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.

Superstition, the supernatural and the sea.

It’s Halloween, the time of year when thoughts turn to stories of the supernatural, and given that The Little Church by the Sea has at its heart a ghost story,  it seemed like a good day to consider the ghosts, myths and legends that surround the Yorkshire coast.

Some stories are heard in many places. Robin Hoods Bay and Runswick Bay both have “hobs”, mischievous spirits that live in caves (the one at Runswick Bay isn’t entirely mischievous, but is said to cure children of whooping cough if asked nicely). Then there are the barguests,  terrifying ghostly dogs, who haunt the moors and the cliffs of North Yorkshire, heralding death.

black wolf

The life of a fisherman was hazardous at the best of times, and any number of local superstitions grew up around the sea – boats would not be launched if the fishermen met a woman or a pig on the slipway, so unlucky was that considered to be. Whistling on board ship was considered to be an ill omen, but tying a stone with a hole in it to a boat would ensure good fortune (further inland, such stones were said to protect against witches). Seagulls were said to be the souls of drowned sailors, and if one flew into the window of a house, it was bad news for the family inside that house, as it was a portent of death …

One cottage in Runswick Bay is said to be haunted by the ghost of a young girl, who was locked into a cupboard for a punishment, and sadly died. The sound of her ball tapping on the inside of the cupboard is still to be heard there.

Robin Hood’s Bay is haunted by a headless farmer, who fell drunkenly onto the railway track one night, only to be killed by an oncoming steam train. Though his mangled body was buried, his head had disappeared and no trace of it was ever found – but some say that the ghost of the headless farmer is still searching …

Whitby has many ghost stories. Most famously, the bells of the Abbey are said to have been stolen and then lost at sea – and if you listen carefully, the bells can be heard ringing under the waves. St. Hilda herself is also said to be seen in ghostly form at one of the high windows of the Abbey ruins. Brown Bushell, turncoat during the English Civil War, was beheaded for treason but his ghost is still said to haunt his ancestral home at Whitby, Bagdale Hall. The story that haunts me the most is one of a beautiful young girl who was very fond of her appearance, and used a particular hair oil to make her hair shine. unfortunately the hair oil was extremely flammable, and one day the inevitable happened, her hair caught fire and she was horribly burnt. But the young girl’s ghost still haunts Whitby – sometimes to terrify passers by, and sometimes to warn others of an impending fire and save them from sharing her terrible fate.

morning ghosts

There is no real story of a “Maiden’s ghost” searching for her drowned lover, lost in a storm at sea, I made that up entirely … but if you walk through the twisting yards of Robin Hood’s Bay or Runswick at night, it’s easy to imagine that there could be …


Images used:

Featured image, of Robin Hood’s Bay, is my own photo.

Morning ghosts by Andris, licensed under creative commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode link to original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/avatar_lv/8633892696/

Rare New Jersey Black Wolf by Nosha, licensed under creative commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ link to original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nosha/3362691374/

Bering Sea in mist foggy scenics, Wikimedia commons 


Bob Woodhouse, author of many local history books about the North East of England, provided me with several tales of superstitions, and I also used “The Haunted Coast” and “13 Ghost stories from Whitby” by Michael Wray, Chris Firth and Anne Marshall published by Caedmon Story Tellers. ISBNs 0953640531 and 0953640507. (These books have some lovely illustrations too).