Anyone who has been to North Yorkshire will instantly recognise the iconic church of St. Mary at Whitby, perched high on the cliff-top like a lighthouse guiding ships safely home to the harbour beneath it. The location of Cass’s clifftop church in The Little Church by the Sea was inspired by this view of St. Mary’s guarding the huddled cottages around the harbour. To reach the church there are the famous 199 steps climbing up the cliff, and it’s easy to imagine that Bram Stoker, author of Draula (which was inspired by a visit to Whitby) might still be lurking around a forgotten corner …
St. Mary’s is a much grander and larger church than Cass’s, however in some ways it is similar. The dark wood pews which crowd throughout the church are like those in Cass’s imaginary church – these pews are marked with the names of local villages (some of them a good long walk away from Whitby; people must have been prepared to travel a long way on Sunday morning). I remember proudly sitting in one of these box pews as a young girl when attending a service in the church with my parents – and yes, as far as I can remember, the seats were every bit as uncomfortable as they look!
The other aspect of the church which inspired me was the graffiti. The pews of St. Mary’s, especially in the gallery (which isn’t open to the public for health and safety reasons) and the pews furthest away from the pulpit are covered with antique graffiti. Initials and names and dates – the earliest we saw appeared to read 1611 – and ships, which range from simple little children’s drawings to quite intricate depictions of sailing boats with rigging. It’s amazing to think that a bored parishioner over four hundred years ago left a mark which can still be seen today, though the identity of the person who carved it is long ago lost to history. However you won’t find the names of Henry Thorburn or Polly Allinson carved amongst the graffiti – they are entirely fictional characters.
The other aspect of St. Mary’s which inspired me, lingering from long ago childhood visits to the church, was the fog. So often when we went to Whitby the climb up the 199 steps was through the mist, to the sound of the Hawsker Bull foghorn which was stationed just along the clifftop from the church … and the fog made its way into my novel too!
Thanks to Brenda Taylorson for the photos of the church across the harbour and the 199 steps.