Friday, 2nd July. 8 miles. Sleights to Whitby.
I catch the bus back to Sleights and head down to the station to rejoin my route. As well as being on the Esk Valley line, the Whitby – Pickering Heritage uses this section. I had seen steam from trains yesterday and when I heard a hoot this morning I grabbed my camera for a shot of the steam train powering through…
I soon left the Esk Valley Way and used footpaths gradually gaining height through pleasant farmland. A bit of a hiccough had me vaulting barbed wire to get back on course to Sneaton, a small village in the hills, you have no inkling that the coast is just a couple of miles away. St. Hilda’s Church, Sneaton is set back from the road and yet again it was locked. I’ve chosen a bad time to visit these churches. The graveyard looks like a haven for wildlife. This church is renowned for its stained-glass window depicting Caedmon. Caedmon was a lay brother and herdsman at St. Hilda’s monastery. He had a dream that he could sing and, relating this to Hilda, she encouraged him to compose and sing religious verses, the original hymns? From up here I had my first view of Whitby Abbey, and my continuation was named the Monk’s Walk heading that way. Excellently preserved flagstones for almost a mile, well-worn from the passage of time, and a stone clapper bridge for good measure..
On the outskirts of town, I decided to try and stay high and approach the Abbey from the SE. This worked well, and I was soon on the headland with the Abbey ruins in front of me. That’s when I joined the crowds swarming out of the car park. I hadn’t quite expected the place to be so busy when for the last three days I was mostly alone. I suppose the Abbey is a major attraction and when you throw in Dracula, Scampi and Captain Cook, Whitby is a magnet for tourists.
St. Hilda’s Abbey was destroyed by Danish invaders in 867. A new Abbey was started in 1078 as a Benedictine monastery. Gradually this became one of Yorkshire’s great houses with 40 monks and a large estate. It was rebuilt several times in the C14th and C15th, and these are the ruins we see today. Henry V111 put paid to the monastery. Shelling by German warships in 1914 ensured the building deteriorated further. (Don’t know what happened to my camera settings there.)
On the headland close to the Abbey is St. Mary’s Anglican Church, of Norman foundation but much changed over the years, it probably is on the site of St. Hilda’s original monastery.
Nearby is the Caedmon Cross, erected in 1898, which celebrates the spread of Christianity from St. Hilda’s Whitby and Caedmon and his Hymns in particular. Hilda is depicted standing on the headless snakes – ammonites, and surrounded by five bishops she taught. In the background can be seen the square tower of St. Hilda’s Anglican Church, my next objective.
The graveyard is extensive, but apparently starting to fall down the cliffs into the sea. There have been reports of bones on the beach!
I go down those famous 199 steps, join the crowds jostling in the narrow streets and find a café with a free table, I enjoy the traditional Whitby ‘fish and chips’ – not really different to fish and chips elsewhere.
I thread my way through the narrow alleys and steps past the famous Whalebones and Captain Cook.… …to arrive in front of St. Hilda’s Anglican Church. This impressive structure was built in 1888 when it was thought it may become a cathedral, hence its size and apparent rich contents again denied me by Covid restrictions.
Across town was the more pleasing to my eye St. Hilda’s RC Church. Again apparently it is richly embellished with many references to Hilda. It is a shame that I have not been able to view the interiors of all these St. Hilda’s churches, particularly for the stained-glass windows depicted her life.
All I had to do now was walk up to St. Hilda’s Priory at Sneaton Castle. (a different Sneaton to this morning). I was a little dismayed to find it is now a wedding venue.
The Sisters of the Holy Paraclete owned Sneaton Castle, a Georgian property originally built by a Caribbean sugar plantation owner, James Wilson, when he retired to Whitby. The nuns moved into adjacent St Hilda’s Priory in 1915, and the castle was run as a girls’ boarding school and then a retreat, but the increasingly elderly community of nuns, whose numbers have dwindled to around 25, decided to sell up in 2018, realising the castle was making a loss. They have moved to a new priory on another part of the estate. I found it all a little confusing and didn’t take the opportunity to ask if I could view the Norman priory or even the new one.
That was my 40-mile circuit of this wonderful corner of the North Yorkshire Moors and the Esk Valley completed. Eight St. Hilda’s Churches were passed, as well as other important places of worship. My regret is not being able to view the interior of those churches, however they gave a focus to the walk. The stone trods were a delight, as were the villages, making this a worthwhile and interesting tramp which for the most part you have to yourself.
I think that is enough of going round in circles looking for churches for a while, Sir Hugh is trying to get me back on the straight and narrow.