New lease of life for Whitby's ancient abbey

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The Independent Online

Whitby Abbey, whose brooding ruins overlook the fictional landfall of Count Dracula, is a uniquely potent historic icon whose cultural pulling power has never been fully exploited. The starkly beautiful North Yorkshire site, riddled with signs of Anglo-Saxon and Christian occupation, draws fewer visitors than, for example, the charming but hardly remarkable Framlingham Castle in Suffolk.

But things are going to change on Saturday. English Heritage, Whitby Abbey's custodian, is holding its breath after spending £5.7m on creating an architecturally innovative visitor centre within the decaying shell of the mansion built in the 17th century by the Cholmley family.

If it fails to capture the imagination of locals and tourists, they will have to think again about mixing ancient and modern. But if it succeeds, the new centre will trigger a wave of cutting-edge public facilities at Britain's historic sites.

The Whitby Abbey Headland Project is a high-risk venture and a quantum leap from the two small, weather-beaten wooden huts that had for years acted as a visitor centre. Overseen by the abbey's curator, Martyn Allfrey, for a decade, they presented highly important artefacts in car-boot sale conditions, notably the nationally unique 8th-century Saxon standing stone crosses.

Now, to Mr Allfrey's delight, history has been taken out of the dustbin and encased in a glass box "hung" inside the Cholmley pile. A wonderful collection of finds, including a gilded 8th-century book-mount, a 12th-century chess piece made from jet and even a 1944 beer bottle highlight the history of the site with panache.

The "glass box", designed by the architects Stanton Williams, is clasped by a skinny ribbed steel structure keyed into the facade. The main north facade of the house remains intact, and the rough ashlar and brick interior surfaces remain more or less as they were. Alan Farley, the lead architect, said: "There were concerns about the retention of the melancholy feeling of the place. That's why we put those grey mesh blinds behind the windows."

The effect, looking south across the recently reinstated cobble-garden to the main facade, is as sullenly leaden as the lining of Vlad the Impaler's coffin. Job done. But only up to a point. Mr Allfrey claims the presentation of historical material in the new centre was the main issue, and he would be happy with the current level of 140,000 visitors annually. Yet market research has shown the new centre may draw up to 250,000 visitors a year, and there can be no doubt that English Heritage would regard that as the real vindication of its innovative approach.

It would also recall the first great era of tourism in Whitby, when the well-to-do middle classes travelled to the port and climbed the 199 steps past the architecturally bizarre St Mary's Church to the headland and the abbey ruins. Lately, the glorious view of the beach and the raking headlands to the north-west has been blighted by a proliferation of litter and portable lavatories.

Now the car park has been moved and the lavatories have gone. From the first floor of the new centre, the view to the abbey ruins and the cliff-edge is free of the visual clutter that must have irritated the ghosts of King Oswy, who founded the monastery, and the medieval Benedictines who inhabited the site until Henry VIII forced its sale to the Cholmleys.

On Saturday, those who make their way to the abbey will have a chance – at £9 per family – to get to grips with its history properly. Even the youngest are catered for: Smelly Old History (Scratch n' Sniff Your Way Through the Past) Vile Vikings is set to walk off the shelves of the gift shop.