Sunday 29 October 2017



Click on the pictures for larger versions.

Unusually for a town on the east coast of England, Whitby faces north and looks out to sea. In Midsummer the sun rises from and sets in the sea. Whitbyites know the hill overlooking the town from the west as Skelder. The A171 moor road to Guisborough passes over its summit and, when traveling home across the moors, that is the point at which one re-enters familiar local territory. The entire Whitby district suddenly opens out below. To go 'up Skelder' or 'down Skelder' is a phrase familiar to Whitby ears. The charismatic presence of the ruined abbey on the headland under which the town nestles means many residents and tourists hardly give Skelder a second glance but the hill looms ever-present like a monumental flattened ziggurat.

Skelder, August 2016. Looking west from Green Lane allotments, Whitby
As with all three steep routes in and out of the town, surrounded as we are by high heather moorland on one side and the North Sea on the other, the road over Skelder can become hazardous in winter fog, sleet, ice and snow. In the distant past, the difficult terrain meant land travel was minimal in winter and the roads were only made suitable for horse-drawn coaches by the eighteenth century. In blizzard conditions the coast road through East Cleveland is more likely to be taken for an essential journey north. Before relatively recent road improvements, even this route involved a convoluted path and the negotiation of a mile of beach before ascending Lythe Bank and the high snow-blown fields towards Mickleby. The road south to York via Blue Bank was equally daunting. As a consequence, Whitby had to be self-sufficient for a few months of the year. Access to the sea helped - the Whitby district resembled an island in Orkney as much as it did a typical English east coast seaport.

Nowadays, on sunny mornings Skelder often wears a glinting necklace of bumper-to-bumper tourist traffic, snaking slowly downhill. By evening streams of red tail lights crawl back up and over it. However, even now a dusting of snow can reduce traffic. A resident returning home across the moors sees the welcome landscape of the abbey and the red-roofed town huddled far below in isolation on the sea's edge. Like an astronaut getting misty-eyed from seeing the 'blue marble' that is Earth - from Skelder one's friends, family and foes can be imagined going about their business in Skelder's shadow.

It brings to mind the description of the view that greeted Grendel, the monster from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf, as he skulked high on the moor's edge, looking down malevolently on Heorot.

Text from Seamus Heaney's Beowulf:
A New Translation. Painting by me, (oil) 2017.
When viewed from the East Side of the Esk, particularly on Whitby Abbey Headland, the hill of Skelder looks like a massive ancient round war shield lying flat on the moors. That similarity was evidently noticed centuries ago, Skelder is Old Norse for shield - skjoldur. There is a street named Skeldergate in York - a 'shield-maker's street', or perhaps simply 'shield street' - deriving from 'skjoldur' and 'gata' for street. It is as if Whitby's shield-hill has been left there by a mythical giant, like North Yorkshire's own enormous flying troubleshooter, Wade.

Looking east towards Whitby Abbey
from on top of Swarth Howe. October 2017.

Skelder's peak, topped by an ancient burial mound known as Swarth Howe, or Swarthoue, is the' boss' of the shield. 'Swart' is Old English/Old Norse, meaning black/dark/infamous. The related word, swarth, means rind/skin/grassy outer coverings. The name could be simply describing the large bowl-shaped grassy mound. A 'howe' is a local Anglo-Scandinavian dialect word for burial mound, derived from the Old Norse, haugr. Prehistoric standing stones and rock art are also found in the vicinity. The northern margins of the North York Moors are dotted with Bronze Age tumuli, houses of the ancestors close to the sky - watching over the living in the dales below. This hill, being the highest point on northern margin of the Esk valley at 264m, is the prime spot for an ancient burial of importance.

Clearly, Skelder's gigantic size and shield-like shape would make it a key landmark familiar to ancient townspeople and passing seafarers. When viewed from Whitby, Swarth Howe, the boss, appears to sit on a landscaped terrace, or platform, similar to Danby Beacon. Seen from Skelder Road, west of Newholm, this stepped summit, facing Whitby Abbey, looks remarkably symmetrical, although the forest and gorse hides a lot of the land's contours. Skelder is a 'node' (thanks Gavin) that dominates the Whitby area's skyline and is visible through 360 degrees from land and sea. Photographs rarely do justice to its weighty presence in the landscape, the lens seems to diminish it. Skelder is a shield but sometimes an unpredictable and inconvenient obstacle. Long before GPS and weather forecasting, it was consulted before journeys - a prognosticator. Clouds brush across it and the sun sets behind it in winter. Snow lingers long after the sea salt air has thawed the town a few miles further downhill.

Skelder from St Mary's Churchyard, East Cliff.

Originally published on 13:06:17 in the blog


Goth has transcended a musical style to become a part of everyday leisure and popular culture. The music’s cultural terrain has been extensively mapped in the first decade of this century. In this paper we examine the phenomenon of the Whitby Goth Weekend, a modern Goth music festival, which has contributed to (and has been altered by) the heritage tourism marketing of Whitby as the holiday resort of Dracula.

Professor Karl Spracklen (Leeds Metropolitan University, UK) and Beverley Spracklen (Independent Scholar) address the dilution of Goth culture and the nature of 'performance tourism'.

In their own words:

We will examine marketing literature and websites that sell Whitby as a spooky town, and suggest that this strategy has driven the success of the Goth festival. We will explore the development of the festival and the politics of its ownership, and its increasing visibility as a mainstream tourist destination for those who want to dress up for the weekend.

