WHITBY used to be the scene of a peculiar custom that occurred on October 31, which is Hallowe’en, otherwise known as the Eve of All Hallows or the Eve of All Saints.

It is celebrated this coming weekend and the date has many other names. Among them are Samhain, Winter’s Eve, Allantide, Ash Riddling Night, Hodening Horse Day, Nutcrack Night, Snail Tracing Night, Witch Lating Night and Treat Night.

To my knowledge, the Whitby event doesn’t have a particular name, but on that mystical evening, lovesick youngsters would climb the tower of St Mary’s Church on the cliff near Whitby Abbey and shout across the sea the names of their desired husbands or wives. If the response from the waves included the sound of bells, then a happy future was ensured.

If bells were not heard, they would have to return the following year, perhaps with a new name to shout over the waves.

Obviously, this poses the question – why can the sound of bells supposedly be heard from beneath the waves off Black Nab? This lies about a mile to the south-east of Whitby, on the southern rim of Saltwick Bay.

The answer lies in the destruction of Whitby Abbey by the commissioners of Henry VIII (c1534-40) as they sought to demolish the abbey and remove all traces of its Catholicism and valuables as a prelude to the Reformation.

The scale of the destruction was awesome, far worse than that inflicted by shells from the German battle cruiser Derflinger.

During the First World War, on December 16, 1914, it attempted to destroy the coastguard station but hit the abbey instead. Those badlyaimed shells merely destroyed the remains of the gateway and the west wall.

Of particular interest to Henry VIII were the abbey bells. This was a very special set with a fine ring, and they were described as very noble and antique. Henry did not wish to keep them – he wanted to sell them to raise cash for his personal needs, just as he did with all the gold and riches from his plunder of other abbeys and priories.

In this case, his instructions were that the bells be removed from the abbey and despatched by boat to London where they would be sold. The townspeople were deeply saddened by this turn of events – they thought that the destruction of their precious abbey was enough to tolerate but to also take away its bells was considered sacrilegious.

A deep sense of gloom descended upon Whitby.

On the appointed day, the people stood in sorrowful silence as the bells were loaded on to a cart guided by horses down the steep path that now runs beside the famous 199 steps. A ship was waiting in the harbour as the people prayed for a storm that would prevent the bells leaving Whitby. But no storm arose and it is said that many people were in tears as the massive heavy bells were loaded on board.

Slowly, the ship left its moorings and slid towards the harbour mouth to reach the high seas beyond the cliffs of Whitby.

It was a fine summer evening with no sign of a storm, and the sea was beautifully calm. There seemed to be nothing that would prevent the ship and its cargo of bells reaching London.

But then an amazing thing happened. On that wonderfully calm sea, with no strong waves, no high wind and no capsizing of the vessel, the ship simply sank out of sight as it sailed past Black Nab.

Ever since that time, there has been no explanation for its sudden disappearance with the bells. Nothing in the records tells us what happened to its crew either. The whole episode remains a complete mystery, but a legend has developed.

The bells now rest at the bottom of the North Sea and it is said that on a very quiet night, it is just possible to hear them ringing in the movements of the currents, although storms can produce a more robust sound.

Over the years, people have walked along those cliffs hoping to hear the bells and today the Cleveland Way long-distance footpath passes very close to the site. But I have no note of any hiker hearing those bells.

Likewise I know of no attempt to locate and recover the bells and there seems to be very few records of their existence.

That stretch of coastline is notorious for the number of shipwrecks that have occurred over the centuries and from time to time, a wreck is located and explored. Perhaps one day in the future, those bells might be found and recovered.

The present ruin was not the first abbey on this site. When the famous St Hilda was transferred from Hartlepool to Whitby, then known as Streonshalh, the abbey was a small wooden structure thatched with straw and dedicated to St Peter. That was replaced by a stone abbey in 680, but this was itself replaced by another dating from about 1220. There’s mystery and history in those old stones.

The best policy?

On the subject of old stones and abbeys, my recent notes about Jervaulx Abbey (D&S Times, Sept 17 and Oct 8) have produced a good deal of response, along with an increased interest in visiting the ruins. These are the second largest privately-owned ruins of a Cistercian abbey in this country, the largest being Beaulieu in Hampshire, the seat of Lord Montagu.

I was pleased to receive a call from the owners of Jervaulx, Ian and Carol Burdon, whose family bought the estate in and who next year will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of their family ownership of this beautiful ruin.

Much of the history of the abbey was destroyed because its records were moved to York Minster and lost in a fire.

As highlighted in literature about Jervaulx Abbey, it is always open to the public, there being no charge for admission to either the abbey ruins or the car park, although honesty boxes present an opportunity for people to make contributions that will help in the maintenance.

Mr Burdon tells me that income has been reduced in recent years but whether this is due to the country’s financial plight is uncertain. He does tell me, however, that his honesty boxes often contain foreign coins, bus tickets and even pebbles from his own grounds. On one occasion, a £10 Marks & Spencer voucher was donated. He has had daffodil bulbs left too, while picnickers sometimes visit the site and leave behind their rubbish.

He wonders whether other honesty box users can offer similar stories.

Another call came from David Ronchetti, an architect from Knaresborough, who, some years ago, happened to be at the Brymor ice-cream centre at High Jervaulx Farm as an old barn was being demolished.

The colour of a pile of cast stones caught his eyes and so he bought them.

When he settled down to sorting out the rubbish from the good stones, he realised many of the stones bore wonderful carvings.

Later, when he visited Jervaulx Abbey, he saw identical carvings on the abbey’s stonework and realised the stone of that old barn had, many years ago, come from the ruins. During that re-use, their carved sections had been concealed within the walls and he recalled one large stone that fell and split open to reveal a large fossilised snail-type of creature rather like a Whitby ammonite.

As I mentioned in the above piece about Whitby Abbey, there’s mystery and history in those old stones.