Whitby, which was then called Streanshalh lay within the Kingdom of Northumbria and was the site of an Anglo-Saxon abbey founded in AD657.

Whitby Abbey © David Simpson

The abbey stood on the site now occupied by Whitby’s ruinous later thirteenth century abbey overlooking the River Esk and was dedicated to a Northumbrian princess called St Hilda (Hild). One of the most influential women of her time, Hild relocated here from Hartlepool and became Whitby’s first abbess. In AD664 Whitby abbey was the setting for the Synod of Whitby, an important meeting held to decide if the people of Northumbria should adhere to the Celtic or Roman teachings of Christianity.

The meeting was chaired by Oswy, King of Northumbria, who listened to the arguments of St Wilfrid (of Ripon and Hexham) and St Colman, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, who spoke respectively for the Roman and Celtic causes. In the end it was St Wilfrid’s highly persuasive oratory skills that won the support of King Oswy and determined the outcome of the synod.

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey © David Simpson

The Celtic Christianity introduced by St Aidan thirty years before was abandoned in favour of Roman practices. Roman Christianity thus became the primary religion of northern England for centuries to come.

In the time of St Hilda, Whitby was the home of an Anglo-Saxon called Caedmon who has been described as the man “who laid the first great temple of English poetry”. Caedmon was originally an illiterate cow herder with an embarrassing inability to sing and according to legend his problem was such that he would hide away in a cow shed while his working friends entertained each other with music and singing.

One evening while hiding in the shed Caedmon fell into a deep sleep and dreamt that an angel sent from heaven taught him how to sing. The following morning Caedmon awoke to discover that his dream had come true and that he now had a marvellous gift for singing phrases from the testament in the form of verse. St Hilda, the abbess of Whitby, was greatly pleased with Caedmon’s discovery and encouraged him to utilise his talent in spreading the word of God.

Whitby Abbey and St Mary's church
Whitby Abbey and St Mary’s church © David Simpson

In later years the abbey was destroyed by the Vikings who raided Whitby in 870 AD. The Vikings eventually became peaceful settlers at Whitby (Streanshalh) but renamed it ‘Hvitabyr’ meaning ‘the settlement belonging to Hviti’ from which the modern name Whitby developed.

The abbey was re-founded in 1078 by Aldwin from Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, along with Elfry and Reinfrid from Evesham in Worcestershire. Whitby’s monastery was thriving by the beginning of the following century. It was rebuilt in the thirteenth century and it is the ruins of this abbey that we can see today. Its demise and its subsequent fall into ruin is of course largely due to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, although the bombs of a German battleship which hit the abbey on December 16, 1914 also played a role.

Whitby © David Simpson

With its red roofed-houses and historic harbour streets, Whitby is one of the most picturesque coastal towns in Britain. It clings to the steep banks of the Esk where the river meets the sea, creating a wonderful coastal townscape with much of the town located on the west bank of the river.

An active port since medieval times and described by the sixteenth century antiquarian John Leland as “a great fischour toune”, it then only consisted of around twenty or thirty houses and a population of no more than two hundred. Its real growth came in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth century.

Mouth of the River Esk
Mouth of the River Esk © David Simpson

One of the main influences on Whitby’s growth came from the mining and extraction of alum from the rocks in the Cleveland district to the north near Guisborough, a business encouraged there by the Chaloner family. Coal was exported into Whitby to be used in the process of its extraction. The alum, which became a major Whitby export was used as a fixative in the dyeing process.

Whitby’s growth was spurred on through the investment of the influential local family called Cholmeley and in the 1630s Sir Hugh Cholmeley built the first piers at the mouth of the River Esk. This was the first major stage in the development of the town’s natural river harbour. However, by this time Whitby was already thriving and important for its shipbuilding trade.

River Esk at Whitby
River Esk at Whitby © David Simpson

The most famous ship built at Whitby was HM Bark Endeavour, a collier-type ship known as a ‘cat’.  The Endeavour took the famed explorer, Captain James Cook (1728-1779) on his journeys across the world. Cook, who was born and raised in Cleveland began his sea career at Whitby where he was apprenticed to Whitby shipowner and Quaker, John Walker, who was based in offices in Whitby’s Grape Lane. Cook, though based in Whitby,  worked initially on collier ships plying their trade between Newcastle and London.

