It is 9 a.m. on a summer’s morning that promises much, and in Whitby the first bright yellow open-top bus of the day is grinding uphill to the abbey; the ruin which looks over the town from the western headland and that plays a supporting role in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
At the railway station The Whitby Enterprise has steam up and will soon chuff backwards over the moors, taking tourists to the living film set of Goathland, the fictional Akenfield in Heartbeat, the long-running ITV nostalgic drama series. Goathland station is also where, in the movies, Harry Potter alights on his way to Hogwarts.
Both places are in Fr Neil McNicholas’s parish of St Hilda’s, which encompasses Whitby and a good deal more. If one were to seek out a place that typified modern, post-industrial Britain, his parish offers a perfect case study. Once, this area was sustained by fishing, mining and sheep. Now tourism is king – particularly TV tourism.
But the area’s Catholic heritage brings something far more powerful to this beautiful slice of the North Yorkshire Moors than any fictional garnish can.
The ruins of the 12th century abbey stand alongside the site of the Saxon monastery, And while many visitors might take the 199 stone steps up to the ruin thinking of Bram Stoker’s great black beast of a dog that bounded up them, they might better think of the far more compelling story of the remarkable St Hilda, abbess here, and among whose monks was Caedmon, the first English-language poet. This was where, in 664, at the Synod of Whitby, it was decided to follow the Roman Catholic church instead of the Celtic church in setting the date of Easter.
And while visitors might enjoy a pint in the real pub that doubles for the Akenfield Arms, and buy fudge, tea towels, fridge magnets, thimbles and much else bearing the Akenfield imprint in the gift shops that have squeezed out the village stores, they might rather seek out the remarkable story of Nicholas Postgate, beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1987.
Fr Postgate travelled this coast and the moors in the 16th century, disguised as a gardener and taking shelter in priest holes in the country houses of recusant families. He carried with him a slate altar, and celebrated Mass in secret across the area. Sheets would be laid out in fields to indicate that he was on his way. Fr Postgate was martyred at the age of 82 after being arrested performing a baptism in Sleights, where Father McNicholas’s other church – English Martyrs - is situated.
So, while the surface offers many jolly distractions, there is much of far greater resonance here.
I ask Fr McNicholas for his portrait of his parish, which has an average congregation of 300, swelled in summer by a substantial number of visitors.
“It’s a big parish”, he says, “from Sandsend in the north to Ravenscar in the south and inland to Goathland; a big triangle, but most of the parish is moors.
“Whitby grew up around the harbour, the local economy relying on fishing, boat building, and the export of alum [used to fix the dyes in cloth]. Over time there was a gradual move of more middle-class families to the west cliff, a development encouraged by the construction of more expensive housing, the arrival of the railway and the growth of Whitby as a resort town. The River Esk still creates a physical divide even if there is no longer the same social division of the town.
“The churches used to reflect the east/west split. There was St Hilda’s here on the west of the river, and St Patrick’s on the east, but that was closed in 2004 after the parishes were merged.”
I ask if Whitby is a particularly religious town.
“There are five churches in this one street. You might say that’s because risking their lives every day at sea, as the fishermen did, brought them closer to God. Catholicism has always remained strong in the moors communities – there were one or two notable Catholic families who kept it alive.
“When the railway came, and the mines, I suspect that brought a lot of Irish families to the area.”
In my early morning tour around the town, also famous as the place from which Captain Cook sailed, on ships built here, Iwork up such a head of steam in my descent of the west cliffs, winding down the crammed streets, that my momentum powers me past a sort of triumphal arch made from whale bones, over the iron lifting bridge that unites the town and east up the steps to the abbey church’s grand roofless nave and soaring south transept. None of the monastic buildings remain but, beside the ruins, are Saxon tombstones lying in a shallow ditch where they were found.
One local legend has it that when sea birds fly over the abbey they dip their wings in St Hilda’s honour. Another tells of a plague of snakes which she turned to stone and which became the ammonite fossils on the shore. The ammonite Hildoceras takes its name from St Hilda.
There are two churches named after St Hilda – the Anglican one with its solid tower up on the west cliff, and Fr McNicholas’s 1867 elegant gothic church, built from local Aislaby sandstone, in Bagdale [note to subs – this is the name of the street it is in]. The mission in Whitby was established in 1794 and served by French priests fleeing the French revolution. A chapel was opened in Walker Street in 1805 and the present church replaced it. In St Hilda’s, with its spectacular sky-blue ceiling studded with gold stars, there is a memorial to Fr Postgate in the English Martyrs’ chapel.
Later I go up on to the high heather covered moors where the villages huddle in the sharp valleys by the Esk and Eller Beck. The road up from Whitby takes me first to Sleights, scene of Fr Postage’s capture.
Further up the Esk valley are two places where he is particularly remembered.
Every July since 1974 an open air service has been held – alternatively in Egton Bridge where he was born, in 1596, and Ugthorpe where he lived – in honour of Fr Postgate. This year’s was at Egton on July 1, and around 1,000 attended.
On the southern lip of the moors is Pickering and there, in St Joseph’s church, is kept his portable slate altar.
I have come from Blackpool, and this is quite a contrast. I ask Fr McNicholas, who was ordained 13 years ago at the age of 40 and spent most of his ministry in the industrial areas on Teesside before coming to Whitby two and a half years ago, if there are any particular problems in his parish.
I ask Fr McNicholas, who was ordained 14 years ago at the age of 45 and spent the early years of his priesthood in Teesside parishes before coming to Whitby two and a half years ago, if there are any particular problems in his parish.
“No, he says, “The parish is fairly quiet compared to my previous ones. I think Whitby is probably a healthier place to live.”
Born in Redcar, he considered the priesthood at 18-19 when working in the ICI chemical factory at Middlesbrough, but decided he was not ready. Instead he followed a mixed career, including four years as a lay missionary in Zambia, before he felt he was ready for the ministry.
“It was a conversation with my parish priest back in Redcar that made me decide it was the time,” he says, adding: “God gets you in the end!”