Thousand of people regularly climb up the 199 steps leading to St. Mary’s Church. Fortunately for them, visitors, locals, tourists or simply curious, some benches dot the stairway, providing perfect places for weary walkers to rest their legs and soak in the beautiful views of Whitby’s harbor. Absolutely one of the most beautiful views of Whitby you can achieve.
What many tourists don’t know is that the platforms they sit on weren’t intended to hold the living. Absolutely no. Pallbearers, when they needed a break while carting the dead to the church cemetery, would place coffins on the planks.
Many years back, Whitby folk requested to be carried up the steps to their final resting places, rather than along nearby Green Lane, which was sympathetically nicknamed “hearse road”. During cholera outbreaks in the 19th century, burials happened at night, so being a pallbearer must have been really exhausting. Oh, in any case official pallbearers weren’t always used. Often men would be carried by their male companions, women would be carried up by female friends and family members, and children would be carried by children.
The view from the top is spectacular, though. Many of the benches in the graveyard face the powerful North Sea. As you round the final corner, you are met first with a sign ordering you to be respectful of the graveyard, then by the solemn Caedmon’s Cross.
St. Mary’s is a very old graveyard and, curious fact, its graves have fallen over the eroding cliffside at various times, spilling bones and not only onto the houses in the town below.
The graveyard closed after the 19th century, meaning nobody no longer had to carry their loved ones up the steps. But the stairs
still see plenty of foot traffic, just as they have for centuries…
Believe it or not, the steps were actually originally made of wood and stood for hundreds of years, until 1774 when they were replaced with stone.
The first recorded use of the staircase was in 1340, though it’s likely they were used far before this as people trekked up to the 12th-century church and seventh-century abbey. Some historians believe that St Hilda would use the steps to test the faith of her followers: climbing up the steps would prove your faith. Surely a simple task these days. A little less at that time.
Even Count Dracula, in wolf form, bounded up these stairs as depicted by Bram Stoker in his novel “Dracula”!
For a long time the steps were an important part of the burial of Whitby folk, but now they are simply a pathway to a breathtaking view.
Images from web – Google Research