Cook used any spare time he could find to train in seamanship and joined the navy at the age of 27 where his navigational skills helped his career progress.

Captain Cook
Captain James Cook

Throughout the eighteenth century and early decades of the nineteenth century whaling was another major industry, established around 1753. Many Whitby mariners were employed in this often dangerous Arctic-based trade and it was not unusual for ships in this trade to fall foul of ill fate and never return to their home town.

The oldest parts of Whitby and the focal areas for its earliest history are on the east bank of the river centred around its abbey on that side of the Esk but today the greater bulk of the town is situated on the west side of the river and is also worthy of exploration.

The East Cliff, Whitby
The East Cliff, Whitby showing the church of St Mary and the River Esk © David Simpson

Old streets like Haggersgate, Baxtergate, Flowergate, Silver Street and the intriguingly named Khyber Pass are places to discover and of course no visit is complete without calling into a fish and chip shop of which there are several. Whitby’s Magpie Cafe is a particularly popular outlet with a reputation for fine fish and chips if you are happy to endure the queue.

Whitby’s railway station is in the western part of the town up the bank overlooks the harbour. It was built in 1847 when the York-based ‘Railway King’ George Hudson brought railways into the town for the first time. This had a major impact in improving transport in Whitby as for much of its history, the once poor quality roads through the neighbouring North York Moors had somewhat isolated Whitby. In fact the sea had been Whitby’s main point of contact with the outside world.

Whitby West Cliff
Whitby West Cliff : St Hilda’s church and the prominent East Terrace © David Simpson

George Hudson, along with Sir George Elliot played an important part in promoting the Victorian development of Whitby in the West Cliff area of the town. The developments include East Terrace designed by the Tyneside architect, John Dobson. Another Newcastle architect, Robert J Johnson designed St Hilda’s church (1880s) which dominates the cliff on this side of the river and should not to be confused with St Mary’s church near the abbey on the opposite side.

Whitby and its bridge © David Simpson

The eastern and western sides of the River Esk are linked by a swing bridge that dates from 1909 and replaced an earlier swing bridge of the 1830s. There had been earlier movable bridges before that time dating back to about 1629, though the first bridge across the Esk at Whitby was mentioned in 1351 when the collection of tolls for its upkeep was granted by King Edward III.

Streets on the east side of the town include Grape Lane, Sandgate and Church Street with the modest little former town hall sandwiched between the latter two streets in a tiny market place. The town hall, built by Jonathan Pickerell in 1788, was given to Whitby by Nathaniel Cholmeley.

Whitby's tiny market place
Whitby’s tiny market place © David Simpson

Church Street is a focus for shops trading in Whitby Jet, a beautiful black gem stone sold in the form of jewellery. Whitby jet is famed the world over and is shiny and jet-black (hence the term) in colour. Whitby jet is a rock that evolved as a kind of fossilized wood, formed under extreme pressures 180 million years ago and it is technically a rare and special form of coal. Jet can be found throughout the North York Moors area.

At the north end of Church Street towards the sea, the street turns right into Church Lane which is joined by the famous 199 steps that lead up to the top of the cliff and emerge at the beautiful church of St Mary alongside Whitby Abbey. These steps feature in the vampire-themed novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, who was a visitor to Whitby and set the opening scenes of the novel in the town.

199 steps at Whitby
The 199 steps at Whitby © David Simpson

In the novel Count Dracula’s coffin is washed ashore at Whitby from a shipwreck during a severe storm. He takes the form of a large dog and climbs the steps to St Mary’s church, taking refuge in a grave there. As well as its atmospheric graveyard, this church at the top of the steps has a remarkable interior of impressive pews and panelling. It is mostly of Norman origin with some Early English additions.

Church of St Mary at Whitby
Church of St Mary at Whitby © David Simpson

Bram Stoker was not the only famed novelist to come to Whitby. Both Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens were visitors to the town.

Robin Hood’s Bay

Around twenty miles of coastland separate Whitby from Scarborough to the south. There are few settlements along this rocky cliff-dominated coast and those that can be found such as Burniston, Cloughton and Staintondale all towards the Scarborough end are tiny settlements set back from the cliff edges. Further to the north Ravenscar – ‘the rock or scar inhabited by ravens’ is a little closer to the sea, but closest of all is the bonny little village of Robin Hood’s Bay, five miles south of Whitby.

