What is it about a working tidal harbour that fascinates, touches the unconscious and gives a sense of deep peace, the sound of seagulls, ancient stone walls hung with clinging sea weed. At any time of day you could see people leaning on the railing along the harbour gazing out to sea or looking down into the depths below. I recognized the air from a long time ago, I loved it there in Whitby.
We’d returned there by invitation, we’d been just about to head off back to Wales. There was a good feeling, there seemed to be a plan, a property to work from at the back of the shop we’d been working in, there was talk of renting it, conversions, community meeting rooms, a library, healing rooms, planning permission already granted to build a bakery in the basement underneath. It all felt so good, the possibilities were obvious. So, we changed our course and gave our word we’d come back in 3 or 4 weeks to get started, put the bow to the eye of the wind so to speak.
We’d gone back to Wales glowing and told of our opportunity, but it didn’t go down to well there and we’d been asked to leave the very next day. So with heavy hearts we packed up and pushed out the boat again and sailed though those green hills for another week or two before arriving back in Whitby a few weeks earlier than planned, I had been very sick but we’d rolled into town full of optimism and good intentions, moved into the flat at the back of the shop and it was there that good intentions ran aground. It was dim dark and still, the electrics were dodgy the heating didn’t work and it was very cold.
Within a week and a half we were very depressed. After the iridescent green of Wales it felt like a cell. We’d mentioned it to James, no harm was meant of course, it just seemed they were busy with other things that our presence there had freed them up to do, but talk of a coop now made us uneasy and initially and we felt quite isolated.
It was an important moment in our Journey and decisions are made upon these things. It provoked a great deal of self searching, every time we saw them we of course melted, they are the great people we’d first recognised, we loved them and it was obvious so did the community there
Back in September we’d been delighted at the invitation to look after their shop whilst they went on holiday, the locals were colorful funny and challenging. We’d had a great few weeks. But perhaps in retrospect our return, the timing wasn’t right for us to be there, perhaps we were all a little hasty, things weren’t ready.
We did find the local community though, all around us, natural and organic, its members carried their wounds and hearts upon their sleeves, we saw them and we loved them. The shop was the stage and bless James and Lucy for that platform they had created. The blind and the beggars were also loving kings and queens they knew what to do instinctively, they needed no direction from lofty heights or philosophical nuances from any dusty book. So we gave our very best and our actions spoke to them. What we gave shone back at us, they knew how to express themselves. It took a week or two but word seemed to go out, and they it seemed found us.
There was so many things that occupied me and made me happy there during that time, from the bread runs across the North Yorkshire moors, the storms rolling into the harbour, the beautiful light and the clouds over the ocean, avalanches and floods in the valleys of the moors, the Goth weekend, the Folk nights at the Elsinore, the museum, the ancient landscape and all its standing stones, the chip shops, the seal that swam down the river Esk everyday to feed in the Harbour, the ever present abbey up on the cliffs, the sound of the gulls. I even went off for a weekend to take my training in Indian Head Massage with Maggie McAteer in Winterton lincs. The time we spent there was full.
James is the founder of ‘Propolis’ bee medicine, the one who had pushed for the regulation of this wonderful natural medicine and so had a certain well deserved prestige and Lucy his insightful and hard working partner who it seemed at times was overwhelmed organizing the Whitby Winter Festival.
Their shop the Dispensary is in its seventh year, a community interest, non-profit, natural health shop at 25 Skinner street on the west side of Whitby. Tucked in between Collectables Past & Present, a Newsagent, Bothams the bakers and Lavender Bazaar which sold Daleks collectable comics and musty smelling pirate outfits amongst other things and proudly announced a warm welcomes for ferrets
I never tired of walking down to that street either from the van parked up on West cliff or Royal crescent or emerging out of the dim dank flat turning the corner out of the alleyway and looking along the street towards the United Reform church on flowergate at the end, opposite us was a small Boots chemist, the Whitby Evangelical church, Musicport music shop and the Cranberry Swamp coffee shop, definitely the best street in town
We’d first come there to rest in between festivals in the summer. A charming and enchanting surprise with the ruins of the Abbey standing there on the East cliffs over looking the North Sea and the entrance to the harbour the two things seemed to me to be an irresistible combination and surely must have felt the same back in time.
