A Not-so-little Church

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 …

brenda whitby 3

The 199 steps – photo by Brenda Taylorson

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.


A St. Mary’s through the mist. My photo.

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.

The Little Church by the Sea – cover!

Here is the first chance to see the beautiful wintery cover for “The Little Church by the Sea” which will be published by Manatee Books on 23rd November. I’m so thrilled with the design, it suits the book absolutely perfectly. It even reminds me of this little church:DSCN0639

which is Old St. Stephen’s Church at Robin Hood’s Bay, one of the main inspirations for the “Little Church” of the title.

I hope you like it as much as I do!

Maidens’ Garlands

One of the curious things I discovered when I was researching the location for The Little Church by the Sea was a small collection of what are called “maidens’ garlands” which hang in the Old Church of St. Stephen at Fylingdales, near Robin Hoods Bay.

The  maidens’ garlands in St. Stephen’s consist of a frame or hoop, covered with material and decorated with ribbons or strips of cloth and paper gloves. In other parts of the country they were more conventionally crown shaped and covered with rosettes. They would be carried with the coffin of an unmarried girl, and then hung in the chancel of the church as a memorial to the young woman.


A replica garland made by artist Mandy Patullo, hanging in St. Stephen’s Church.


The tradition of carrying a garland with the coffin of a young girl who dies unmarried was once widespread, but now only a few of them remain throughout the country.  The garlands were also known as “crants”, coming from an Old Norse word for garland, and Shakespeare mentions them in Hamlet:

Yet here she is allow’d her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home of bell and burial.

(I wish I had noticed that myself, but I have to credit that knowledge to Wikipedia!)

Given that my fictional village of Rawscar has a Viking heritage, once I found that out it seemed even more fitting to include the maiden’s garlands in the story, and so in my novel, just as in the church at Fylingdales, the garlands hang in a case at the back of the church, a melancholy reminder of the harsh lives and early deaths of many young women.


The original maidens’ garlands, safely kept in a glass case.

In The Little Church by the Sea, one of the garlands bears the name of Polly Allinson who died about 150 years before the story begins, and the tragedy of this young woman is interwoven with the stories of the modern inhabitants of Rawscar.


Old St. Stephen’s Church and its maidens’ garlands are in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.


Opening doors.

Thank you to Angela Harrison for the stunning images of Robin Hood’s Bay used in this post.

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s a common question authors get asked, though nobody has actually asked me yet, but I’m expecting that at some point somebody will! So I’ve been preparing my answer and here it is.

Places. For some reason, with everything that I have written so far, an idea of place has been strong and has started the story. A single image began this one – I was writing something entirely different, when I took my characters in that plot to a seaside village for a day out in the winter. I found myself thinking about the little fishing villages on the Yorkshire coast near where I live – Runswick, Robin Hood’s Bay, Whitby, Staithes … and an image popped into my head. A small cottage in one of the crooked alleyways, with an anchor door knocker and a Christmas wreath. In the original story my characters walked past the cottage and commented on how pretty it was, but my imagination started asking, who would live in a cottage like that? The first novel never got written, but from that one simple image the whole village of Rawscar and its inhabitants grew. angela rhb cottage

People. The other main inspiration for The Little Church by the Sea was the character of my heroine, Cass, the vicar of Rawscar. Like Rawscar itself, Cass sprung from one very simple moment – her opening words. “Shit,” said the vicar. From the start, I knew that Cass had an inner conflict between her religious ideals and the reality of the world she lives in and that she doesn’t always know how to deal with it – and she doesn’t always get it right.

At the heart of this is Cass’s ideal of celibacy. All her life she has believed that sex outside marriage is wrong – and as she has never been married …. So when she falls for Hal, an attractive man who has “slept with half the women in the village” what should she do?

Well, you’ll have to read the book, coming out in November, to find out!

Angela RHB red door