Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

For all Dracula fans, Whitby Abbey is a place of pilgrimage as this is where it is believed that the story of Dracula began. The gothic masterpiece that is Whitby Abbey is famous throughout the world and a must-see English heritage site that is well worth exploring.

Looming above Whitby stands Whitby Abbey, the evocative ruin of a once-great Benedictine monastery, founded in the 11th century. These ruins stand on the site of an ancient medieval abbey founded by the Anglian princess Hild in 657. Hild was the first abbess of Whitby and she led one of the most important religious centres of the Anglo-Saxon world.  

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Visiting Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey is clearly signposted from the main roads into the town. You can walk to and from the centre of Whitby town to the abbey.  It does involve the 199 steps but the views on the way up are worth the hike upstairs.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

There is car parking at Whitby Abbey but there are limited spaces. The Car park is located 100 metres from the Abbey on Church Street and there is a lot (Abbey Headland Parking) behind the Abbey for Coaches and vehicles.  Disabled visitors may be set down by the entrance to the visitor centre; disabled parking in the main car park and ramped entrance to the site. Parking is chargeable and it depends on how long you stay.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

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The History of Whitby Abbey

St Hild

St Hild was a Saxon princess born in 614, who founded the Monastery at Whitby which was mixed housing both nuns and monks. It was a flourishing community as Christianity was spreading throughout England. However, there were two factions of Christianity the Irish Celtic monks from the North and the monks from the south who were influenced by the Church in Rome.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

The reasons for the division were relatively simple the factions debated the dates of Easter, dressed differently and the Celtic monks shaved their heads creating what was called the tonsure. The tonsure indicated that they were the ‘slaves of Christ’ but the southern Monks had abandoned the practice. 

Hild as Abbess of Whitby held the first Synod of Whitby in 664 which determined the course of Christianity for all of England. This became the centre of medieval Northumbria and it was here that the decisions were made that influenced Christianity for centuries. Specific dates of Christian celebrations such as Easter were determined and all monks would follow the Roman Church’s conventions.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Caedmon the poet

Cædmon was a Northumbrian who cared for the animals at Hilda’s Whitby Abbey. He was said to have learned to compose songs due to a dream he had and thereafter became a zealous monk and one of England’s most inspirational Christian poets.

His story is related in the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede who wrote, “here was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after putting the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse, the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven.”

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

When Abbess Hild died in 680, she was granted sainthood. Her relics, along with those of King Oswy and King Edwin, attracted many pilgrims, and the financial donations these pilgrims brought to the abbey were used to fund further building work.

The next Abbess was Princess Aelfled but from the mid-8th century, there isn’t much known about the Monastery as all historical records have been lost. It is believed that Whitby Abbey was attacked by Vikings in 867 and nearly completely destroyed. The ruins of Whitby Abbey that you see today date from after the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror in 1066. 

Later it is believed that around 1070 a Norman knight stopped at Whitby and saw the ruins of the Abbey. Years later, he took holy vows, became a Benedictine Monk, and returned to Whitby to re-establish the monastic community. Sadly he was killed in an accident sometime in 1087.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Records show that by the year 1220 that Whitby Abbey had now become one of the richest monasteries in the country. But the huge costs of the building work on the Abbey cost huge sums of money which ate up the wealth of the community. It took over sixty years to complete the transepts and choir.

By 1320 Whitby Abbey was deep in debt and had to begin a fundraising campaign authorized by the Archbishop of York but it wasn’t until the 15th century that enough money had been raised to complete the nave.

On the 14th of December 1539 William Davell, the last abbot of Whitby, gave the abbey to Henry VIII’s commissioners under the Dissolution of the Monasteries Act.  

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

After the act of Dissolution, the buildings and land that Whitby stood on were leased to Richard Cholmley known as the Great Black Knight of the North. He made great changes to the Abbot’s lodging and it became Cholmley House.

