IT was the sort of mist that carried the promise of sun; a face glimpsed through a bridal veil. That morning, it lay so thick on Whitby that the jagged ruins of abbey, at the top of the famous 199 steps, could not be seen from the town. In a glass-fronted alcove above the doorway of St Patrick’s, a plaster saint – unaware of his own kitsch – raised a dignified crozier in seeming blessing of the harbour. He blessed the gulls, the gleaming hulls, the whole salted scene.
Suddenly, out of the mist came the flag of a rival saint. A red cross bright on its field of white, as if on the prow of some merchant vessel. But this was no ship and Keith Gilpin no sailor. He is a street cleaner, the man who keeps Whitby’s cobbles swept. The flag flies on the front of his cart. On his baseball cap he wears Yorkshire’s white rose. Thus blazoned, he goes about his business with brush and black bag. Keith hates litter about as much as he loves a flutter on the horses, which is to say: a lot. He will tolerate nothing dropped unless it is an aitch.
‘Whitby means plenty to me, lad,’ he said. ‘I look at the abbey and I look at the piers, and I feel comfortable and safe. I like beers and I like bets and I like a good meal, but just to see that sunrise and sunset…’ He trailed off, moved by the recollection of dawns and twilights. ‘Of all life’s pleasures, those that cost nowt are best.’
His round starts at six and he moves at a clip. Our conversation was punctuated by the hard shush of his brush. Keith is in his early sixties. It is tempting to regard him as a sentimental figure, a real-life ‘Bogie’ from Deacon Blue’s ‘Dignity’, but he resists such comparisons with northern grit. Would Bogie tear open a fly-tipped bin-bag and rake through the muck for a clue to the identity of the person who dumped it? Would Bogie explain his desire to see such litterers fined by saying, with Old Testament severity, ‘You shit on me and I’ll shit on you’?
Keith’s fiefdom is the eastern side of the town, where fishermen’s cottages have red pan-tiles, and narrow lanes clog with visitors. ‘You’ve got to always take into account the weather,’ he explained. ‘In bad weather there’s a damn sight more dog shit on’t streets because lazy people let them go anywhere. If it turns out good today, we’ll have pizza boxes and kebab boxes and tab ends. You get the spew. You get the human shit. It’s not the best of things to ’ave to sort out, but I just think of the pleasant barmaid who’s going to pour my pint later, and I’m okay.’
He’s an optimist is Keith. Yes, he has to carry water on his cart to better clean up after dogs, but this means he can give the window-boxes a drink; although watering flowers is not part of his job, civic pride is part of his nature. As is patience. His hobby is metal-detecting. For thirty years he has dug up pennies from the beach, a few thousand pounds worth of coppers; investing these in premium bonds, he hopes, one day, for a wee turn from Ernie.
The bells of St Mary struck seven. The cleaner pushed his cart along Henrietta Street to a spot overlooking the sands where Dracula is said to have come ashore. Tied to the fence are bunches of flowers left in memory of people who loved this town. Some locals think these an eyesore, but Keith, usually intolerant of mess, makes an exception for such tributes. He waits until the flowers are brown and dry and only then removes them. He can relate to the desire for some sort of memorial. This quiet corner is where, after his own passing, he hopes his family will place a bench with his name on it.
‘Then,’ he smiled, looking out over the sea, ‘you can come and park your backside, ’ave a can of beer or a cup of tea and say, “Bloody hell, that man ’ad these views every day of ’is working life.”’
* * *
On those wabbit, crabbit days when Whitby gets too hot and busy, I like to climb the 199 steps and walk the cliffs. A sign on a farm gate up there warns, in fading red paint, that ‘Trespassers will be shot.’ Happily, there is a place nearby where trespasses are not only forgiven (that being part of the whole Christian deal) but visitors actively welcomed: St Mary The Virgin, the town’s parish church.
Nineteenth-century box pews, one marked ‘For Strangers Only’, bring to mind a ship’s galley. Larkin might have considered this a serious house on serious earth, but the seriousness of the latter is open to question. Landslips have exposed bones. At night, St Mary’s is spotlit; light bouncing off its old walls casts a milky glow over the churchyard, picking out certain graves. Thomas Boynton, Master Mariner of the eighteenth century, is buried beneath a stone rich with carving: lawless ivy; a jawless skull, sockets deeply shadowed.
