- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 1, 2007

WHITBY, Yorkshire, England — The wind was wild and wet from the North Sea, howling across the moors, and we stood shivering in the ghostly ruins of Whitby Abbey high on a cliff over the sea. It wasn’t difficult to imagine the arrival of Count Dracula below us, in the form of “an immense dog” bounding up the 198 steps from the harbor to the abbey and “disappear[ing] in the darkness.”

Bram Stoker lived in Whitby and couldn’t have found a more appropriate landing place in which to set his novel about the bloodthirsty count and his three coffins.

Whitby, though, is charming, not ghostly, a fishing town on the North Yorkshire coast. The ruins of the 13th-century abbey, built on the site of a seventh-century Saxon monastery, can be haunting as they loom over the town, but the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sky doesn’t always cry.

When the sun comes out, the ruins are romantic rather than ominous, and the neighboring St. Mary’s Church, a few steps down the hill, invites quiet contemplation. It’s a curious Norman parish church with a jumble of wooden box pews set within its twisted columns.

Capt. James Cook, who met his end in the Hawaiian Islands, lived in Whitby during his apprenticeship, and the Captain Cook Memorial Museum spreads artifacts of the sea in the house where the young seaman slept in the attic.

I came to East and North Yorkshire at the urging of my friend Julia Walsh, a retired teacher and world traveler who lives with her husband, Bill, in a beautiful country house in the tiny village of Kilnwick. Julia knows everything about Yorkshire, and she and Bill took me on a whirlwind tour — long enough to get a sense of this beautiful corner of England and short enough to want to return, soon.

We began in York, a splendid medieval town with walls built by Saxons on a Roman base, then destroyed by William the Conqueror and rebuilt by the Normans. The pride of York is its gorgeous cathedral, York Minster, as it is known, which began as a wooden chapel in the year 627.

The present minster was begun in 1220 and completed at the end of the 15th century. “Minster” denotes an important church built during Saxon times; a minster also is defined as a church served by monks, although York Minster has always been served by priests. A minster, we learned, differs from a cathedral, which is the seat of a bishop, the “cathedra” being the bishop’s or archbishop’s throne. York is both.

As good fortune would have it, we arrived just as the 97th archbishop of York, John Tucker Mugabi Sentamu, born in Uganda, finished a service celebrating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in England. It was in 1807 that a parliamentary bill by Yorkshire native William Wilberforce became the law of the land, and slavery was abolished.

The minster itself, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, is a marvel, from its splendid Chapter House to the magnificent medieval stained-glass windows. A Latin inscription near the entrance of the vaulted Chapter House reads, “As the rose is the flower of flowers, so this is the house of houses.”

The name York is derived from its predecessor, Jorvik, a viking city.

The center of York has retained much of its medieval charm — narrow streets, half-timbered houses, tiny snickelways — narrow alleys just a few feet wide, usually leading from the street to a courtyard.

The Shambles is one of York’s highlights. It’s the city’s oldest street and is claimed to be Europe’s best-preserved medieval street. The tops of its 15th-century buildings lean into the street so that the roofs almost touch. The name derives from the Saxon “shamel,” meaning a bench or booth, and “flesshammel,” which relates to flesh, as the street once housed butcher shops.

In 1872, there were 26 butcher shops in the Shambles. The cobbles of the street are raised on the sides, leaving a space in the middle for the blood and offal to be washed away. St. Margaret Clitherow, who was crushed to death, naked, under a heavy stone in 1586 as punishment for her adherence to the Catholic Church, lived in the Shambles.

York has an interesting railway museum, as well as Jorvik Viking Center, built where the original 10th-century viking city stood. It re-creates the time when York was an important viking town.

The street names of York, such as Stonegate, Petergate and Colliergate, are remnants of the Danish word “gata,” meaning street. York’s smallest street, Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate, dates from Saxon times and means “neither one thing nor the other.”

The York Castle Museum, which features print and blacksmith workshops, is constructed from two ancient prisons. In one of them is the cell that housed highwayman Dick Turpin, who was hanged in York. Another famous resident of York was Guy Fawkes of the Gunpowder Plot.

In Monk Bar, one of the four arched entrances to the city, stands a small museum where a visitor can trace the history of Richard III. The bar offered no hospitality; on the contrary, bars were entrances to towns where tolls on market goods were levied.

William the Conqueror built his wooden castle on a hill outside York. The castle was destroyed in 1190 during the anti-Jewish riots. Henry III built a fortress, called Clifford’s Tower, on the spot in the 13th century.

Before leaving York, we popped into Betty’s Tea Room, a York fixture, for a bag of delicious scones, which Julia served for breakfast the next morning with her wonderful homemade red currant jelly.

Another minster, smaller and not quite as grand as York’s but splendid nonetheless, is in Beverly, a medieval sanctuary town. In the eighth century, John (who became St. John for his power to heal), bishop of Hexham and York, lived and died in Beverly. The twin-towered minster dates from the mid-10th century and is famous for its beautifully carved choir stalls depicting religious and secular motifs. Anyone who sat in the Peace Chair on the north side of the altar would be granted 30 days’ sanctuary.

Just inside the North Bar, the last of five medieval town gates, is St. Mary’s Church. Brightly painted sculptures of medieval musicians and their instruments stand atop the minstrel pillars. A grinning rabbit sculpted on the doorway of St. Michael’s Chapel is said to have been the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit.

North Yorkshire is also the site of Scarborough Castle, a romantic ruin on a triangular headland with sheer drops of 300 feet down to the sea.

Richard III enjoyed the view from the battlements so much that some townspeople say he still walks them today.

