Who knew that jet – a hard, black, organically-derived mineraloid commonly found in the gothic cliffs of Whitby in North Yorkshire, is formed from the fossilised remains of Araucaria araucana (Monkey Puzzle) tree?
‘. . .Araucaria is derived from the Arauco region of central Chile, where the Araucani Indians live. This is the land of the monkey puzzle tree (A. araucana), so named because the prickly, tangled branches would be difficult for a monkey to climb. It has been suggested that an armor of dagger-like leaves on ancient araucariads might have discouraged hungry South American herbivorous dinosaurs, such as the enormous Argentinosaurus that weighed an estimated eighty to a hundred tons!’
The Araucariacae family encompasses three genera: Araucaria, Agathis and Wollemia. Within these genera some incredible ancient trees can be found, some of which are at least equal in their outlandish beauty to A. araucana. Living fossil Wollemia nobilis (discovered in Australia in 1994) is definitely one of them.
‘Fossil evidence indicates that the Aracauria family reached its maximum diversity during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, between 200 and 65 million years ago, with worldwide distributions. At the end of the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs became extinct, so did the Araucariaceae in the Northern Hemisphere’.
So, Araucaria araucana probably became extinct in Whitby between 200 and 65 million years ago, and mindblowingly, the fossilised remains of those extinct trees now yield significant jet deposits along a very short stretch of North Yorkshire coastline, between Runswick Bay and just to the North of Whitby. The Romans loved it – York being the centre of the Roman trade – and Neolithic/Bronze Age examples of jet jewellery have also been found.
Jet was highly prized by the remarkably gothically-minded Victorians, who loved a bit of hard black shoegazing. Queen Victoria famously wore it among her widow’s weeds on the death of Prince Albert in 1861, and its subsequent links with mourning and Victoriana have been set in stone ever since.
Whitby itself is more or less the epicentre of English gothic high-kitsch, with vampire and ghost tours whispering their terrors on blackboards advertised around each cobbled bend on every Whitby street.
I have often wondered if the gothic legacy of jet itself is partly responsible for Whitby’s morbid obsession with all things crepuscular and dark. Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic novel ‘Dracula’, famously partly set at Whitby Abbey, obviously has more than a bit-part to play in the nocturnal notoriety of the town’s undeniable witching-hour romanticism.
It was a stroke of genius that Stoker chose Whitby, with all its associations with mourning, death and disaster, to frame his novel. His treatment of the town itself is decidedly anthropomorphic, with the town emanating a ghostly sea-misty malevolence compounded by many tales of shipwreck, gore-soaked whaling voyages seeking yields of whalebone for stultifying, suffocating corsets and stays, as well as blubber oil for lamp burners. Throw in a few biblical coastal storms and you have a potent briny literary brew which for me is completely unrivalled in atmosphere.
Luckily for Stoker and his iconic gothic novel, he seems to have divined Whitby’s ongoing knack for misfortune, which has only served to reinvigorate the powerful and magical dark mysticism invoked by ‘Dracula’. In 1914 Whitby Abbey (a glorious manifestation of incredible architectural gothic provenance and having survived centuries of assaults, including The Reformation) sustained further damage from two German battlecruisers Vann der Tann and Derfflinger. A hospital ship, Rohilla, was also sunk in the bay during the attack.
You can certainly feel a very peculiar ambience at the Abbey, if you brave the 199 steps to the top – even surrounded by hundreds of other tourists. Perhaps it is the dishevelled countenance of the Abbey, with all the sea and wind-pocked headstones and the merciless position high up on those precipitous cliffs. Or perhaps my knowledge of the Abbey’s tumultuous and tortured history is seeping in? I’m never quite sure.
What I am sure of is that Whitby is one of my favourite British seaside towns. As a child all those gothic tales and the beautiful black-as-night jet jewellery caught and charmed my imagination just as much as they do now. It was also a brilliant day-out escape from Hebden Bridge – which, as you will know if you have read my blog before – has a personal legacy of bleak gothic romance. Thank you very much rain, bleak industrial heritage, desolate moorland, Brontës, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes – and Kate Bush, you didn’t help either. From one cruel, windswept romance to another. HEATHCLIFF!!!
Plants of the Week
Book of the Week
‘Dracula’, Bram Stoker
Track of the Week
‘Night Shift’ from the 1983 album ‘Nocturne’, Siouxsie and the Banshees
‘Abbey on the Hill, Whitby, Yorkshire’ by George Scarth French
‘Nocturne: Black and Gold – The Fire Wheel’, James A.M. Whistler
Whitby Abbey: English Heritage
Corsetry: The Vintage Fashion Guild
Terminology: Checked using Oxford English Dictionary
Paintings: MyPaintings, Tate
Jet jewellery: British Museum, Wikimedia Commons
History of Jet, Geology: The Whitby Jet Heritage Centre, and british-history.ac.uk
Taxonomy/Distribution of Araucaria: The Gymnosperm Database
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons and my own
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