Whitby and Eskdale

Whitby – St Hild and the Synod

In the days before Viking settlement fell upon Yorkshire, Whitby lay within the Kingdom of Northumbria and was the site of an Anglo-Saxon abbey founded in 657 A.D. The abbey stood on the site now occupied by Whitby’s ruinous Norman abbey overlooking the River Esk and was dedicated to a Northumbrian princess called St Hilda (alternatively known as St Hild), who moved here from Hartlepool and was its first abbess. In later years the abbey was destroyed by the Vikings who raided Whitby in 870 A.D.

Vikings eventually became peaceful settlers at Whitby calling it ‘Hviteby’ – `the White Town’ In 664 A.D Whitby abbey had been the setting for the Synod of Whitby , an important meeting held to decide if the people of Northumbria should adhere to 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 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.

The Celtic Christianity introduced by St Aidan thirty years before was abandoned in favour of Roman practices. Roman Catholicism 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.

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

Whitby’s earliest history may centre around its abbey on the east side of the Esk but the bulk of the town on the west side is worthy of exploration and is a place of great character. 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 the local fish and chip shop.


The River Esk which joins the sea at Whitby forms the beautiful valley of Eskdale in its upper reaches where it cuts its way through the North Yorkshire Moors. The name of the Esk goes back to Viking times. Indeed many of the names in the valley are Viking. These include Ainthorpe a place near Danby which signifies a small Viking farm or ‘thorpe’, that was isolated or ‘on its own’. The name means one thorpe or ‘lonely farm’.

Danby itself is also a Viking name meaning village of the Danes. The name Goathland may mean Goda’s land – again, probably Viking name, but Grosmont is Norman French and means ‘big hill’. These last two places are closely associated with the famous North York Moors Railway – a preseved steam railway. A train journey is one of the best ways for seeing the magnificent scenery hereabouts and today it is possible to travel all the way from Pickering to Whitby on board the railway carriages.

Robin Hood’s Bay

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

Robin Hood’s Bay is a place full of character, whose pretty little red roof houses cling to the rocks, right down on the shoreline in a similar manner to those of Staithes to the north of Whitby

Sadly the most intriguing thing about Robin Hood’s Bay defies explanation. Why exactly is it called Robin Hood’s Bay? Nobody really seems to know for sure and the inhabitants in any case often simply know it as Bay Town.

Legendary theories suggest that Robin Hood kept boats here to make a quick getaway or that the abbot of Whitby had asked Robin to fight of Danish pirates here. Robin is said to have thrown huge bolders down the cliffs to crush the invaders. Maybe Robin Hood simply retired to Robin Hood’s Bay at the end of his long life of crime?

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