Towns / Countries Visited: 130
Countries Visited: 20
Steps Taken Today: 11,354
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,273,860
Our day was to begin, as so many before it, with a drive. Thus with clear skies overhead, and the warm morning sun lighting the way, we happily made the journey to our first attraction of the day; Whitby Abbey. Before I start our tale though, allow me to provide a little history on this stunning keepsake of times gone by, perched atop the headlands, looking out over the North Sea. Whitby Abbey was originally the location of a monastery way back in the 7th century, long before William the Conquerer, well, conquered. Streoneshalh, as it was originally called, was a monastery built in 656 by the Anglo-Saxon King of Northumbria, Oswy, and he assigned Lady Hilda (later Saint Hilda), the grand-niece of Edwin, the first Christian King of Northumbria, as abbess. Unfortunately, between 867 and 870 it was raided by Danes, after which time it lay in ruin for some 200 years. After William the Conquerer turned up, one of his soldiers, Reinfrid, became a monk, and was granted the land on which to build a new abbey. This, naturally, involved completely removing the old ruins and starting over, meaning that the only remains of the earlier building are a few foundation stones dotted around. From this point the abbey followed the Benedictine practices; that is until, in 1540, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries across the country in the reformation, leaving Whitby Abbey stripped and left to fall into ruin once more. Although it no longer stood as a house of God, the ruins remained a prominent landmark for sailors, as it casts quite an imposing and recognisable outline from the water. In 1914 though, the abbey was unable to avoid being targeted in the Great War, and was shelled by German battlecruisers, resulting in yet further damage to the already crumbling site.
Despite its long and tumultuous history, parts of it still remain defiantly standing, under the care and protection of English Heritage, and it was towards these that we headed after purchasing our tickets. The approach to the abbey is stunning, to say the least. Its positioning on a crest of the headlands means that, as you near, there is naught but blue skies and a few dark looming clouds as the backdrop to this haunting silhouette. Treading gently through the long yellowing grass, swaying softly in the coastal breeze, part of me half expected to see some forlorn Victorian lady, standing in her mourning garb beside the ruins, looking out to sea for her long lost love. There is something strikingly romantic and picturesque about the scene here, and as such, it is not surprising to find that Whitby Abbey had been a muse for many a literary artist; from Caedmon, the first English poet from back during Hilda’s reign of the place; to Bram Stoker, who wrote the 199 steps up to the abbey into his classic ‘Dracula’.
As you reach the foot of the walls, it is only then that the true scale of the place is revealed. Although only parts of the outer shell remain, bereft of almost the entirety of its ceiling and floor, and with little more than the stubs of a few once grand pillars dotting the interior, the sheer height of what remains is incredible. The fact that these stones were so well stacked, and windows so well designed, that even the fine tracery of a few remains intact after almost 500 years of assault by coastal weather, and damage by man, is a testament to the architects and stonemasons of yesteryear. Against all odds, it is the sea-facing wall which stands most complete, and offers some truly magical opportunities for photographs. It was with much joy and inquisitiveness that was wandered around the ruins, running our fingers gently across stones which hold the echos of our ancestors, and listening to the audioguide tell the tales these walls have witnessed.
With the site itself fully explored, we headed into the small museum to the side, in which stands a collection of some of the artefacts found on the site and in the surrounds during its excavation and conservation. After this brief visit, we headed to the cafe for a quiet moment of scones, tea, and reflection, before making the journey back to York.
Upon our return, we thought it only sensible to actually head into York and explore the place we had called home for the night, and would do so again this evening. As we passed through the Micklegate, the main entrance through the city’s medieval walls, as so many others have since its construction in the 12th century, I was struck with the historic beauty of the place. Much like Oxford, this city sings of centuries past, and as you cross the bridge over the River Ouse and in betwixt the jumble of ageing brick buildings, gothic churches, and ramshackle wattle and daub establishments which reminded us ever so much of Shakespeare’s birthplace, you find yourself wandering amongst the jumbled pages of a history book.
With a few rather boring domestic jobs out of the way, i.e. post office visit and partner’s hair cut, we continued on to more exciting things. Eventually, we made it to what can easily be considered the most famous street in York, fondly known simply as ‘The Shambles’. This street is, well, a little shambolic to be honest, with its topsy turvy collection of overhanging timber framed buildings, some dating back as far as the 14th century. Unsurprisingly, as the centuries have passed and the foundations have settled independently to their neighbours, it has left the street lacking in seemingly any square corners. Fun fact: the street was originally called ‘The Great Flesh Shambles’, thought to come from the Anglo-Saxons word ‘fleshammels’, meaning flesh shelves, and referring to the shelves butchers would display meat on. Why, you ask? Because up until as late 1872 there were up to twenty-five butchers shops located along the street, although none remain. So what resides here now? Well, for any of the Harry Potter fans amongst you, this place will appear uncannily familiar. This is, of course, because it lays claim to being the inspiration for JK Rowling’s Diagon Alley in her famous fantasy series. As a result of the Harry Potter phenomenon and its ludicrously large fan following, a few of the buildings are now home to Harry Potter inspired novelty shops, stocking any and every collectible you can think of from the wizarding world. There is something both authentic and kitschy about the overhanging shop signs, reminiscent of those which so often graced medieval establishments, and if you manage to peak upwards, above the heads of the sea of tourists you must wade through to navigate the street, you can almost imagine this place filled with the sound of clipped, old English accents, shouting the days meat specials to the masses bustling past.
Feeling a pang of hunger growing within us, but with the day a little too close to dinnertime for a full meal, we popped into a tiny bakery on the street to purchase one of the most English of delicacies we had yet to indulge in on our visit; pork pies. Now, many do not enjoy even the mere though of a cold meat pie, my partner fervently being one, but even he could appreciate the delight that is crisp golden brown pastry encasing chunks of perfectly cooked pork, strangely jellied together like some 70’s aspic terrine. Now, what do you do after a long day when you find yourself in a quaint English city? You go to the pub, of course. Thus we took half an hour to sit in the quiet corner of a quiet pub and have a quiet pint while we watched the world go by in the waning light of the day.
It was time to head back for the evening, but not before taking a quick sidestep up onto the tops of the old city walls which still surround this place. It was a pleasant walk, and provides a unique view over the city, both within and without. From here we made our journey back to our Airbnb, to rest before our final day of exploring the UK; for now at least.
As I lay in bed, I thought of how our day had inadvertently bought us to two places which had inspired literary art, although 100 years apart in their writing. From Dracula to Harry Potter, this part of the country offers something magical and almost mythical, and as such has inadvertently made itself into the perfect muse for those who’s inner stories live within the realm of fiction. These buildings, which stand silently, speak clearly to those who muse upon them. From their stones spring tales only a select few have managed to capture in verse or prose; and yet those who have captured their essence have done so with such skill that the stories have travelled the world and back again. My own ponderings led me to consider how many of the places we have visited have and will inspire our own story. How many unassuming buildings or unsullied landscapes will be given extraordinary bearings in our own fictional realm as our pentalogy progresses? How many of the stones of yesteryear will we used to build our own narrative? How many people from distant lands will learn of these locations through our own prose and, in turn, find them familiar despite never having spied them with their own eyes? Through fiction we can travel, but it is through travelling that fiction is born.