We'd gone to Whitby on the wrong day. The Sunday crowds were heaving, and all the famous chippies had queues round the higgledy-piggledy block. Above us, on top of the East Cliff, the parish church by the abbey ruins beckoned, with only the odd straggler snaking up its craggy cliffside stairs. Away from the harbour and the scrum of Yorkshire day-trippers, above the candyfloss and the slot machines, the goth jewellery shops and the hammy actors' recorded voices beckoning you into The Dracula Experience up those 199 steps, we found Whitby's real magic and enchantment.
Away from the clamour of the crowds, with just the sound of the seagulls above the rickety-roofed old fishermen's tenements tumbling back down the hilly slopes to the harbour mouth, floating somewhere above that busy little world, the East Cliff also seemed to command another type of birds' eye view, a birds' eye view of time: the sense of deep time opening out, going back to the foggiest recesses of the English psyche.
We walked around the parish grounds, winged cherubs' heads weathered away over the centuries, gravestones weathered to the point of disintegrating over long epochs of salty sea air on this cliff-face graveyard of sailors, and its memorials to others less fortunate, whose only grave is the sea.
Though it's essentially Norman, St Mary's has been cobbled together over the ages, and parts of it, like the old archway over the chapel door, seemed like the whispered hints of an earlier civilization whose ways have become strange and obscure to us, a seabound civilization hugging the shores of Northumbria, Denmark, and Norway. Having grown up in these parts, the strange names that have survived still resonate with me from childhood: King Oswy (the local pub where I grew up), St Hilda (my local church), evoking an enchanted, far-off land, like the elusive first memories of childhood, beyond which all is forgotten darkness.
And at this spot on the edges of our memories, our very sense of England, the first poetry in the English language was gifted to Caedmon, an illiterate shepherd, through divine inspiration in a dream.
Bede recalls the story:
He set his limbs at rest and fell asleep, then some man stood by him in his dream and hailed and greeted him and addressed him by his name:
'Caedmon, sing me something,'
'I do not know how to sing,'
'Nevertheless, you must sing,'
'What must I sing?'
'Sing to me of the first Creation.'
When he received this answer, then he began immediately to sing in praise of God the Creator verses and words which he had never heard.
Up here in the hazy golden light, blazing like a Saxon shield on the water of that rivermouth below, it's easy to imagine that same mysterious voice whispering on the wind, calling you back to unknown eons, to the earliest England, a world and a way of life that is all but unimaginable to us. And up on that hill, with an eternity of blue spread out across the vast horizon, you cannot help but think how short a time we're all allotted, and how little we really understand, and somehow there's something satisfying and happy about that thought, as nevertheless it's some small inkling granted us about our place in the world.
Words byMichael Smith