I was fortunate, one Sunday morning, to be shown around the church by Bob Franks, tower captain; the boss of the bellringers. He was 84, but you wouldn’t know it. They stood in a circle at the foot of the belltower, ten men and women, pulling candytwist ropes in suffragette colours. Mr Franks, a small gentleman with white hair and an air of gentle amusement, called the changes – ‘Seven on five, five leading!’ – rising to the very tips of his black loafers as the rope ascended. A plaque on the wall commemorated a day – May 6, 1935 – on which the bells were rung to mark the silver jubilee of King George V. There was, in every peal and echo, a sense of the eternal, a thing being done because it had always been done and would always be done. No dusty duty, though. The bellringers love the music and the ritual, and calling Whitby folk to worship is, for them, a sort of hallowed pleasure.
Afterwards, Mr Franks led the way up narrow stone stairs to the belfry. He undid a padlock, slid a bolt. The sound of the choir rose from far below. We were among the bells. They hung, still and heavy in the darkness, like ripe fruit. ‘Do you want to have a quick pop upstairs for the best view in Whitby?’ he asked.
He led the way along a beam, between the bells, and stooped through a tiny door on the other side of the belfry. ‘This is where I like to come to watch the Red Arrers do their stunts,’ he said, sweeping his arm around the roof. ‘They fly right over the top of the church ’ere.’ He was right about the view. The outlook north – flat blue sea, flat blue sky – was pure Rothko. South-west, a Turner-ish smear of smoke, rising from the moors, showed the position of the steam train chuffing towards Goathland.
The tower captain has been ringing bells since 1955, and has rung at over 1,000 churches around Britain including Buckfast Abbey. I did not have the heart to ask whether he had tried Buckie, a beverage that makes one go like the clappers. Mr Franks does not seem the sort.
* * *
Doc Rowe suggested a pint in the Middle Earth Tavern, so we cut down the Salt Pan Well Steps, a steep narrow close between tall houses of red brick. On Church Street we crossed the road to the water. ‘There,’ said Doc, pointing. ‘The Penny Hedge.’
It was low tide. Revealed on a staithe by the dropping water was what looked like a short length of crude fencing, woven from sticks, dripping wet and draped in bladderwrack. ‘The story goes that in the twelfth century there were three noblemen out hunting a wild boar…’ Doc began. As Britain’s greatest living folklorist, he knows about this stuff. ‘They chased it with their dogs and it ran into a hermitage.’ In the mêlée, the hermit was killed. The Abbot of Whitby insisted on an unusual punishment: every year, on Ascension Eve, the killers and their descendants must build a ‘penance hedge’ of hazel strong enough to withstand three tides. If it proved too weak for the waves, the families would forfeit their land. ‘The tradition carries on even now.’
Compared to many of England’s wilder and better known ceremonies, the Penny Hedge is gentle and reserved, a rite of spring in a minor key, but Doc loves it and would not miss it for the world. He will be there with his camera come hell or, well, high water. Now 74, he has almost certainly attended and documented more British rituals than anyone else alive; more, probably, than anyone who has ever lived. I first encountered Doc in South Queensferry, where, each August, he helps to dress the Burryman in his jaggy outfit of burrs. He maps out his year according to such calendar customs. He has missed the Padstow Obby Oss just once since 1963.
We sat in the Middle Earth nursing ale. With his crescent moon moustache, spectacles and melancholy expression, Doc brings to mind a disappointed schoolmaster in a western. His extraordinary archive is in Whitby, and he lives nearby, but is not a native. He’s a Devon lad. His obsession with documenting and collecting began, he thinks, when his father returned home from ‘fighting the Hun’ and found work in an auction room; he’d bring home unwanted stock. ‘So by the age of seven or eight I had eleven wind-up gramophones, and tea-chests full of 78s. I was singing O’Rafferty’s Pig before I went to school.’
He has had various jobs, can turn his hand to fire-eating and escapology, has spent long periods living ‘on fresh air and nothing’. He doesn’t drive, is a veteran hitcher, a committed user of public transport and Shanks’s pony. Sometimes it takes him four days to get to an event, if no bus goes near. This is ideological as much as pragmatic; he meets interesting people along the way, uncovers stories, gets a little closer to the spirit of the rituals. He is a knight-errant, Doc Quixote; it isn’t easy to imagine him on horseback, but perhaps a donkey.
‘Can you explain why you live like this?’ I asked.
‘No, I can’t,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got trapped in it, in a sense.’
He did not seem unhappy at this thought. Outside, waves lapped against the sides of the Penny Hedge. The tide was coming in.