Whitby Abby was founded by St Hilde and had been run on the Anglo Saxon Christian traditions, was first called Streoneshalh. Hilde was renowned for her goodness, wisdom and energy, drew kings and princes there for her council and she the reason it seems that Whitby was chosen for the Synod of Whitby in 664AD.
Legend says that seabirds to this day still dip their wings in respect as they fly over the abbey and out to sea. It’s also said she turned a plague of snakes to stone and cast them into the sea, the proof of which were the ammonite fossils found all along the Whitby coast and called Hildoceras in her honour
The synod at Whitby Abbey was where it was decided, some say subjugated, that Celtic Christianity would be brought into line and follow the customs and traditions of Roman Christianity, here that Christianity would finally be unified and the traditions of Rome take precedence over the traditions of the Ionian practice, where the date of Easter was decided and Anglo Saxon England finally became Roman, on paper anyway.
The abbey fell into ruin after the dissolution of Monasteries by Henry VIII in 1540 Its huge bells had been ordered by the King to be transported to London to be sold off, but the ship they had been loaded onto had mysteriously sunk on a calm sea not far out of harbour, divine retribution the locals said and its said to this day the bells can be heard chiming under the ocean, their sounds carried inland when the wind is right from Black Nab where the wreck lies
It had fallen to us to do the bread run those first two weeks as the chap who they’d organized had no car and no insurance for theirs. I didn’t mind at all, I took it as a sacred task to go get the bread for the town so to speak and so continued to do it when we came back.
An 85 mile round trip across the moors to Malton twice a week. A 6am start, on cup of Baytown coffee, a stop at the Spar petrol station on the corner of Love lane then onto the A169 and out into the heart of the Yorkshire moors. We loved every journey no matter how tired. I never bored of the panoramic view of Whitby as we returned up and over the rise just before blue bank, the wide open skies and frothing coastline with the town tucked into the cleft of land the river Esk had carved, with the skeletal Abbey ruins there on the east cliff. Whitby has to my eyes something very special.
We noted other creatures of habit on those mornings too, the Rooks and Crows circling and swooping stretching wings ready for the day ahead always made me smile, the old ladies too walking their dogs, rain or shine. There was the Neolithic mounds and standing stones out there that spiked my imagination, the remarkable sun rises, mists, rains and snow storms, the procession of the seasons across those bleak rounded hills, the darkening of the mornings and the rusting of the trees as the time moved on into autumn.
But the A169 is we concluded the most dangerous road for wildlife we had seen all year, the smashed and broken bodies of wild creatures littered the road. badgers, hedgehogs, foxes, rabbits, stoats, pheasants, to name but a few of the fresh carcasses we saw every time we drove it. It really was carnage, shameful really. Signs here and there said beware ‘lambs on the road,’ lambs it seemed had a value.
It always felt good to arrive back at the wonderfully scented shop just before 9am, selling of course the Herbal Apothecary, Propolis products and delicious Yorkshire moors honey but also natural foods, excellent Baytown coffee, teas, Botton cheeses, the sour dough bread amongst other things and the bamboo socks, their surprising best seller.
It also had one of the most remarkable libraries I have ever come across, not vast, but for one person’s collection, pretty remarkable. Virtually the whole works of Wilheim Reich and Rudolph Steiner, there was a great collection of world leader Autobiography’s, the philosophy’s of world religions and spiritual thoughts through the ages, there was food and farming, the earth and the planets and much more, more than a life’s worth of reading for anybody.
