Postcards from England: 5. Prospects for Whitby
It's a long time since I've been to Whitby, and climbed dozens of steps to the church, and realised that it could be reached much more easily from the nearby abbey, and stood amazed at the extraordinary interior, with its a winning combination of medieval walls and Georgian pews and galleries, but I remember the place with some affection. I was pleased to see, when looking it up in Pevsner as a preliminary to writing this post, that the great man loved it too and that he at least thought I got it right by approaching the building the hard way:
It was assumed just now that one would visit the church from and after the abbey. That is a mistake. One should look at it as part of the fishing and shipping town and reach it from below, i.e. not by car, but by the winding 199 steps. There it is then, when the exertion is over, in a splendid position, low and spreading and battlemented, a wonderful jumble of medieval and Georgian when one walks round it, hard to believe and impossible not to love.
My postcard shows some of the wonderful jumble: the galleries that have colonised most of the upper spaces, the Cholmondeley pew (the bit elevated on twisted columns) that cuts right across the chancel arch, the wooden ceiling that seems a bit too low, the enormous pulpit rising through the middle of it all. It shouldn't work, but it does, somehow, from the finials on the pews to the curlicues on the pulpit, from the twisty columns to the clock on the gallery front, redolent of long sermons on winter evenings. Pevsner had his thoughts on other things than sermons when admiring the box pews: they "positively invite games of hide and seek," he wrote.
It was certainly worth the climb, and the church stands magnificently on its cliff top. But there's the rub. The churchyard, which features in Bram Stoker's Dracula, is eroding away. Some more chunks fell off recently, landing soil and bones on the beach below. "Whitby landslip exposes human bones at 'Draclua graveyard'," shouted BBC News, finding it unable to resist the Stoker connection. The bones are regathered and reinterred. Engineers, apparently, are working on the problem of stabilising the cliff and the church, for now, is not said to be under threat. I hope the prospects remain good.