By the 17th century, the family had created beautifully landscaped gardens and added a new wing to the house. But in a violent coastal storm, the roof of the house was destroyed and the house was abandoned. This all meant that the Abbey Church suffered massive damage as well. It didn’t help that the roof had been stripped of lead and the buildings left to nature’s mercy. The nave fell in 1762 and the tower crumbled in 1830, leaving the abbey much as it appears today.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Whitby Abbey and WWI

By WWI Whitby Abbey had passed to the Strickland family who was related to the Cholmleys. In 1914 a German battlecruiser fired shells at the abbey and damaged the west front of the Abbey Church. By 1920 the Strickland family passed the Abbey to the Ministry of Works and cleared the ruins and began excavation of the site.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

In 1984 English Heritage took on the care of the abbey and has made major improvements, including the creation of an impressive new Visitor’s Center in the former Cholmley House. Here you can discover more about the history of the site, and see some of the archaeological finds that have helped bring that history to life. These include an Anglo-Saxon key, painted glass from the windows, an ancient bone comb and other intimate artefacts.

What to see at Whitby Abbey

If you are walking up to Whitby Abbey from the town you will head up the 199 steps, known as the Church Stairs, that leads from the Old Town up to St. Mary’s.  These stairs were once made of wood and were first found in 1340. Historians have said that St. Hilda would have used the steps to confirm the faith of her followers.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

These days the steps are made of stone and they were made famous by Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula where he describes the strange animal that ran up them after jumping ship.

If you walk up the steps you can see benches where you can rest but originally these were installed so the pallbearers had a place to rescue the coffins headed up to St. Mary’s burial ground.

The ancient parish church of St Mary is perched on East Cliff, which is just in front of Whitby Abbey. There are still headstones in the churchyard some of which contain empty graves as they were sailors lost at sea. Stoker actually used the name ‘Swales’ which he saw on one of these headstones for Dracula’s first victim in Whitby. 

Scenic view of St. Marys Church in Whitby with graves in the foreground, North Yorkshire, England.

St. Mary’s Church

Inside St. Mary’s Church, you will see enclosed pews that are dated to the time when families would have their own private pews. The Church has two Norman arches one hidden by the Lord of the Manor’s pew, and the other cannot be seen as it is behind the organ and indicates a grand doorway via the tower.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

The tower has a beautiful peal of 10 bells. The building does have some stained glass and the oldest is the window in the south transept. The small font of unknown date is still in use.

The two stone fonts on the chancel steps were returned to the church after being used as field troughs for many years on a farm near Aislaby. After the last extension was built it was decided to install an organ. The location meant a loss of a number of pews. The present organ still has the original pipework, but some extra stops were added during the major restoration in the early 1900s.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Whitby Abbey ruins

In medieval times the interior of the choir would have been covered in vibrantly coloured murals and the windows would have coloured glass.  John Leland, who was a 16th-century recorder of the riches of the Monasteries was commissioned by Henry VIII to inventory these buildings. He stated that one of the stained glass windows depicted William the Conqueror punishing the Scots for indulging in cannibalism.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

The elaborate stone carving on the walls is all that remains of that history now, but it is still possible to imagine what a glorious sight this building must have been in the day

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Looking down the length of the abbey, past the north and south transepts and along the nave, you can see the west front, which was originally as impressive as the façade of the choir. Much of it collapsed in the late 1700s, and during WWI it suffered further damage when bombed by a German navy ship.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Near the nave are several tombstones that were excavated in the 1920s these date back to the Anglo-Saxon era. It is believed that they are from the first abbey that St. Hild founded. 

