Whitby – in pictures and poetry

We spent the first week of March on holiday in Whitby. This is becoming an annual ritual – staying in a lovely, cosy holiday house that belongs to my aunt and uncle, we have the freedom to quietly enjoy ourselves. Last year, it was a welcome respite from long working hours and a hideously long commute in my old job, and now I’m freelance, it’s just as important – to be able to put away the endless “to-do” list and spend time away from an internet connection. I wanted to do more writing, but I was so tired every evening after long walks and fresh air that I only managed to write a short section of my novel.

But, inspired by a poetry walk I’d attended the day before we set off, I wanted to capture my Whitby holiday in poetic form. I’d been on an inspiring walk in the Rivelin Valley at the edge of Sheffield, let by local poet Fay Musselwhite, organised by Longbarrow Press. It was a magical afternoon of words, natural and industrial history, exploration, cheeky ponies and loveable black labradors.

So when we were wandering around the atmospheric ruins of Whitby Abbey the next day, I perched at the edge of a medieval well, and jotted down everything around me in my notebook. Later, I turned it into a poem, a pantoum, a poetry form with repeated lines:

The wind at the Abbey

The wind sounds like waves in the stonework;
In the empty tracery of the abbey windows.
A small bird chirps, surfing the buffeting gusts,
Ancient walls provide shelter and stillness.

In the empty tracery of the abbey windows,
Seagulls scream and soar against grey clouds.
Ancient walls provide shelter and stillness,
Gusts blow us through the dappled archway.

Seagulls scream and soar against grey clouds,
A pair of small black dogs race on their leads.
Gusts blow us through the dappled archway
Imagining the Abbey whole and golden.

A pair of small black dogs race on their leads
We watch a line of smoke on the moors
Imagining the Abbey whole and golden
Glittering on the cliff-top, resisting the winds.

Whitby Abbey in sunlight

Whitby Abbey in sunlight

Whitby Abbey is the ruin of a 13th century Benedictine Abbey, prominent on the clifftop, at the top of the 199 steps, which we climbed every day. The steps also lead to the church, St Mary’s, an architectural mash-up of a church, originally Norman but added to and changed, with 18th century box pews, wooden pillars painted to look like marble and religious texts written on boards scattered around the church. Visiting it is an interesting experience, but rather claustrophobic after the wind-blown cliff top of the abbey. It was also colder inside the church than outside, even though the weather had deteriorated. The church wardens hadn’t lit the ancient cast-iron stove, one of my favourite features of St Mary’s – but I sat down and jotted a few lines! Playing with poetic form, I turned it into a sonnet.

St Mary’s on Sunday afternoon

The hulking cast-iron tower stove is cold
Buckets full of coke to heat the old church
The light of votive candles flickers gold
The narrow wooden benches where I perch.

Box pews crowd the nave like still railway trains
My breath mists in the chilly, tranquil air
At night the church will sing with glad refrains
Now voices of the vergers who prepare,

Cleaning; important small details to make.
A rain shower slaps the high glass skylight
Followed by a shaft of sunlight that breaks
Makes the gloomy, chilly church shining bright.

Pockets and patchwork and layers of time
The church, the cliff top, the bell-tower’s chime.

St Mary's, Whitby - taken on Monday, which was much sunnier!

St Mary’s, Whitby – taken on Monday, which was much sunnier!

We made it back to the house just as the rain was starting, and had a few cosy hours relaxing, reading and watching TV. We thought we might go out for a drink, but the wind was howling and the rain was lashing down, and we were grateful to be staying in a cosy modern house that stays warm, no matter what the North Sea can throw at it. It’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from the West Cliff. Even though the weather was dreadful, we put on our waterproofs to blow off the cobwebs. It was a rather bracing walk, and I must have looked a sight in my cagoule and woolly hat. The weather was wild. It couldn’t have been more different the following morning – tranquil blue skies, a mild breeze and warmth in the sun. I turned the two contrasting images into a haiku cycle. I love writing haiku, and practising writing haiku has inspired me to experiment with more poetic forms, seeing if I can successfully combine meaning with rhythm, rhyme and structure.