The castle has been the scene of turbulent history for 3,000 years, dating from the Bronze Age. Part of the castle was destroyed in the 17th century during the English Civil War.

A barracks block added in the mid-18th century was damaged severely during World War I when two German warships fired 500 shells at Scarborough.

Scarborough is a pretty fishing town, famous for its beautiful wide beaches. Known as a spa as early as the 17th century, it was called “the Queen of the Watering Places” during the Industrial Revolution.

We drove through the lovely Yorkshire dales and rolling wolds — as Yorkshire calls the downs — on our way to several splendid castles. As we approached Castle Howard, the magnificent mansion where Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” was filmed for the BBC television series, the sun broke through the clouds to bathe the gardens, lakes, sculptures surrounding the house, the Temple of the Four Winds, and the stately mansion in a bright spring light.

Castle Howard has been owned and occupied by the Howard family for centuries, and it is open to visitors. It was built at the beginning of the 18th century, with the Great Hall rising 66 feet from the floor to the dome. Paintings of the Howard family hang in the Long Gallery, including works by Sir Joshua Reynolds. A souvenir shop and cozy canteen are at the entrance to the grounds, where we took afternoon tea.

Burton Agnes Hall is not as imposing as Castle Howard, but it’s a splendid grand house of Elizabethan red brick. The bricks give it a modern appearance, although it was built at the end of the 16th century. The house is still occupied by descendants of the original family, lending it a lived-in character. The beautiful oak staircase and the splendid entrance hall, with a carved alabaster chimney piece, are outstanding. Of course, there’s a ghost.

Delightful villages, hiding ancient secrets, are scattered throughout Yorkshire. Rudston, the oldest village in England, has been inhabited continuously since the Neolithic age. A few feet from the village church stands Britain‘s tallest standing stone — a monolith almost 26 feet tall and 6 feet wide. No one knows why it’s there.

In the village of Kettlewell, more than 100 scarecrows are built and decorated by residents and placed in nooks and crannies around the village every August. The Scarecrow Festival raises money for local good causes.

Pubs in all these villages offer English lunches featuring such traditional dishes as steak and kidney pie, shepherd’s pie and ploughman’s lunches of cheeses and ham. The Bingley Arms in the West Yorkshire village of Bardsey is said to be England’s oldest pub, dating from 905.

At Hadley’s in Whitby, we had a true local lunch: fish and chips, with tartar sauce in foil packets, with or without mushy peas, and tea. That’s all the restaurant serves, and that’s what the locals come to eat. The fish is cod or halibut, and it’s fresh and delicious.

Yorkshire is the origin of several famous English dishes: Yorkshire pudding, of course, which originally was cooked in a tin under the rotating spit on which the beef roast was cooking. In its home territory, Yorkshire pudding usually is served as a first course, the pastry filled with gravy and eaten before the meat and vegetables.

Yorkshire parkin is a ginger cake; fat rascals are rich fruity scones made with citrus peel, almonds and cherries, similar to rock buns; curd tarts are a 250-year-old tradition of baked cheesecakes, originally made with curds left from cheese making; licorice comes from the town of Pontefract, where it was grown by the monks at Pontefract Priory for use in alchemy and herbalism.

Every village in Yorkshire yields rich treasures, but it was time to bid farewell to Julia and her patient husband, who drove us through hill and dale, village and town and across the moors. They even waited with us on a cold, drafty platform for the night train to London.


Several major airlines fly from Washington to London Heathrow Airport. Maxjet, the all-business-class airline, flies from Washington Dulles International Airport to Stansted Airport. From Stansted, frequent trains go into central London’s Liverpool Street Station and also to other parts of England.

For train transportation between London and Yorkshire, point-to-point tickets and rail passes can be obtained through RailEurope; visit www.raileurope.com or phone 888/382-7245. Information about schedules and prices also can be obtained from www.britishrail.com and www.britrail.com.

For information on Yorkshire, go to www.yorkshire.com.

In London, we rented a flat from In the English Manner Ltd., www.english-manner.com. The company’s U.S. office is in Los Angeles; usa@english-manner.com or 800/422-0799. The company has a wide variety of flats. Though renting a flat is not inexpensive, it costs less than most hotels, and this company is very reliable.

To splurge, the renovated Brown’s Hotel, on Albemarle Street in London’s Mayfair, is a treat; 44/20-7493-6020. James Brown, Lord Byron’s butler, and his wife, Lady Byron’s maid, opened the hotel in 1837. Rocco Forte took over the hotel a few years ago and has extensively renovated it, retaining the flavor and atmosphere, especially in the splendid public rooms, from the Grill to the famous Tea Room. Donovan’s Bar pays tribute to British photographer Terence Donovan, and the walls are lined with delightfully naughty nudes. Service is impeccable; the food is excellent; the rooms are elegant and comfortable.

Restaurants in London offer an amazing variety and a high degree of excellence. A trendy restaurant, Chez Bruce, 2 Bellevue Road, 44/208-672-0114, in Wandsworth, a short train ride from the center of London, serves contemporary cuisine, similar to the best of California.

In the newly renovated Intercontinental Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, 1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane, 44/207-409-3131, chef Theo Randall has opened his restaurant. The food and atmosphere are superlative.

Be prepared. London is expensive, be it theaters, hotels, restaurants or taxis, but it’s worth the price. Still a bargain is London Walks (www.walks.com), a company that organizes walks throughout London. These walks cost about $10 or $12, are led by knowledgeable and entertaining guides, usually for about two hours, and are informative and entertaining.

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