Whitby Abbey, the imposing ruin overlooking the North Yorkshire coast, has re-opened to the public following a major £1.6 million re-interpretation project by English Heritage – including a new museum and new interpretation around the historic site.
To celebrate the re-opening, and as part of English Heritage’s Telling Tales season, the charity has re-imagined a famous legend associated with Whitby, the abbey and its founder, St Hild. A temporary installation of giant inflatable snakes will evoke how Hild dealt with a plague of snakes in the abbey by driving them over the cliff. The snakes smashed their heads in the fall and were miraculously turned into stone.
Visitors to Whitby today can see the remains of these ‘petrified’ snakes on the town’s beaches (in reality, ammonite fossils).
Andrea Selley, English Heritage’s Director for the North, said: ‘Whitby Abbey was one of the most important religious centres in the world and the decisions made there continue to shape our lives today. We’ve now done justice to the abbey’s remarkable stories, from its role in deciding the future of the Church in England to how its ruins inspired great artists and authors.
‘A visit to Whitby just wouldn’t be complete without exploring the abbey and the changes we’ve made there – including a new entrance, the revamped museum, and the new café – will ensure that visitors get a warm welcome at this Yorkshire icon.’
In 664 it was the setting for the Synod of Whitby, a landmark in the history of the Church in England. It was here that the rivalry between the two strands of Christianity in England, the Hiberno-Scottish and the Roman, came to a head. Christianity had been brought to Northumbria not only by missionaries from Rome but by Irish missionaries from Iona in Scotland. The two traditions differed over such issues as how priests and monks should wear their hair and, most significantly, how the date of Easter should be calculated.
Gathering the two sides at Whitby Abbey, King Oswiu heard both arguments and decided that the Roman side should prevail. England forged strong religious and cultural links with mainland Europe and the papacy in Rome that endured until the Reformation of Henry VIII when Whitby was reduced to ruins. The method of calculating Easter – as decided at Whitby – is still used to this day.
Whitby Abbey has also provided inspiration for many notable artists and authors including Cædmon, the first named poet in the English language, JMW Turner, and Bram Stoker, whose 1890 visit to the town and abbey inspired his most famous work, Dracula. The novel’s publication in 1897 gave Whitby a major literary association, ensuring that the sinister count would forever be linked with the seaside town.
English Heritage’s new museum tells the story of Whitby Abbey, from the Bronze Age to today, and features a rare and internationally significant collection.
It explores the history of settlement on the exposed Whitby headland, the spiritual significance of the site and how generations of writers have found inspiration in the dramatic landscape and wind-swept ruins.
Key artefacts include imposing Anglo-Saxon free-standing crosses, intricately worked metal-work that speak of the international connections of St Hild’s monastery and finely carved stonework from the later Benedictine Abbey. Visitors can also see a signed edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, arguably the most famous horror novel in the English language.
Visitors to the site will be offered an interactive, hand-held guide in the shape of an ammonite fossil which will come to life as they walk over lost abbey buildings. It features flashing colour-coded lights as the visitor reaches certain points in the grounds where artefacts, now in the museum, were found.
Whitby Abbey re-opens to the public on 10 April 2019 and the temporary snake installation will be in place until the end of this weekend (14 April).