The Sweet Showers of April
Richard Neal

When the sweet showers of April had pierced the drought of March to the root, I made pilgrimage and took the train to Whitby. It is a cumbersome journey; having ridden up the flatland between wold and dale past York, the North York Moors, providing the hump on the back of England’s east coast, stood in the way. Looping over the top of the Cleveland Hills, changing in Middlesbrough, the train is slower than the bus. It wends its way high up past Roseberry Topping, vistas of Teesside and across the upper Vale of York to the Pennines stretching behind, pulls into one station in a hillside field and changes direction, before heading into a moorland valley and over the watershed, the view behind to the rest of the North closed off, with only Eskdale, the Moors and the coast to come. One is sealed off into a corner of the land.

After the stream alongside the train has changed direction, a transition I always miss, it begins slowly to grow, and the valley opens out. The brook is sparsely tree-lined, small and gnarly windswept oaks, at this time of year covering banks bedecked in daffodils, more than I have ever seen, the pale creamy yellow the first prick in the monotony of greys, greens and browns coating what was still a winter landscape.

The moors stretching out in the distance are not high; it is striking how valleys with tops so without peaks can be so remote and grand. The horizons of heather and peat-topped fell, endless fine lines of toughly coloured expanse and the sense of the valleys below mirrored by lowering, fast-moving skies, is as thrilling and open as many far more altitudinous climes. 

The valley widens still, stone villages and stations pile up on each other, the train criss-crosses the Esk constantly and everything grows, the trees, the woods, the rocks, the settlements; only the rail line sinks, following the river to the sea. Danby, Lealholm, Glaisdale, Egton, Grosmont, Sleights, Ruswarp. The train guard pronounced Sleights to rhyme with lights, more Germanic to my southern ear, as was the bus announcement in Derby, bus rhyming with put rather than putt. The river turns tidal at Ruswarp, where there is a large mill weir with pleasure boats for hire and a fine iron bridge for the line to decisively cross to the north bank, Whitby but a couple of miles away.

The sweep of the land that has made Whitby what it is is indeed expansive. It is the size of the moors nudging into the North Sea that provides the size of the river and the barrier that stops it flowing out into a larger estuary, the Tees to the North, Humber to the south, and gives the harbour sufficient scale to build whalers and circumnavigating ships. They also make for the crumbling, cliff-faced coastline a forbidding one for boats, thus making the harbour into a haven of greater, scarcer significance. When you walk along miles of cliffs and rocks from the next bays, Runswick to the west, Robin Hood’s to the east, the sight of the pair of harbour walls jutting so proudly into the North Sea is profoundly salutary.

The remoteness by land, the relative security of passage by water may have led Hilda to choose the promontory above the town for the abbey she was appointed to set up by Aidan of Iona in 657. Having held a Synod to decide the Easter timetable, and ultimately cementing ties with Rome rather than the Celtic church (setting in train a process of integration with the continent that may be about to suffer one of its greater reverses), she also apparently led a proto-socialist paradise. The Venerable Bede reported (over a century later) that, under her, “none there was rich, none were needy, … everything was shared there in common by all.”

Before the Danes stayed, the Vikings had come, and the local boats are descended from theirs. Short, tubby, flat-bottomed, the cobles were the most stable form with which two men could navigate treacherous, rocky inshore waters, able to land on stone at low tide and be pulled from the waves when out of the harbour. The shape fed into the later colliers, and James Cook went around the world on a Whitby ship due to its stability on the water and simplicity of design.

Ties to Rome proved pivotal once more, Henry VIII’s supremacy taking the abbey with one hand, but unwittingly allowing for the town’s eventual growth with the other. Alum is what you need to fix the dyes in your shirt; the mineral had been a papal monopoly, and an alternative source was suddenly sought. The land of the moors falling into the sea proved to be a rich source, alum found in the cliffs. 

Boats were needed, to access the precarious and risky works on and above the shore, to ship the alum away in larger vessels secure from brigands, but also to bring in coal from Newcastle and large quantities of urine from wherever, the two substances needed to extract it from the shale. This proved the basis for centuries of seafaring and shipbuilding on a significant scale – Whitby for a time the nation’s third-largest in terms of tonnage – and is also visible on the coastal path. The land rises up beyond Sandsend, which does what it says, but the headland is naked rounded lumps of shale, half the height of the cliff behind. Trackways and railway lines with sidings onto the headland give the lie to the seeming natural wildness, the outcrop has been felled in half, processed, wheeled and shipped away.

