Making sense of Whitby

I have just got back from a wonderful holiday in Whitby with my wife and dad. Dad has been very poorly these past few years, his mobility greatly reduced but it was terrific to see him enthusiastically picking jet on the beaches not far from our cottage.This was never intended to be a storytelling based holiday but what emerged over the week was very interesting:

We started by boarding the yellow Whitby Tour bus and were instantly drawn in by the stories our tour guide started to tell, historical facts about the bridge, locational points of who lived where, weak signals of the old butcher shop fronts on the now posh jewellers, aspirational stories of town planning not quite achieved.

We decided to disembark at the top of the 199 steps and visit St Mary’s Church next to the Abbey. Here we were lucky enough to catch the showing of their DVD story of Whitby but this time from the perspective of the church. We learned about St Hilda and the snakes, the transforming role of the industrial Alum works further up the coast and the fascinating mysteries of merging ancient and modern religions, still ‘smirking’ down at us at the tops of the carefully carved columns.

The next day we visited the Whitby museum to wash ourselves in the geological and fossil history of the area. My Dad’s current obsession is jet, the hard black fossil remains of the monkey puzzle tree, and here there are pictures of the old workers, samples of the raw product and some of the best carved jewellery and even chess sets ever made. The room full of replica ships, mostly of those built in Sunderland set my dad off with his personal recollections of ship building, the dry docks and the launching of these magnificent pieces of engineering.

Our cottage was located at the base of the 199 steps directly upstairs above the Whitby Jet Heritage centre so we dropped in to have a look. Hal, the owner asked about our interests and then for almost an hour shared with us a lifetime of experience of handling, carving, polishing and restoring jet. My dad was enthralled, asking to touch the buffer wheel, quizzing about the use of dobber sticks, comparing his lathe with Hal’s. To see my dad as the young naïve apprentice was a sight not to be missed. As a result we spent five full afternoons, scouring the beach for suitable sized pieces of jet to feed his new addiction.

The word ‘cynefin’ meaning ‘multiple belongings’ sprang to mind constantly as we began to connect with so many of the locations, people, objects, historical and mythical stories that it is now much harder to fight the urge to want to live there and find out more. We have stayed at so many different cottages now that I can reconstruct a full 3D image of the town in my mind, 4D if you count the stories.


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