Fully rested (and fully windblown), I finally bid farewell to the little seaside town of Redcar and headed south along the coast to another little seaside town, Whitby. Except this town hosted a blockbuster attraction—Whitby Abbey.
Whitby Abbey started as a 7th-century Christian monastery that later became a Benedictine abbey. It overlooks the North Sea in North Yorkshire, which was a key area of the medieval kingdom of Northumbria (which kept changing hands over centuries of border wars).
As we crested a small hill the abbey suddenly appeared, floating between earth and sky. It is absolutely magnificent—enormous yet graceful. Although less than half of it remains, the site can’t really be called the abbey’s “ruins,” because it’s perfect exactly as is. The soaring height and broad size are plenty to take in.
Because it was built and modernized over several medieval centuries, the abbey combines several building styles. John helped me see the difference between Early Gothic and the subsequent Decorated Gothic—I do love those fancy windows. Like so much of “English” culture, Gothic design had first been used in France, and was imported into England in the late 1100s.
It’s esoteric but of lasting significance: In 664 the abbey hosted the Whitby Synod to reconcile local Celtic and Roman Christian practices. The Roman practices won out, including the date of Easter, which was then set for succeeding millennia.
Continuing south toward York, I stopped at Kirkham Priory. Unlike Whitby, the place was empty—in fact, a small wooden admission gate was locked (a full hour ahead of the posted closing time), and in the tradition of the self-sufficient Augustinians who had founded the place in 1122, we climbed over the fence and strolled around.
There were fewer buildings than at Whitby and they were smaller, but the place had a dignified beauty of its own. On the front of the gatehouse I saw the armorials of the main 12th-century benefactors sculpted onto the stone.
Because of its isolation, sheer walls, and nearby lakes, the site was used to test the vehicles and tactics used in D-Day—supervised by Winston Churchill himself. And apparently John has been hired multiple times to reenact Churchill responding to that challenge.
Both Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Priory suffered similar fates when King Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries and seized all church land and property in the 1530s. The Catholic Church had owned about 1/3 of the country’s land, including its income (wool, wine, etc.), so seizing its property across the country created an enormous windfall for Henry.
And how had I travelled between Whitby and Kirkham? By steam train, a two-hour trip via the North York Moors historical railroad. I saw some lovely scenery inaccessible to cars, spoke at length to the on-board docent, heard the most beautiful 19th-century sounds of steam and rail, and got my share of soot on hair, clothes and hands. It was a slightly jarring interlude between medieval sites, but it was a calm two hours to reflect and relax.
Two revolutionary technologies: gothic architecture and the steam engine. Still very, very easy to admire each.
I continue to enjoy your travel blog.
Love the pictures of the Gothic (of whatever type) abbeys and priory! You capture their elegance and majesty! I have loved abbeys ever since living in Bath, England for 2.5 months in 2002—awed by the one there, and others in nearby towns. Thanks for finding other ones! Reading Pillars of the Earth, Follett’s fascinating novel about the early successes and failures building the cathedrals, really made me appreciate the ones that are still standing.