Download the full paper and read it by a flickering candle.
PDF of the full paper

Friday 23 June 2017


Stronger Than The Sun was a television drama written by Stephen Poliakoff and directed by Michael Apted. It aired as part of the Play For Today strand in 1977, a series that was never shy of courting controversy. Dealing with the nuclear industry and its possible consequences, the play certainly asked some pertinent questions about safety and personal responsibility.

Waiting at the bandstand
A walk on the pier
Kate (Francesca Annis) and Alan (Tom Bell) work at a fictional nuclear facility called Caversbridge. Although the precise location is never fully revealed, it's somewhere  near Whitby. After finding out that a radioactive leak has occurred and is being covered up, Kate steals a small amount of plutonium to highlight security weaknesses  in the system. When she takes it to pressure groups and the press they won't touch it with a bargepole.

The phone box
When will she finish that bloody call?
When Alan discovers that Kate has been carrying a capsule of plutonium around in her handbag, he alerts the authorities who enter her flat in West Terrace. Dressed in full anti-radiation suits they take her out to a waiting ambulance as local residents look on.

Almost all the outdoor action takes place in Whitby. There are some great shots of the town including motor bikes circling round the bandstand, a walk along the pier and the phone box on St. Ann's Staith in front of Whitby Fish Selling Company.  The culminating scene of police cars pulling into West Terrace is quite extraordinary.

Buying a paper
At the station
It was Poliakoff's first television film before he went on to achieve great success in the medium writing and directing many award winning dramas. Francesca Annis gives an extraordinary performance as the intelligent, well-meaning but naive Kate. The late Tom Bell plays her concerned and less impulsive lover whose attempt to save her from herself proves too little too late.

The end

Wednesday 7 June 2017


William Gervase Beckett

There were two elections in Whitby in close succession in 1905 and 1906. The first was a Parliamentary by-election on 1 June 1905. Two candidates contested the seat. The Conservatives selected William Gervase Beckett, the 39 year old younger brother of the previous MP Ernest Beckett. The reason for the by-election was that Ernest succeeded to Baron Grimthorpe on the death of his uncle on April 29th 1905 and vacated the seat.

The candidate standing against him was Noel Edward Buxton, a 36 year old Liberal with an interest in temperance reform. Unfortunately he fell foul of the Temperance League because of his supposed brewery interests. Despite the Temperance League traditionally supporting the Liberals, they threatened to withdraw their support unless another less controversial candidate was put forward.

Noel Edward Buxton
Despite this, and with a 79% turn out, Buxton won by 445 votes. He described the result as "a great victory for truth, for the cause of the working man and for liberty throughout the world". The following year in January a General Election took place and the result was reversed with Beckett taking the seat, but only by 71 votes.

This post was prompted by seeing an intriguing drawing of the fish quay at Whitby in Pannett Park gallery. It is by marine artist and member of the Staithes group Joseph Richard Bagshawe (1870-1909). The title added by the gallery says 'Parliamentary Election 1905 - 1906' which doesn't make it clear exactly which election it depicts.

The people of the town certainly weren't shy about showing their allegiances at the time with endorsements for both candidates appearing in the sketch. Most prominent is the 'VOTE FOR BECKETT' lettering on the shed roof and on the passing boat. The 'VOTE FOR BUXTON' sign is less clear and right on the other side of the harbour. Whether this represents Bagshawe's own political bias is open to interpretation.

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

T.B & R Jordan’s Staithes Group of Artists Exhibition runs until 18th June 2017. This is in addition to the permanent Staithes Group display which is a fixture at the gallery.


Tuesday 6 June 2017


The Freshwater Pearl Mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera) was once abundant in the rivers of Britain, but is now in serious decline. The only river in Yorkshire supporting these large, bivalve molluscs is the Esk, where steps are being taken to establish a breeding population.

The problem is that the life cycle of pearl mussels is ludicrously complex. Firstly, in June or July the males release sperm into the water in the hope that it will be inhaled by a female. Once fertilised, the eggs grow into larvae known as glochidia, and from July to September these are released into the water in huge quantities. The future of these proto-mussels relies on them being inhaled by a salmon or a trout. As they are filtered through the fish's gills along with the river water, they snap onto the gill filaments. The fish then creates a cyst around these tiny hitch hikers. They grow over winter happily encysted on their host's gills, until in May or June the following year they drop off. They need to land on clean, well oxygenated gravel to continue developing into adults. 

With so many variables involved in maintaining this delicate cycle, is it any wonder that the freshwater pearl mussel is now included on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species? Historical pearl fishing, siltation, pollution and the decline of the host fish population have all contributed to the disruption of the delicate balance required for these important creatures to flourish.
The pearl mussels in the River Esk are the last surviving population in Yorkshire, and only a few mussels are left. The vast majority of the remaining pearl mussels are aged 60 years+, and the mussels in the Esk have not produced young for over 25 years, it is likely that the Esk population will become extinct in the next 40 years unless action is taken to halt this decline. From the North Yorkshire Moors National Park official blog.
Some mussels from the Esk have been taken to attempt captive breeding at a  Freshwater Biological Association 'ark' in the Lake District. There fertilised female mussels are kept with fish in the hope that encysting of glochidia will take place, after which the mussels are removed to a different tank. The introduction of viable mussels back into their host rivers is the projected end result of this work. Of course this will only be possible if the water quality and substrate are suitable.
The freshwater pearl mussel can live for 130 years, so it's quite conceivable that mussels living in the Esk now were around when Frank Meadow Sutcliffe was snapping away.

Further information is available from the links below.

The River Esk Pearl Mussel and Salmon Recovery Project
The Freshwater Biological Association Pearl Mussel Project
Pearl Mussel Videos from Lousie Lavictoire