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 2021

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 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 2021

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 2021

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

The abbey was re-founded in 1078 by Aldwin from Winchcombe along with Elfry and Reinfrid from Evesham and it was thriving by the beginning of the following century. It was rebuilt in the 13th 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 2021

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 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 2021

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 through the investment of the influential local family called Cholmeley and in the 1630s Sir High 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 2021

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 18th 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 the 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 2021

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 many. 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 a 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 2021

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 and not to be confused with St Mary’s church near the abbey on the opposite side.

Whitby and its bridge © David Simpson 2021

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 2021

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 2021

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 2021

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


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 preserved 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.

The coast at Whitby
The coast at Whitby © David Simpson 2021

Robin Hood’s Bay

Around twenty miles of coastland separate Whitby from Scarborough in the south. There are very few settlements along this rocky cliff-land 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 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 boulders 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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