Night and Morning in Whitby – a Haiku Cycle

Night: wind howls like wolves
Through the gaps in the Crescent
Rain-black shadows run

Green and red lights flash.
The inland wind blows to sea;
A dark, unseen hand


Blue and breezy morn
Starlings whirr and chirp up high
Seagulls complaining

The town is washed clean
Red rooftops absorb the sun
Cormorants stretch wings.

A lighthouse at the end of Whitby pier - this is the one with the green light!

A lighthouse at the end of Whitby pier – this is the one with the green light!

The red and green lights in the poem are the flashes from the wooden lighthouses at the end of each of Whitby’s piers: working piers that shelter the harbour and guide mariners to safety. There’s still a fishing fleet in Whitby, as well as a working boat-building yard.

Visiting Whitby in March, we don’t spend our time sunbathing on the beach, or digging with buckets and spades (not that I can imagine my other half sunbathing!) This time, we were blessed with good weather and we spent lots of time walking and exploring. We walked to Robin Hood’s Bay over the cliff path, taking in breath-taking sea views, scrambling up muddy banks, in anticipation of a well-deserved pint in the Bay Hotel.

Being fanatic readers and dodgy old goths, we love exploring the parts of Whitby which feature in DraculaBram Stoker’s 1897 novel, and the foundation of an infinite number of films, books, TV adaptations, spin-offs and fantasies. Bram Stoker was a busy theatre manager at the Lyceum in London, the personal secretary of Victorian Actor-Manager Sir Henry Irving (who is supposed to be an inspiration for the character of Dracula – wouldn’t we all like to caricature our boss in a best-selling novel!) An Irishman, he was a direct contemporary of Oscar Wilde, and Stoker married Florence Balcombe, who had been courted by Wilde, in 1878.

At the end of the 19th century, Whitby was a fashionable, genteel seaside destination, perfect for a relaxing family holiday away from the hectic whirl of London Theatreland. Stoker’s first stay in Whitby was in 1890, and he and his family returned several times during the following decade, during which he took in the atmosphere of the town, researched local folklore and took inspiration from Whitby events, such as the wreck of the Russian schooner Dimitri, run aground on the beach in Whitby Harbour. In Dracula, the vampire arrives in Whitby on a ship wrecked in a storm, and runs up the 199 steps to the abbey, transformed into a huge black dog. The main female characters in the novel, Mina and Lucy, are on holiday in the town, staying in a house on the West Cliff, near where Stoker himself stayed, in the Grand Hotel and the Crescent. The reason that my other half enjoys the long walk to Robin Hood’s Bay on the cliff path is because Lucy and Mina walk there and back in the novel, enjoying a hearty “severe tea” in a village inn. As well as vampires, this shows that you have to suspend your disbelief when reading fiction, as I can’t see two dainty Victorian ladies in corsets and heavy skirts walking all that way, especially as one of them has already had most of her blood sucked from her veins by the vampire. They must have cheated and caught the train. The railway has long gone, but the track is now an easier path to Robin Hood’s Bay – but we caught the bus back, limping on sore feet!

If you’ve never read Dracula before, you’re in for a surprise, and a gripping read. It’s an epistolary novel, told in letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, a ship’s log and even recordings onto wax cylinders. For a slim, page-turning novel, it’s complex and well-structured, with vivid characters, including Mina, who is a strong and modern woman for her time, learning shorthand and typing and taking a keen interest in the world. And if you have a Kindle or some kind of e-reading device (including a smartphone – note to self and the rest of the 21st century – reading a book on your phone is more constructive than checking Facebook every five minutes!) you can start reading Dracula right now, for free! Dracula on Kindle.

Oh, and while you’re at it, you might want to download a novel called Outside Inside by Anne Grange as well. I wonder if people will be visiting locations from my novels in a hundred years’ time?