Those first two weeks whilst we slept in Pearl up on the West cliffs, we spent many an evening tucked up in the shop before we walked back, door locked with a little lamp on and a bottle of red wine, a little dizzied by it all because on any shelf we reached up too there was something we wanted to read, we dipped into this and that book, a chapter here and a paragraph there, reading pieces out to one another. Stopping now and again to look at one another, smile, hold hands and take a sip, happy with one another, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan or the Blues playing in the background. It was magical in that half-light. Just being there during that time, we knew they were and that we were in the company of kindred spirits,
The shop drew a certain type of person or client if you like and was always entertaining. I was chatting to a customer whose wife had just bought 3 pairs of bamboo socks, it was 60’s weekend in Whibty so we’d put the Beatles greatest hits on. I’d quipped
“Ah Yeah the Beatles, you can’t beat the Beatles”
He’d chirped back
“Well I was more of a Stones man me self, I didn’t like the way they evolved with them Ayatollahs and the drugs and all that’
I bit hard on my lip and carried on bagging the socks, the customer is always right, right?
The first person we met in there was Sandy who had been given the task of sorting the library into some sort of order and so was there just about every day. A wonderful curly haired irreverent entertaining chap, who could be found on many an evening or a morning doing Tai Chi, which he was actually rather good at, down in the town at the bus stop outside the train station with his WMD as he called it, playing music so loud it apparently rattled windows in the shops across the road, he seemed completely oblivious and just carried on demonstrating what Zen should be. Sandy was educational for us all.
He was by his own admission a ‘conspiracy theoretician’ and just about everybody who entered the shop were either quizzed on what they were buying or drawn into a long discussion on anything from travel and foreign cities, the history of food, UFO’s, conspiracy’s and classical music. At times Sandy could exasperate, but next day if he was late or didn’t turn up we found we missed him very much.
He swore he’d been brought up by wolves, his sincerity made me laugh every time he said it and instantly drew out my own playful child. Sandy it would turn out was the shepherd of the community, a motivational driving force badgering and cajoling them to get out of bed and do things. One day I mentioned it, and he said all wide-eyed
“Yeah right, I have a great affinity with Collie dogs, I understand Collies and what they’re all about, yeah, right”
So perhaps it wasn’t wolves and he’d just got his canines confused. Sandy has his own special light,
His escapades and travel plans with his dreamy, deeply sensitive friend Alex were captivating and we’d often overhear Sandy confronting him on some detail about a plan he had to travel to America and later to St Petersburg, Russia. Alex 19 years old was also wildly curly haired, quite tall and slim and once past his initial sensitivity we were to find he was highly intelligent and was already shooting art films. (‘All day everyday’ by Alex Armstrong – Youtube) Sandy of course had naturally become the director and it made for compelling viewing. Alex was also a gifted classical pianist and composer and student at the local Music college. To all our surprise he also turned out to be a great blues guitarist and the most amazing cook. Between them they were wealth of musical knowledge. Sandy was also planning to walk down to the Mediterranean via Holland, they were serious, we worry about them, but look forward to hearing all about it.
There was Chisato a Lovely Japanese lady, a refugee from changes being implemented at the once thriving Botton community. She’d come quietly into the shop each day to search on the communal lap top for a country to go too, a trained nurse but with orders to leave the UK by the end of December. She unfolded to us gently and gradually, told us stories in her quiet dignified manner of the way Japan is. We spent many an cozy evening watching BBC I player with her there in the shop
She’d found space in the UK to blossom, found her voice and was able to express herself here, she dreaded going back to Japan. I’d said why not try Ireland?
She said “I have lived there once but could feel the anger and the violence rising up from the land itself, I cannot go back there”
It was a fascinating statement. When Chisato spoke about something she’d considered it was always worth stopping and considering too. She had a great sense of humour, it was always a joy to hear her break out laughing at something Sandy Alex or Orsi had said or done.
We’d all been worried about Chisato’s situation and Sandy as usual had been trying to relate and inspire her into action
“Ok, ok right, do you know Oda Nobunaga?” Apparently a Japanese warrior hero who first unified the country around the 1580’s, “Well. What would he do, right”?