Robin Hood’s Bay is a place of character with pretty little red roof houses clinging to the rocks, right down on the shoreline in a similar manner to those of Staithes north of Whitby. Sadly the most intriguing thing about Robin Hood’s Bay defies explanation. Why is it called Robin Hood’s Bay? Nobody really knows for sure and the inhabitants in any case often simply know it as Bay Town. Legendary theories suggest Robin Hood kept boats here to make a quick getaway or that the abbot of Whitby asked Robin to fight off Danish pirates hereabouts. Robin is said to have thrown huge boulders down cliffs to crush the invaders. Maybe Robin simply retired here.

River Esk : Ruswarp and Larpool

Heading up river along the Esk just south west of Whitby we encounter the impressive brick-built Larpool Viaduct of thirteen arches, on the outskirts of town near Ruswarp. Dating from 1882-1884 it carries the Scarborough-Whitby line across the Esk and was mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Larpool was the area south of the river and is recalled in the eighteenth century Larpool Hall, now a hotel.

Larpool is a Norse name driving from ‘Leir-Pool’ meaning ‘muddy pool or creek’. It has a similar meaning to the name of Liverpool in north west England, which means ‘clotted pool or creek’. Merseyside, like the Whitby area was a important area of Viking settlement. Indeed there is a village called Whitby on the south side of the Mersey near Liverpool with the Viking name Whitby. Situated on the Wirral, it was swallowed up by the growth of Ellesmere Port along with neighbouring Overpool and Netherpool.

Ruswarp’s on the north side of the Esk has a name that likewise pertains to mud. It derives from ‘hris-varp’ with the ‘hris’ element referring to brushwood and the ‘varp’ being a Viking term for accumulated mud slowing the river’s flow.

The coast at Whitby
The coast at Whitby © David Simpson

Across the Esk south of Ruswarp are the Buskley Beck, Shawn Riggs Beck and Stainsacre Beck where roads lead to Sneaton, Stainsacre and Hawsker. All these village names are Norse. Sneaton is from a Viking personal name Snjo coupled with the Anglo-Saxon ‘ton’ (a farm or village) while Stainsacre was a field (acre) belonging to a Viking called Steinn. Hawsker was ‘Haukr’s Garth’, an enclosure belonging to someone with the Norse name Haukr.

A mile west of Ruswarp is Briggswath on the north side of the Esk. It means ‘bridge near a ford’ as ‘wath’ is the Viking word for a ford. Across the Esk is the larger settlement of Sleights and a nearby village with the delightful name of Ugglebarby to the south east. Both have Viking names. Sleights means ‘flat land near water’ and Ugglebarnby (Uggleberdsbi in the Domesday Book) means ‘village of the man with an owl-beard’. Aislaby, north of Briggswath was called Asulebi in the Domesday Book and once belonged to a Viking called Asulf. There are also places called Aislaby near Pickering and Yarm but the early spellings of these two places demonstrate they belonged to Vikings with the personal name Aslac.

River Esk at Castleton
The River Esk at Castleton in the upper reaches of the valley © David Simpson


We enter a relatively quiet section of the Esk valley west of Briggswath where three miles upstream we reach the village of Grosmont. It came into being as a result of railway and mining activity but its French name recalls a long-gone Benedictine priory that existed here from 1200. The monks of Grosmont belonged to the Order of Grandmont near Limoges in France from which Grosmont was named. The industrial settlement at Grosmont was once simply called ‘Tunnel’.

Grosmont is a famous stop on the North York Moors Railway, a heritage railway operated by steam locomotives. The railway dates to 1836 and was planned by George Stephenson to link the port of Whitby to the outside world for the benefit of its trade and industry. One of the most significant developments was a tunnel constructed through the rocks at Grosmont by navies that is believed to be one of the oldest railway tunnels. The line was built to be operated by horse drawn carriages though later came under the influence of the rail network of George Hudson and was adapted for use by steam locomotives.

