St Mary’s Parish Church on the clifftop above Whitby, North Yorkshire, near to the prominent Abbey ruins, is one of the great architectural surprises of the north of England. Its exterior is an odd jumble, basically a twelfth-century Norman church with wooden outside staircases, Georgian sash windows and dormers in the roof.
Its interior is a precious survival – one of the very few English churches left virtually untouched by the Victorians – a preposterous clutter of galleries and box pews, with a three-decker pulpit and a no-doubt much-needed iron stove. Most outrageous of all, the Cholmley family pew is a balcony, spanning the chancel arch where the rood screen would be: the eighteenth-century Cholmleys sat with their backs to the altar in order to attend to the sermon in a place of worship that eschewed ritual and functioned instead as a preaching-box.
Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s description is unusually breathless: “…when one enters it, hard to believe and impossible not to love…one of the churches one is fondest of in the whole England. Whom do we owe the infinite gratitude of never having gutted it?”
Just as Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London offers an experience of Elizabethan theatre unlike any other in Britain, so St Mary’s Whitby harks back to a form of worship which Parson Woodforde, celebrating communion three or four times a year, would easily recognise.
Pevsner also realised that the proper way to approach St Mary’s is up the 199 steps from the harbour. There are ways of reaching the church and the Abbey on wheels, but the trek up the steps – reflecting on the way what it must have been like to carry a coffin up the unforgiving gradient – is a part of the unique experience.