Thereat they greatly were dismayed, ne wist
How to direct their way in darknesse wide,
But feard to wander in that wastfull mist,
For tombling into mischiefe vnespide.
Worse is the danger hidden then descride.
- The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser
yet also rise
The sacred Structures for less doubtful gains.
The Sensual think with reverence of the palms
Which the chaste Votaries seek, beyond the grave
If penance be redeemable, thence alms
Flow to the poor, and freedom to the slave;
And if full oft the Sanctuary save
Lives black with guilt, ferocity it calms.
- Saxon Monasteries and Lights and Shades of the Religion, William Wordsworth
The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages
from sixty miles.
- Damon's Lament For His Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654, Geoffrey Hill
The latter lines are an extract from Geoffrey Hill's sonnet cycle An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England, and this particular sonnet quoted above haunted my mind during my entire stay in Whitby due to the contrast between the little village and the immense body of water embracing the headland whose waves kept battering the fragile shore.
The trip was arranged by the Centre for Medieval Studies and we drove by bus from York across the moors Thursday January 13. The bus ride itself was a nice way of experiencing England in a way that corresponded with my ideas of what constitutes England, and especially Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Moors is a very desolated area, covered with heather, shrouded with heavy, thick, ever-present mist and - at this time of the year - spotted with snow. Whenever the mist lifted or were less impenetrable we could behold a very beautiful landscape of rolling moors and gorges appearing bottomless in the fog. It was beautiful, but in a particular manner that rather than to attract you keeps you at arms' length, making one content to observe not partake in the otherworldly scenery.
Because of the spectral nature of the moors the contrast to Whitby was pleasant and surprising. The little coastal village huddling at the mouth of the river Esk was all bathed in sunlight and the fields were green against the cold North Sea.
Once I emerged from the bus I felt the fresh salt air blowing in from the sea and in the short distance the gulls shrieked with their nostalgic undertone that is so very pleasing in certain surroundings. It was a delightful change from the scents of York - particularly the scent of pork meat - and the combined impressions caused a heightening of the spirits that would only be strengthened during the stay.
The excursion started at the ruin of Whitby Abbey, an impressive and predominantly Gothic remnant of a Benedictine monastery raised and expanded in the period following William the Conqueror's harrowing of the North (1069-70) up into the 13th century. It was an awe-inspiring experience to walk among the arches, to behold the finely-carved window-frames and to witness the massive stonework of the pillars and the walls. To me Gothic churches - especially of such dimensions - represent spectacular manifestations of the splendid craftsmanship and deep piety of the high Middle Ages, but for some reason Whitby Abbey evoked this awe and respect for the epoch in question to a greater extent than York Minster. Perhaps this is due to the highly visible commercial taint of the Minster, maybe it is due to the air of tragedy inherent in vast ruins or my general preference for the humble or humbled, yet regardless of reason it appeared far more impressive to see the well-preserved frame of the rose window at Whitby than that of York Minster.
The history of monastic activity in this area precedes the Norman invasion, however. Oswiu, king of Northumbria, established the first monastery on the headland in 657 as a part of his attempt to gain control over the area. The Anglo-Saxon buildings were eventually razed, quite possibly by Danes, and the only sources for this period are the writings of Bede (672/73-735) and archaeological discoveries. Sadly the headland has been so eroded since the days of Oswiu and Bede that the area of Anglo-Saxon settlement - and also the 4th century Roman lighthouse - are now covered by the inexorable North Sea.
The Abbey was abandoned following Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries
The North Sea batters our shepherds' cottages