Chisato looked deeply puzzled and a little lost
I quipped “I know what he would do. He’d have already been down to the immigration offices and slaughtered them all for brining disrespect onto him, his family and friends and you can’t expect Chisato to do that”
Sandy was genuinely expecting her to come up with some heroic response you see, but she looked even more confused now. There was a silence.
So I jumped in again trying to lighten the grey creeping into Chisato’s face
“Ok Sandy, just imagine you or I in Japan and the Japanese Authorities had told us we have 90 days to get out, that’s like saying, ok Mick take a deep breath and think what would James Bond do”
Unfortunately Chisato didn’t know who James Bond was and was now looking back and forth at Sandy and I and looking seriously worried, Sandy looked utterly non-plussed too, I was thinking ‘oh oh’
Orsi sensibly intervened at that point and reigned us all back in and got Chisato to focus on where she actually wanted to go.
Outside the autumn dampness had arrived, it had at times been tough going back to Pearl at night, Orsi putting on tights, socks, T shirts, jerseys and a beanie, romantic it was not, though we were able to laugh at ourselves. For anybody who thought that travelling in a camper van would be all frolics and naughty roadside layby action, it was not. On the way back across to Wales I came down with a really bad fever that affected me for weeks afterwards on our return.
James kindly had lent us his business parking permit so we’d been able to park just about anywhere in town and we came to know the streets pretty well and I have to say without fail, when ever I slid the door back and stepped out into a morning there, the jaw dropping wide open ocean and the incredible skies stopped me in my tracks, I most certainly considered us lucky. A fantastic local artist Christine Pybus a regular in the shop managed to capture the scene beautifully. www.pybusfinearts.co.uk
“Waving my wrist and pushing paint, up on top of the cliffs again today” she’d say “A waste of time I know but I just have to do it“ and would flounce back out of the shop. Christine had a firm hand shake and was an inspirational figure to us
We sought out the ancient worn steps and steep passageways that led through the seemingly indiscriminately piled stone houses clustered like barnacles on either side of the harbour We kept fit and jogged along the coast up to Sandsend, then up and down the steep paths of the seafront, we ran rings around the Captain Cook statue and figures of eight around the Bowhead whalebone arch up on Spion Cop where Bram Stoker had looked down onto the harbour, across to the abbey and been inspired to write Dracula.
The doors opened on skinner street at 9am, the town slowly came to life, faces and shapes appeared in the doorway, some to shop some come visit, some to sit around the table at the back of the shop and have a cup of tea to chew over and discuss something or other, some for an hour some for all day. Tony from the care home limped down from crescent avenue everyday regular as clockwork to get his paper and everyday tell us of the football scores and about his father the butcher.
We’d ask him who’d been playing, he’d usually remember the first team, would go still for a minute and then continue
“I’ve just come to get me paper, I’ll be alright once I get ome and I get me dinner”
There was something beautiful about Tony’s simplicity.
There was Steve with his broad Yorkshire tones and ‘Patchy’ his little ever patient Jack Russel who we always put out a dish of water for. He looked on first glance rather intimidating, big leather jacket, big polished combat boots, studs and rings in his nose and ears, balding with long wild hair around the edges, craggy faced and now and again a big hat with a feather in the ribbon. Steve had a great deal of style and when he smiled the sun shone, a real sweetheart, he seemed to take a shine to Orsi and would take notice of her, listen to her because no mater what anybody else said, he come out with an opposite point of view. Steve would fart and burp startling the customer
“Oops, Pardon me” he’d say mischievously
We had to remind ourselves at times that it was a shop.
