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|2054: St Mary
the Virgin, Whitby, North Yorkshire, England
St Mary the Virgin, Whitby, North Yorkshire, England.
Church of England, Diocese
Fortress like, with a battlemented exterior. The interior is
a mixture, extended over the years. The ground floor is crammed
with original box pews, ranging from a rather lush carpeted
room-like affair with red velvet cushions for the local bigwigs,
to the slightly sterner numbers lined in green baize, to the
frankly plain wood with no upholstery at all. There is a wonderful
three decker pulpit; the parish clerk would sit on the lowest
level, with the service being conducted by the priest from the
middle one, and the sermon preached from the very top. Alterations
to the church have resulted in the chancel losing its position
as the focus of the service – it's out of sight from much of
the seating – but the pulpit being of primary importance. I
was told that this reflects the value set on preaching in the
18th century. There is a gallery, also with box pews and very
narrow gangways. The church has electricity solely to power
the organ and TV monitor; otherwise, it's lit when necessary
by candles in the lovely chandelier and the sconces in the gallery.
St Mary's was completely bypassed by the renovations of the
19th century, and is one of the most complete relics of 17th
and 18th century church organisation in the country.
There are other churches in the town, but this is the parish
church. It is also a tourist attraction and historical artifact.
Whitby is still a fishing port, but also a popular tourist resort,
and home to the annual regatta and the week long folk festival
that was the subject of my visit. The old town is a higgeldy
piggeldy jumble of fishermen's cottages, half hidden alleyways,
and slightly off centre buildings, punctuated by the fish and
chip restaurants for which the area is renowned. In summer it
is crammed with visitors, and the steep hills from the harbour
up to the more modern parts of the town are populated with walkers,
often using walking sticks, crutches, or mobility buggies, making
their way up to and down from the windswept campsites at the
top. St Mary's Church stands high on the east cliff of Whitby
harbour, by the abbey ruins, and is reached by 199 steps from
the town, or, if you are a softie with arthritic hips, from
the car parks by the abbey or the adjacent youth hostel. I would
have been grateful for a magic carpet as I trawled the streets
for parking that didn't cost the earth.
The Revd Steven Foster, vicar, assisted by the storyteller Daffy
Thomas and the Sussex source singer Bob Lewis.
The date & time:
Sunday, 22 August 2010, 9.45am.
What was the name of the
Whitby Folk Week Service. Folk Week is
an annual event, billed on the Folk
Week website as "seven days of dancing in the streets, music
and singing in the pubs, concerts and dances until late into
the night, and a compelling reason for heading to the north
east of England in late August each year."
How full was the building?
Hard to tell. There was a west gallery choir of 50 plus, possibly
the same number of parents and children in the box pews, and
a gallery band of seven.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady said hello as I walked in carrying my concertina. I asked
her if I could join in with the band, and she directed me to
the gallery above. As it happened, the music was being directed
by the well known Dave Townsend, himself a specialist in west
gallery hymns and village band music. Much to my surprise, I
recognised many of the other musicians from other folk events.
It was rather like old home week up there. They had no idea,
though, that I was Mystery Worshipping.
Was your pew comfortable?
The choir pews were lined, including the pews, in slightly worn
green baize. But well designed and comfortable to play musical
How would you describe the pre-service
The choir and band had had one rehearsal the previous day in
which to put together the music for the service (how had I not
heard about it?). Fortunately it was all sight readable, and
my neighbour used the time to fill me in on extra instructions
such as repeats, instrumental interludes, etc. There was a buzz
of preparation in the gallery, and a buzz of quiet talk in the
What were the exact opening words of the
The priest morphed from discussing the preparations with his
assistants to opening the service, which I caught up with as
he was saying: "And a very warm welcome to this our annual
service." He made a reference to the duff mike, so that may
have been why the start of his sentence was lost.
What books did the congregation use during the
A specially printed service booklet that contained the texts
of the hymns. The band had printed music in addition.
What musical instruments were played?
Cello, clarinet, and five concertinas, including one bass one.
I would have liked a serpent, that wonderful snake-like wind
instrument that delivers honking, slightly out of tune, bass
notes! Oh, and the vicar played a banjo.
Did anything distract you?
As a last minute comer to the band, I was very busy making sure
that I knew what was going on musically. We were somewhat distant
from the congregation, so their reactions, with one exception
(see below), were not a primary focus for me.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
A very good humoured, atmospheric affair, with lots of laughter
and applause after the musical and story telling items. The
vicar, Mr Foster, wore his tweed jacket, explaining that it
was too cold to robe. No eucharist, but all the other elements
of a service: readings, intercessions, etc. Full blooded singing.
The highlight of the service for me was the second "musical
interlude", which was in fact a story about Adam. When Adam
was dying, he sent his son Seth back to the garden to ask St
Michael, the angel with the fiery sword, for proof that God
was merciful. Michael showed Seth three things: the tree, the
serpent, and a baby swaddled in white. "That," said Michael,
"is the mercy of God." Michael then gave Seth three seeds from
the tree to take back with him. When Seth reached home, Adam
was on his deathbed, but was finally able to die in peace. Seth
placed the three seeds in Adam's mouth, and green leafy tendrils
grew from them. This, we were told, is the origin of the green
man sculpture so often seen in folklore, and shows that
each of us contains the seeds of both good and evil.
Exactly how long was the
10 minutes, with a song making it up to 18.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 The vicar was informal, full of jokes, and finished
with a song, accompanying himself on the banjo, commenting that
this was a tradition and that he liked a captive audience. His
song was not one you'd customarily hear in church, but under
the circumstances it worked.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
The vicar's theme was creation and creating. The church we were
in contained examples of all sorts of creation in stone, glass,
etc. He went on to expand the theme as creation needing a firm
foundation, and this led on to faith. He related his theme to
the hymns that were sung at the service.
Which part of the service was like being in
The music. It was joyful, lively and had content. Bob Lewis
sang the folk song "When Adam was created", which fitted the
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This may seem ungracious, but I did feel that applauding each item tended to disrupt the flow of the service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Dave Townsend told me something of the customs obtaining in
west gallery churches. I'd already done my socialising before
the service, so took another look round the various monuments
and visited the gift stall.
How would you describe the after-service
It's a fair trade church. There were tea, coffee, sandwiches
and cake for sale, and hot waffles with jam. All disposable
plates and cups, but very good nonetheless. A chilly wind was
blowing even on a glorious day such as this one, so something
hot was appreciated.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 This was a special service. I had originally intended
to stay for the regular service as well, in order to have some
basis for comparison, but it was pre-empted by this one. The
church building itself is a powerful persuader, although in
winter it would be a case of bundling up well.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The story telling the origin of the green man.
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