Saturday, 25 October 2014

St Mary's Church, Whitby

St Mary's Church Whitby
St Mary's Church Whitby

St Mary's Church in Whitby is one of my favourite churches of all time.

Standing stoically on a jutting headland above Whitby, like a little fortress against the elements, it is a beautiful and charismatic hodge-podge of styles and add-ons that have been shoehorned in over the ages, oozing a palpable sense of history and witness to the various characters and events that it must have hosted over the years.

St Mary's Church Whitby
St Mary's Church Whitby
It was founded in 1110, although the interior mostly dates from the late 1700s.

It is, I think, one of the most unusual Churches in Britain. Add to this its striking setting, its location overlooking such a beautiful and historic town, its approach from the town up the famous 199 steps, its dramatic graveyard full of atmospheric and weathered tombstones, tributes to workmen and denizens of the sea, and, of course, its connection to Bram Stoker, who incorporated the graveyard into his Dracula novel; and it also has to rank highly as one of the most interesting to visit.

©St Mary's Church
As if all of the above were not enough, the inside of St Mary's also holds much of interest, and is fascinating to explore.

Three-decker Pulpit St Mary's Church Whitby
Three-decker Pulpit ©St Mary's Church

A maze of boxed pews, a three decker pulpit, multiple galleries, ear trumpets for a deaf rector's wife, and a delightful charcoal stove, which is still in use, are just some of its many interesting features. There is no artificial lighting, instead candles are used for services, including a beautiful candle chandelier.

©St Mary's Church

©St Mary's Church

Much of the 'architectural dog's dinner,' as the Rough Guide to England describes it, is attributable to attempts over the years to increase the capacity. The Church now has provision to seat over two thousand people, the extra space being created by external staircases to some of the galleries. One memorial service is recorded as being attended by over three thousand people.

External staircase St Mary's Church

It was described by Simon Jenkins in 'England's Thousand Best Churches' as "part folly, part museum, part large parlour." The museum part is apt as there are also other items to intrigue and fascinate, within the church, such as an old stone head with a story and a Saxon baby's stone coffin.

©St Mary's Church

Echoes of the sea are everywhere, and much of the Church interior feels like similar woodwork to that used on a ship, it also contains one of the most complete sets of pre-Victorian furnishings in England.

©St Mary's Church
The Church also has within its grounds Caedmon's Cross, and one of the approaches is via the famous (and strenuous!) 199 steps, which we hope to write about in other posts, as well as a post on Whitby Abbey.

Well worth a visit, as is the whole of Whitby. Please consider making a donation to help with the upkeep of the Church, or buy one of the many gifts for sale in the entrance way. 

We visited on one of our Justbod field trips on a day that was howling a gale, with heavy, lashing rain. The Church felt like a sanctuary, as it must have to many people over its long history.

View from the 199 steps, Whitby

Sanctuary it may have been for many, but it is also a potent symbol of gothic horror. I leave you with a quote from Bram Stoker's Dracula, from the scene set in St Mary's graveyard:

"For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St Mary's Church. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible....It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell."

(Please note that we were given permission for the interior photography by the Rector: Reverend Canon David William Smith, and these interior images are copyrighted to St Mary's Church Whitby. )

Thanks for reading!


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You might also be interested in:  

Whitby Abbey: a brief history

Fossil Hunting & the Snakestones of Whitby


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Tree of Life Wall Plaque

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Sources and further information:

St Mary's Parish Church booklet



  1. Wonderful article on one of my favorite places. Have been to Whitby twice on trips from the U.S. but have never been in the church. I would imagine it has many tales to tell. What a wonderful and probably sometimes terrifying view from it's position. Thank you for photos and description.

    1. Very welcome - well worth a look inside if you ever get the chance :)