A conversation with a Yorkshire man who appeared one day was typical of the people there. Orsi has always had a wonderful way of greeting who ever came through the door. He’d entered the shop almost in slow motion and made his way to the counter
“How are you, Ok?” she’d said warmly
He replied dryly
“Ahy.. not bad love…. I woke up this morning so … it’s a result”
There was Peter who was Sandys gaming partner another gifted classical piano player, a dear older man who would thrash him at the Japanese board game ‘Go’ and the beautiful dark haired Melisa, the delicate sensitive artist who you would have to hold gently in your minds eye when ever you were in her presence and when ever you talked with her.
There was Jess the high speed piano teacher who lived almost next door and would appear in the doorway like a flash of lightning, always rushing in to get supplies and always looking for an quick escape before somebody noticed her and dragged her back in to discus something. One day she’d called in and it seemed everyone was there around the table, she looked back over her shoulder, the pull to stay and chat was strong, she said with wonder in her voice
“It’s like walking into an alternate reality in here”
and it was..!!
A little further up the hill around the corner was another reality again, the astonishing Whitby Museum. A microcosm of Britain all the way back and beyond the dinosaurs. A collection of things that spoke deeply and loudly to the imagination, well, it did mine. There were spooky Victorian dolls whose gaze although peripheral seemed to follow you around, figure heads from various ships dripping myth and legend, glass cases filled with stuffed birds and pinned butterfly’s which made me feel queasy, glassy eyes staring back and beyond. They even had a stuffed Passenger Pigeon once the most abundant bird in North American and had accounted for a quarter of all birds on the planet at one time, now extinct; beyond shameful.
There were Narwhal tusks the unicorn of the sea, Elizabeth I had been presented with one worth £10,000, at the time the price of a castle. There were sperm whale teeth carved and painted with images of ancient ships. Also beautiful model ships made from bone by French prisoners during the Napoleonic war. There were Stone Bronze and Iron age axes swords and tools. There was a headhunters sword and a skull from Borneo, a full suit of a samurai warrior’s armor. There was a Witches post from nearby Egton made from a Rowen tree to prevent evil spells from entering a house. There were the anthropological treasures from the Captain Cook voyages and a Tempest Prognosticator invented by a Whitby Doctor, George Merryweather in 1850 and used to accurately forecast the weather. 12 pint glass bottles within each a leech, where under certain conditions the leeches would climb to the top of the bottles dislodge a cork and a bell would ring. We found out too that the first enemy plane to be shot down in WWII was at Whitby 3rd Feb 1940. There was also the ‘Hand of Glory’ a severed hand from a hanged man from the 16th century which had been used by burglars to put the inhabitants of a house they planned to rob to sleep. When the hand was held with a candle lit between its curled dried fingers and the incantation whispered
Let those who rest more deeply sleep
Let those awake their vigil keep
Oh hand of Glory shed thy light
Direct us to our spoils tonight
I went back to the Museum so many times they began letting me in free.
The time there was a privilege that we couldn’t put a price on, nor did we. We never asked for anything it just didn’t seem to be in the ethos of the place or the time, we had been happy to just do it, we had wanted to give, and give we did. But the time to leave was now coming up fast, contracts had been talked about and so we finally broke the news down in the harbour that we would be leaving for France as they already knew but from there we would be making other plans or at least needed some time to think over all that had happened there, that we couldn’t commit right then
I’d had a seeing one morning, I’d gone back into the flat behind the shop, I’d been annoyed and frustrated. I laid down on the mattress on the floor closed my eyes. I’d immediately seen what I thought was the white bone ship from the museum. But this one’s sails were huge and taught with a strong wing caught in them. I was looking at it from the bow and slightly to the starboard side of her, she was cutting through the waves at speed, she looked confident heading out to sea, she was running, everything was white. I understood immediately, time to go and I trust my seeing’s.
We had set out to be and had during all this year been Healers on Wheels, so anybody who came through that door, if the opportunity arose or the moment was right was given what we had, healing, hypnotherapy, card readings, our company and most of all our attention and what you give is what you get, right.
There was always something happening in the place, discussion, games, laughter, we did so much healing work in those last three or four weeks, we simply didn’t have time to do all we could have done.