Whaling grew, the town having a fleet of a dozen or so boats venturing to the North Atlantic. William Scoresby Snr invented the crow’s nest after sailing to 80 degrees north, further than any known before him, and his son stowed away on his ship at the age of 10. Scoresby Jnr was apprenticed at 13, first mate at 16, captain at 21, a nineteenth-century Kirk who mapped Greenland’s east coast, was admitted to the Royal Society for research on magnetism, and served as minister in parishes across England and on his ships, attempting to save to the souls of his sailors. 

The museum contains an array of harpoons, the first to make the initial blow from the rowing boats that awaited, permanently crewed, to be floated within sixty seconds of sighting the beast. Scoresby Jnr’s own book aptly illustrated the peril of shooting a little slow, a little late, while approaching too fast and near, the boat spun into the air like a child’s toy, the crew into Arctic waters (death was expected for the sailors, the percentage of those not returning rivalling war service, a fifth of the whaling fleet was once knocked out in one blow in a storm between Greenland and Baffin Island. An even more troubling phenomenon was the coffin ships, deliberately overloaded boats packed off by unscrupulous owners hoping to cash in on the insurance when the inevitable happened. Such practices led to a Mr Plimsoll MP enforcing the loading line). Another harpoon was longer, finer, for the fatal stabs to the inner organs as the whale resurfaced after first being hit. Of similar length were the knives for removing the blubber at sea.

As the Esk is filled with tidal waters in its estuary, it turns northwards before flowing out past the two pairs of harbour walls, the first set straight with lighthouses at their end, the second curved like a pair of whale-bone tweezers into the expanse of sea, with a raised, rhythmically structured wooden decking. They are not especially long, but the fog can roll in and obscure the town behind all day. 

They are said to be difficult to enter in bad weather; nonetheless, a more visible sign of the gaining or leaving of refuge is hard to imagine. I once watched a trawler sail through them and out on a bearing that would have followed the coast of Britain and into the Atlantic in a late, late dusk of towering, ever-more tangible gloom. I studied the four lights on the rear of the deck fixedly until I could make them out no more, a vicarious form of voyaging I’ve never forgotten.

Essentially the town for me is an anthology, a meeting point of favourite things on a compass, beach and coast on the W-E axis, the fat harbour inland from the cliff-side river mouth and the moors to the south, the eponymous North Sea looming over all. From the swing bridge connecting the two sides of the town spread above, on, and below the two cliffs, the East and the West, radiate medieval alleyways (an archaeologist colleague once swore to me that Grape Lane, a short cut to Church Street, is a corruption of Gropecunt; research states possibly Grope Lane, or Grapcunt, and such epithets, and their cleansing, are common for what later were known as red light districts). As with all harbour towns, the range and class of pubs is unmatched. The wharf with the penny arcades leads to the beach, which stretches for over three miles at low tide, with firm sand providing vigorous walking and the odd piece of worn slate with perfectly cylindrical holes, as if drilled and filed. Hard- but brittle-shelled piddocks, shellfish-like albino mussels with cross-hatched grinding grooves, bury their way in with an attached, twisting muscle, to give themselves security and shelter from which to syphon their food from the waves. 

Then range the cliffs, a church’s cemetery crumbling onto Henrietta Street and the shack where kippers have been smoked since the 1870s. Fish and chips are celebrated, eulogised, sold to within an inch of their lives, often as good here as they can be. Late Victorian and Edwardian promenades finally acknowledge in architecture (the weekend hordes and rows of shops selling tat and jet having long since left you in no doubt) the reality that this is a town for tourists, and has been since at least the coming of the railway and iron ships, which in the end did for the boat yards.

From the side of the harbour within the town, on Church Street, seals can be spotted in the water, and the heather-topped moors viewed behind the road bridge to Scarborough. The weather can be kind when they stay faithful to the prevailing westerlies, which have little left to give after scaling Irish and Welsh hills, the Pennines and the moors. But the winds and rains remind you most keenly of their existence as soon as the weather comes in from East or West – the sea.