Two miles south along the valley of a stream called the ‘Murk Esk’ is Goathland, another stop on the heritage railway. Its name means ‘Goda’s Land’ and has an Anglo-Saxon name though a change in pronunciation came under Scandinavian influence. There are a number of curious features as we head further into the moors south and south east of Goathland including the RAF Flyingdales with its giant ‘golf balls’ and a fabulous natural hollow called the Hole of Horcum. Here, however we have stayed from the main Esk valley.

A little nearer Goathland two miles to the south is a pleasing viewpoint at Goathland car park and in a remote location a mile or two west is a small stone circle called Simon Howe. Only a mile west of Goathland is Mallyan Spout waterfall and a further mile or so west of that, the remote and intriguing Wheeldale Roman road.

A signpost at Danby in Eskdale
A signpost at Danby in Eskdale © David Simpson

Returning north to Grosmont in the main valley of the Esk we continue upstream for a mile to the west to reach the village of Egton Bridge on the Esk with Egton village half a mile up hill to the north of the river. Egton is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘Ecga’s farm’. Egton Bridge is famous for its annual gooseberry fair, held every August.

A mile upstream the Esk takes on a more winding course near Glaisdale wher we find the single arch Beggars Bridge, a pack horse bridge of 1619 across the Esk. It was built by Glaisdale man Tom Ferris after he made his fortune and became a mayor of Hull. As a youth he was frustrated by the river separating him from his lover. Another interesting feature of Glaisdale is the extraordinary Museum of Victorian Science with its wonderful collection of historic gadgetry and scientific apparatus.

The next place we encounter upstream along the Esk north west of Glaisdale is the picturesque village of Lealholm. Here the river flows through a wooded gorge called Crunkly Gill.

Danby © David Simpson

Houlsyke and Danby are the next villages a mile and a half west of Lealholm. Houlsyke is a little north of the river rather than on the river bank. Across the Esk to the south of Houlsyke are the sizzlingly delightful valleys of Great Fryup Dale and Little Fryup Dale formed by the Great Fryup and Little Fryup Becks. Little Fryup is the most westerly and nearby are the scant remains of the fourteenth century Danby Castle where Catherine Parr, sixth and final wife of Henry VIII once resided. A nearby packhorse bridge across the Esk to the north was associated with the castle and is called Ducks Bridge. It is thought to be named from a local family called Duck.

Danby © David Simpson

Danby village, on the north side of the Esk has a Viking name that literally means ‘Village of the Danes’. There is a North York Moors National Park Visitor Centre a little to the east of the village. Across the Esk to the south of Danby is Ainthorpe, the ‘thorpe’ element of its name being a Viking term for a small or outlying farm.

Continuing upstream is Castleton, a mile west of Danby. It is named from being the site of a Norman motte and bailey castle, the remains of which can be seen in the form of a mound on the north side of the village.

Castleton © David Simpson

The Esk starts to approach its source near the village of Westerdale ‘the most westerly dale’ upstream two miles to the south west of Castleton, though another tributary called the Baysdale Beck is more westerly still.

Castleton © David Simpson

In a relatively remote location near the Blakey Ridge Road a mile and a half south of Westerdale is ‘Young Ralph’s Cross’, thought to be a memorial to Ralph de Irton, a Prior of Guisborough from 1262. There is a remnant of an older cross nearby – Old Ralph’s Cross. Ralph de Irton was later the Bishop of Carlisle. In legend the cross is associated with a nun from Rosedale abbey and a monk who are said to have had an illicit liaison for which they were punished with death.

Valley of Commondale
Looking towards the valley of Commondale formed by the Commondale Beck in upper Eskdale © David Simpson

At Castleton the River Esk is joined on its north side by the Comondale Beck with the village of Commondale further up that valley about two miles to the north west.

Commondale © David Simpson

Commondale means ‘Colman’s valley’ and the personal name Colman is Old Irish. It is associated with Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne who is said to have stayed here on his journey to or from Whitby. Colman was Lindisfarne’s bishop from AD 661to AD 664 when he resigned the bishopric following the Synod of Whitby where had spoken in favour of the Celtic form of Chsristianity. West of Commondale we enter an area in the watershed boundary between the tributaries of the River Esk and the source of the River Leven near the village of Kildale, about three miles west of Commondale.

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