Spoken word recordings for English Heritage
Whitby Abbey’s magnificent ruins tower above the North Yorkshire coastline. Nuns and monks first lived on the site in the seventh century, and finally left when King Henry VIII closed all monasteries, nine hundred years later. Over an even longer sweep of time, however, this clifftop place has inspired stories – from sunny and playful, to gothic and ghastly.
English Heritage commissioned me to retell the site’s legends and myths, drawing on historical fact, to help new audiences explore this unique location. You can hear me reading one of the resulting stories below, by kind permission of English Heritage. All five stories are now available in the new museum at Whitby Abbey. It reopened in April 2019 after a £1.5 million redevelopment during which I was delighted to develop the museum text, site text and the interactive Ammonite Trail for family visitors.
Singing in the stable is a charming tale from the abbey’s earliest years, about Caedmon the cowhand. Unable to read or write, he nonetheless awoke one morning with a supernatural gift for putting scripture to music and singing it – becoming the first named English poet, and earning himself a place among the brotherhood of monks.
The other stories that you can hear in the new museum displays at Whitby Abbey include:
- The lost bells of Whitby Abbey in which Henry VIII’s men come to silence the Abbey’s bells and ship them to London. It’s all part of the king’s plan to dissolve the monasteries and consolidate his wealth. But how did the boat sink, taking the bells to the ocean floor? And is it true that on dark nights you can still hear them ringing?
- The miracle of the snakestone which uses Psalm 91 to explore the legend of St Hild. She founded the monastery in 657, and is meant to have turned dangerous snakes in the area into ammonites – snakestones – that you can still find today.
‘The angels will hold you up with their hands to keep you from hurting your feet. You will trample down poisonous snakes.’
- The Walrus and the Carpenter, about the experiences of Lewis Carroll who spent time in Whitby to give mathematics lectures. He also wrote poetry about the 199 steps that rise to the abbey from the town – and penned the famous verses about a walrus and a carpenter that appear in Through the Looking Glass, and what Alice Found There.
- Dracula Diary, in which I imagine Bram Stoker’s real-life family holiday in Whitby, and how it inspired his most famous book. He, his wife Florence and son Irving, visited Whitby in 1890 as a break from Stoker’s busy theatre job in London. They explored the ruined abbey, and the churchyard – Stoker called a character Swales after a name he found on a gravestone. He also wove in local stories about a ghostly dog called the barghest, and a tragic Russian shipwreck of 1885. But it was at the library that he read the East European folklore which would lead to Dracula.
It was a fantastic challenge to try to bring together fact and imagination in an authentic way for each story, and great to record the stories at Woodworm Studios in Oxfordshire with the expert guidance of producer Stuart Jones.
Whitby is the perfect place for a seaside holiday, and now the abbey and its stories are more accessible than ever.