There were a few times there when we really lost heart. Orsi had got ill and was very depressed. We had talked about leaving early but we had both come to love the people of the place, the wonderful faces and characters and all the warmth they brought with them. We kept on doing what came naturally to us. We didn’t pity anybody who told us their story of damages done them, but we listened deeply and just simply loved them and what goes around comes around, right
But as the days there ran out and this was a major factor in our decision, we had begun to get very worried about our finances. Orsi’s card had bounced and I was well into my savings by now
Then on that last few days the tide seemed to turn, people came in to gave us a little here and a little there, the community got together and cooked up a great meal at Peters orderly house one evening apparently creating chaos there, and then transported it all to the shop, it was a great evening and it restored us. We’d been across to Chris and Emma’s in the beautiful Glaisdale valley a few times where the Glaisdonbury festival had been held, just to visit really but of course had done a few sessions just because we considered them friends, they came across too, that last week and helped us out. A man from the folk club who I’d called round to chat with one day brought chocolates, Libby who I’d done a few sessions with brought us a pot cat to take with us on our journey. We were invited to Franks emporium at the end of the street for a meal that Chisato cooked for us up there, on the top floor, another lady who we had worked with had enabled all the Cafe Nero’s sandwiches and cakes to come our way at the end of the day. That last week there was quite remarkable it was as if we’d been heard and we were being looked after. I had said all along “Trust”
There is so much I could have written about the time there, there is so much I have edited and have given it so much thought since then that my head aches, i had to leave many people and things out there simply isn’t time or space, but it is a huge part of the journey the story would be incomplete without it.
In retrospect it was a great idea, the place seemed perfect but at the end of it all we couldn’t get by on just the good will of that wonderful community alone and the shop couldn’t support us all.
The qualities we first saw and recognized in James and Lucy and what drew us there in the first place are of course still shinning bright in that part of the world, and maybe it was the spirits testing the waters, but sometimes these things, these seeming coincidences are taken for granted, the right word or the right gesture at the right time are needed or opportunity is missed.
I particularly liked Whitby, the place spoke to me, we took nothing except the good will of the people we met, spent time with and worked with there. The day we left Lucy bought us a wonderful book “the lost language of plants” as a going away present and they treated us to lunch, both seemed genuinely saddened at our leaving Lucy openly James I think had difficulties but of course those difficulties point to deeper feelings, good people.
Orsi Sandy and I waved Steve and Patchy off from the bus stop by the station when the shop had closed that last day. We then walked back up the steep winding streets and spent a last night in the shop with Sandy and Chisato chatting, sipping tea and munching crisps pop corn and the Café Nero sandwiches. I gave them both an Indian Head Massage. As they left that night Sandy had called back from down the end of Skinner street as they walked away
“We love you”
I called back
“We Love you too”
It was quite a wrench as I watched their silhouettes getting smaller and smaller down that damp quiet street
Next morning we had breakfast in the shop, peanut butter toast on sour dough bread with real butter and one last delicious Baytown coffee, Pearl was packed and parked outside and we just sat there in silence for a little while. Then for some reason Coldplay came on as random choices on the youtube screen that played the background music for the shop. “Paradise” and “Scientist” rang out, the words seemed incredibly apt and really touched a raw spot
We found that the people we had thought we were helping weren’t much different too us and in fact had helped us in so many ways that will surface I am sure as the months and years roll on along our journey. No regrets? Well maybe there are some.
But Whitby.. well as I have already said many times, I Loved it there and we loved all we met there and it seems quite apt that we set out from there into the unknown to foreign lands via the port of London and who knows all going well we may bring something back if there are favorable winds to speed our return.
But for now; we raise the main sail and onwards we go. Southward Ho !!
Beautiful writing Mick, of the exterior world, and most wonderfully the interior, of feelings and human connections. And you’re a *great* photographer. So mote it be! Grrr, woof, woof!