Saturday, 23 October 2010




Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great tides landward flow,
Under the cliffs at Whitby, when the great winds landward blow,
When the long billows heavily roll o’er the harbour bar,
And the blue waves flash to silver ‘mid the seaweeds on the Scar,
When the low thunder of the surf calls down the hollow shore,
And ‘mid the caves of Kettleness the baffled breakers roar.
Under the cliffs at Whitby, whoso will stand alone
Where, in the shadow of the Nab, the eddies swirl and moan,
When, to the pulses of the deep, the flood-tide rising swells,
Will hear, amid it’s monotone, the clash of hidden bells.

Up from the heart of the ocean the mellow music peals,
Where the sunlight makes it’s golden path, and the sea-mew flits and wheels,
For many a chequered century, untired by flying time,
The bells, no human fingers touch, have rung their hidden chime.
Since the gallant ship that brought them, for the abbey on the height,
Struck and foundered in the offing, with her sacred goal in sight.

And the man who dares on Hallowe’en on the Black Nab to watch,
Till the rose-light on St. Hilda’s shrine the midnight moonbeams catch,
And calls his sweetheart by her name, as, o’er the sleeping seas,
The echo of the buried bells comes floating on the breeze,
‘Ere another moon on Hallowe’en her eerie rays has shed,
Will hear his wedding peal ring out from the church-tower on the Head.

S K Phillips

A rare recording of the sunken chime

The poem by Miss S K Phillips is just one version of an old Whitby legend concerning the loss of the Abbey bell. Another more likely story tells of Henry VIII’s men removing the bells during the Dissolution in 1539 and placing them on a ship bound for London. But it is said that as the vessel left the safety of the harbour, it foundered in the open sea and sank without trace, probably due to the weight of the bells on board.

The final and more commonly known version is the tale of a villainous sea captain who put to shore at Whitby one night and stole the bells from the Abbey‘s tower. With the heavy load eventually on board, the ship made good it’s escape, but once at sea the captain found that he was unable steer his vessel. The combined force of wind and waves together with the weight of the bells rendered his ship uncontrollable and it was dashed upon the rocks at the Black Nab.

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