Whitby Abbey saved from the brink

 Emergency excavations are taking place at one of the oldest Christian sites in England to rescue it from coastal erosion. Experts fear that part of Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, which is set on a high headland in Yorkshire will crumble into the sea 150 feet below within the next 20 years. A zone, stretching 150 metres from St Mary's church to the coastguard station, has been closed both to the public and archaeologists due to the danger of imminent collapse. Work will take six days to complete. Using this information archaeologists will then dig a number of trenches further back from the threatened zone. This should provide more clues about the pattern of human occupation on the Headland. English Heritage Project Manager Peter Busby said: "Whitby Abbey Headland is one of the most important archaeological sites in the north. We hope this work will give us more information about its history." The salvage operation will also give English Heritage a chance to test methods for coping with historic sites elsewhere in the country threatened by erosion caused by global warming and rising sea levels. Whitby Abbey (formerly called Streoneshalh). was a Benedictine monastery founded about 657, for men and women, by Oswy, King of Northumberland. The first abbess was St Hilda, under whom the community reached a considerable size. One of the most famous monks was the poet Caedmon. The famous Council of Whitby was held here in 664, to discuss a number of controversial issues including the dates for Easter. After St Hilda's death, in about 680, Aelfleda, daughter of King Oswy, became abbess, and the monastery flourished until about 687, when it was entirely destroyed by the Danes. The community was dispersed, the abbot, Titus, fled to Glastonbury taking with him the relics of St Hilda. No attempt was made to restore the monastery until after the Norman conquest, when this district of Yorkshire was granted to Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester. He assigned Whitby to William de Percy, who refounded Whitby. Reinfrid, a monk of Evesham, was appointed prior of the restored foundation. For the next 500 years, Whitby was a centre of prayer, learning and pastoral care for the local community. At the Reformation in 1540 the monks were forced to leave. Within a short time the roof was stripped, the contents removed and the buildings were given to John, Earl of Warwick. Through the centuries stones were taken and used by local builders and storms blowing in from the North Sea reduced the once beautiful buildings to ruins.

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