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Whitby Abbey Opening Times

1st October – 31st October: 10am – 5pm (Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun)
1st November – 19th March: 10am – 4pm (Mon Thur Fri Sat Sun)
24-26 December and 1st January: Closed
1st April – 31st October: 10am – 5pm (Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun)
1st November – 31st March: 10am – 4pm (Mon Thur Fri Sat Sun)
24-26 December and 1st January: Closed

Opening times and admission prices can be found on the English Heritage website

Tickets for Whitby Abbey cost per adult £11.20

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Places In Whitby To Explore

You can read much more on visiting Whitby here

Whitby Harbour:  It’s a small harbour and great fun to explore and enjoy some of the best fish and chips in England.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

The Whale Bone Arch: Opposite Whitby Abbey on the hill you can see an arch made from the jaw of a whale. This is a memorial to the fisherman of Whitby who hunted for whales in Greenland and provided wealth to the town’s residents. 

Whalebone Arch, Whitby, North Yorkshire, England, UK. The bones are from a bowhead whale, and were acquired by Whitby from one of its twin towns, Barrow in Alaska, in 2002

Captain Cook Museum:  This was the young Cook’s home when he trained in Whitby to become a sea Capitain and where he lived between his voyages. You can also see a statue of Cook in the town.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Whitby Goth Weekend: Usually held at the end of April the Whitby Goth Weekend is an alternative music festival held in Whitby. The event consists of two nights of live bands, and three days (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) of alternative trade stalls at the Whitby Leisure Centre, and Whitby Brunswick Centre

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Halloween in Whitby: Whitby comes alive with all manner of ghosts, vampires, and Goths this weekend. You can take part in ghost tours, illuminations at Whitby Abbey, parties, dancing, parades and all kinds of supernatural events.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

The Dracula Experience: You won’t want to miss the Dracula Experience. Once inside, you’ll see the novel brought to life as you walk through different scenes and watch them unfold around you.

You’ll find the experience on 9 Marine Parade in a building dating back hundreds of years. One of the earliest Title Deeds shows Sir Isaac Newton to be one of the building’s original owners.

If you happen to see a young girl with ringlets in her hair playing on the first floor, she’s not one of the actors, but the resident ghost!

Whitby walks

There are several really interesting ghost walks you can set out on around town. But, for those interested in Dracula and Whitby, you need to take a trip with Dr Crank. His walk ‘In Search of Dracula’ will take you to the places featured in the novel and give you a much better idea of the connection between the town and the character.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

How to get to Whitby

How to get to Whitby by Car: If you’re already on the Yorkshire coastline, you can follow the A171 road which leads you up to Whitby. From the South or the West, you can drive up the A64, then the A91, and finally the A171 to Whitby.

Trains to Whitby: Whitby has its own train station, so you can take a Northern Rail service and it will drop you right in the centre of town. Or, you can ride the scenic North York Moors Railway steam train. 

How to get to Whitby by Bus: You can take the award-winning scenic Coastliner bus through the towns on the Yorkshire coast. It easily connects you with many towns and cities and you can take in some stunning views along the way!

Where to stay in Whitby

Bats & Broomsticks Gothic guest house

The gothic guest house Bats and Broomsticks embraces Whitby’s vampire connections, the town being the setting for much of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There is free WiFi and on-site parking is available and each guest room has a four-poster bed and is gothic themed.
A full English breakfast is served each morning at Bats and Broomsticks. The owners have spent twenty years perfecting their lair and you can stay in one of their artisan four-poster bedrooms that are a work of art.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Bram’s View apartment

In 1890, Bram Stoker checked into a guest house run by Mrs Emma Veazey at 6 Royal Crescent.

This self-catering apartment is located on the prestigious Royal Crescent on Whitby’s West Cliff. With superb sea views, its location, ease of parking and access to the town’s many attractions, make it a great holiday venue.

This beautiful Georgian apartment has been lovingly restored to some of its former glory when the writer Bram Stoker stayed here and found inspiration for some of the most memorable chapters of his novel ‘Dracula’.

Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

Exploring Whitby Abbey is another reason to love discovering Yorkshire. Have you been to Whitby Abbey yet?

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Whitby Abbey Exploring the gothic masterpiece

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