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The fog that followed days of glorious sunshine made more plausible the musings of one Bram Stoker. Goths – members of the modern-day movement of culture and fashion, not invaders from the East – can be seen paying homage at all times of year, even when their own festival in the town is not taking place each May. Stoker spent time in the town, researched Romanian folklore in the library and allowed the local legend of the moorland hound Barghest to meld in his mind with images of the Russian ship Dimitry (Demeter in the book), wrecked on Tate Hill Beach below the long-since ruined abbey steps. This catalysed the conception of Dracula, who jumps ashore in the form of a dog, having devoured the entire crew of the ship prior to its being washed ashore.

What I saw, though, was that Stoker need not have looked so far for folklore with which to spin macabre myth. Whitby museum contains many treasures, not least the Tempest Prognisticator, a device of glass jars and wires assembled in the style of an Indian temple, containing leeches who, when they became agitated at the onset of an electrical storm, were supposed to rise from their flasked waters to disturb wires attached to a ring of bells. If enough bells rang, hatches were to be battened down. It was made as a commercial forecasting machine, launched at the 1851 Great Exhibition, but floundered without trace, bar the replica here. 

Next to it, easily missed, is a small wooden-topped cabinet with a wooden case inside holding a grey, leathery, withered hand. It is a Hand of Glory, and was found in a house in Danby in a cubby hole above a doorway, and eventually given to the museum in 1935. Familiar in various forms across the north of England, the practise was thus (there is myth here, but we are dealing with deeds; the hand is real): A hanged felon’s hand was severed from the corpse, wrapped in cloth from a winding sheet, pickled and dried. Sometimes the hand was lain flat, a candle placed between its fingers, or between forefinger and thumb with the hand in a fist. The candle, in such cases, would be, in Sir Walter Scott’s version, made from “pitch wax, the fat of [the] hanged man, ‘Virgin Wax’, and mustard oil”. A third alternative was to light the fingers directly.

smaller hand

The purpose was sedative. Anyone in the immediate vicinity – members of a household to be robbed, say – would fall asleep while the candle, or hand, was lit, and an incantation read out. The sleep would be reliably unshakeable; burglars thus found the hand an indispensable piece of kit. Should the thumb not oblige in the finger-lighting variation, however, then someone nearby was awake, and the night’s thieving might be thwarted. The example from Danby was, in the reckoning of local chronicler Joseph Bard, used to its original end until at least 1821. According to the museum, the long-time previous owner of the cottage in which it was found “was a man who had a very bad reputation in the countryside, but against whom nothing could be proved”.

There is academic speculation that the name stems, via the French “main-de-gloire”, from “mandragore”, the mandrake. Fatally poisonous in all but the smallest doses, it was a plant used as sleeping remedy, painkiller, and aphrodisiac. To ward off unskilled experimenters who may be tempted but succumb ignorantly to its poison, it was surrounded in deterring myth. Its roots were said to be in the form of a man, and should you uproot it/him, his scream would kill you. To safely pull it up, you had to tie a sacrificial dog to its stem, and throw it some meat from a safe distance. Darting to its food, it would drag the roots free, and fall dead from the ensuing cry.


We’ve encountered a film containing a Mandrake before, but not a hand of glory until now. In A Canterbury Tale, Powell and Pressburger have their American ingénue-GI, an inadvertent pilgrim, stay in The Hand of Glory Inn in a village in Kent not far from the cathedral city where he and two fellow travellers would receive what they had hoped for, but given up on.

There is no burglary, no putting to sleep, but there are covert misdeeds under the cover of darkness. Local girls are assailed by the Glue Man, who places “sticky stuff” in their hair on the street at night when in the company of soldiers camped nearby – it is the middle of World War II. That the motive turns out to be bizarrely conservative, a- or anti-sexual, and for a worthy though misplaced cause, only makes the innuendo as strange in the film as here on the page. The culprit is the town’s magistrate and gentleman farmer, still living with his mother. His respectability, and perhaps the name of the inn, have made the townsfolk unaware of his actions.

Besides this, it is perhaps merely coincidence that a film that eulogises the past and present of a corner of England, welcoming change while harking back to the past, finding redemption even in perversion, and which presents a warm and sentimental, real and magical slice of country life, is also aware of the relatively recent legends found in my own harbour when a palmer in my own land.

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