Contrition and Catharsis

Manic Street Preachers at the O2, December 2011

Manic Street Preachers at the O2, December 2011 – a cathartic, celebratory night

This week, I had an argument with one of my closest friends. At its peak, a really tempestuous argument which involved slamming doors and shouting like a fishwife, which is something I don’t do very often but am actually quite good at! Later, we managed to have a good talk and get a lot of our emotions and the issues which had been simmering around under the surface out in the open.

It’s important to move on from these times, and perhaps they are needed – big arguments are a pretty rare occurrence in my life but are always significant. There are things I’ve got to look at

I’d been burbling on about the plans for the launch of my new writing business, as I’ve just booked the dates for the first taster course I’m delivering. This is all very exciting, but very scary! I’ve just come up with a new business name too. As soon as I’ve got everything sorted, I’ll let you know!

Therefore, my excitement was tempered with anxiety and insecurity. After a long day at work, moonlighting occasionally to scribble my own ideas and to book the venue for my taster courses, I was bursting to tell my friend. I hadn’t stopped to reflect all day. At the moment, I’m compelled to spend every second when I’m not sleeping or working in my day job, planning, writing and doing things to get my new life started, step-by-step. My life needs to stay afloat, and keep afloat when I finish work in a few weeks.

I appreciate that I’ve been irritable and have “snapped” at my closest friends and family, when they are just trying to make sensible suggestions or give me advice. This is partly a reflection of my own fears and doubts. I’m glad I’ve been “pulled up” about this. I’ve still got a lot to learn about myself, not least that I need to keep focussed on positive things. I’ve got to embrace my emotions as they come along, rather than pretend that everything’s great but I shouldn’t expect my friends and family to validate every idea I have – otherwise, I probably wouldn’t do anything! I need to listen to them and respect them though.

The same can’t be said for the “top dog”, otherwise known collectively as the “shitty committee”* that lives in my head and feeds me negative thoughts, just like those school bullies when I was thirteen who treated me like a freak, when, I realise now, that I was just a normal teenage girl who wanted to be an individual. The trouble is, for a while, I believed those voices, real and imaginary. I know I keep going on about this but the lovely world of Free Range Humans finally helped me to understand that I’m not mad, but that EVERYONE has these voices. In fact, you probably wouldn’t be “normal” be if you didn’t have them! The trick is kicking them into touch as soon as they arise. I’m not sure why I’m using a rugby metaphor here because I have absolutely no understanding of rugby, but that’s what you’ve got to do – jump up and down on the heads of the shitty committee until they realise that you’re just not taking their shit anymore!

On my long drive to work the next morning, I was still feeling chastened, but calmer. I felt the urge to listen to something dark and loud, to meet any negativity I was still feeling head-on. So I blasted ‘The Holy Bible’ by Manic Street Preachers down the M1 to Derby, singing along to the lyrics I’ve managed to decipher. For a while, I thought “So damn easy to cave in, man kills everything” from Faster was “so damn easy to Kevin”! It’s a notoriously bleak album, but I always find it very cathartic.

At work later that morning, I sneakily checked Facebook on my phone and Download Festival had posted that it was the 19th anniversary of Kurth Cobain’s death. I was 17 when Kurt Cobain died, and a big Nirvana fan. Nirvana are another band that can make you feel better if you play their music. Millions of teenagers from my generation onwards have felt the therapeutic effect of jumping up and down and crashing into each other to Smells Like Teen Spirit. Negative music can often have a happy effect. It’s s shame that it doesn’t always have a positive effect on its creators and Richey Edwards and Kurt Cobain are still very much missed.

Anyway, now I’ve cheered you up and brought you down again, here’s an article about an academic research project that proved that goths “grown old gracefully”, although I’d dispute what he says about people growing out of punk and rave from my direct experience. The journalist has clearly not been to Beautiful Days festival. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/24/goth-culture-research

*I got the term “shitty committee” when I went to see Dudley Sutton at Beautiful Days festival last year, AKA Tinker from antique / detective show from the 90s, Lovejoy! He is absolutely amazing and guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Watch this. He is a legend!

Things this blog is about…