It has everything you could ever wish for: a half ruined abbey, a working harbor, narrow cobbled streets, red-roofed pantile cottages, perfect fish and chip shops (including Quayside, voted the best in the land), historical pubs serving real ale dozens of ghost legends and a close connection to Bram Stoker and Dracula as well as Lewis Carroll and Captain James Cook.
I had the pleasure of exploring this charming town in February 2012, and despite the icy cold and bleak weather, had one of the most memorable trips I have ever had.
On the crest of the East Cliff stands the spectacular ruins of Whitby Abbey, a sturdy reminder of the power once wielded by the Church during medieval times. It takes 199 steps to reach it, and I can attest that with each step taken you feel as if you are being transported back in time. Trust me; it is well worth the effort.
The Abbey was originally founded in 657AD by Oswy, who was the Saxon King of Northumbria. In 664, the Abbey, built on the east cliff overlooking the Esk and town of Whitby, was the site of the Synod of Whitby at which the Northumbrian Celtic church was reconciled to Rome.
In 867, Whitby Abbey fell to Viking attack, and remained empty until 1078, when Regenfrith a soldier monk, under the orders of his protector, the Norman, William de Percy, occupied it once more. It was rebuilt in spectacular fashion.
The second monastery lasted until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1540.
The abbey has been in ruins ever since, but you can imagine how magnificent it was in its heyday. The sense of history is profound, and if you’re fortunate to visit it (and I urge you to do so) you can touch the walls, close your eyes and imagine all that happened on the very spot you are standing centuries before.
Whitby is also home to two lighthouses that were built in the early to mid 19th century. The tallest of the lighthouses stands on the West Pier and is now open for tourists to climb the steep, winding stairs, but only if they dare. For you see, it is claimed to be haunted by a one-armed ghost, who, as locals cheerfully may tell you, fell from the nearby cliffs to his death. They will also warn you that he may smile at you and attempt to trip you up as you make your way along the stairs.
Bagdale Hall takes the credit for the oldest building in Whitby, as it was built in 1516. These days it is a hotel, and a rather magnificent one at that, but it was originally a Tudor mansion.
Browne Bushell, a former owner of the hotel, was an English Civil war era naval officer who sided with Cromwell. In 1643, he publicly switched his allegiance to the Royalists, but was ultimately executed for piracy in March 1651. Many claim that he still walks the halls of the hotel to this very day.
There is also a private museum in Whitby that is run by the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society. The museum contains a wide range of materials concerning Whitby, including many items related to Captain James Hook. Cook was an explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy.
It was in Whitby where he first became an apprentice seaman, and cultivated dreams of being an explorer. A statue of him stands in front of the Royal Hotel as a tribute to his historical significance.
The museum also shows the significance of Whitby Jet in the town’s history. The black mineraloid jet has been mined since the Roman times. Whitby is famous for gorgeous pieces of jewelry made from it, which became hugely fashionable after Queen Victoria used it for mourning jewelry after the death of Prince Albert.
Of course, as a writer of dark fiction, one of the reasons I love Whitby so much is its association with Bram Stoker and Dracula. Abraham Stoker- or Bram- was an Irish born author who had a strong appreciation for Whitby.
He travelled there in 1890 and the many charms of it, which I have previously described, left him smitten. He adored the atmosphere of the town and returned frequently.
During his visits, Stoker was influenced by the local people and surroundings, and the town served as a backdrop for some of the best-known scenes in his book.
The neighbouring address to ‘Bram’s View’, 7 Royal Crescent, appears in the novel as the address for Count Dracula’s solicitor, “Samuel F Billington”, who arranges for fifty crates of earth from the ship to be transported by the Great Northern Railway from Whitby to “Carfax, near Purfleet.”
The Whitby Gazette reported in 1885 that “the Russian schooner Dmitri of Navra, with silver sand, came in suddenly, in heavy weather, but going ashore in “Collier’s Hope” became a total wreck.” Dracula, in the novel, arrived in Whitby aboard the Russian schooner, the Demeter, whose cargo consisted of crates of earth which Dracula needed for his rest.
Stoker carried out some of his research into East European folklore at Whitby library where he first came across the name “Dracula”. It was in Whitby when he read ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’, written in 1820 by William Wilkinson.
This book includes the passage ‘‘Voivode Dracula’ whose history is explained by Prof. Van Helsing and based on the historical truth that Dracula won in battle against the Turks and ‘Dracula in the Wallachian dialect means ‘Devil’!’
The aforementioned Whitby Abbey, and all of its delightful gothic charm, was the inspiration for Dracula’s castle in the novel.
Today, to recognize the influential part Bram Stoker and Dracula play in the history of Whitby, a plaque on a bench that overlooks Whitby harbour marks the area where he sat to write the notes for his “world-famous novel”.
I had the privilege of sitting on that very bench on my recent trip to Whitby, and my own imagination was running overtime by the eerie and beautiful views – views that are essentially very similar to ones that Bram would have seen.
The tombstones in the graveyard of Whitby’s St. Mary’s church provided an eerie and creative source of names for Stoker’s characters and as a result, Whitby residents Braithwaite Lowery, Andrew Woodhouse, John Paxton, and seaman Swale shall live on forever within the pages of Dracula.
Another great literary legend was also inspired by Whitby: Lewis Carroll. His poems “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and “The Lady of the Ladle,” were inspired by his many walks along Whitby Beach. He regularly stayed at Barnard’s Hotel frequently between 1854 and 1871, and a plague was unveiled in 1998 commemorating this connection.
As a result of Whitby’s eerie charm and history, it has become a magnet for Goths worldwide. A musical event, known as the Goth Weekend, began in 1997 and has morphed into one of the biggest Goth festivals in the world. It’s held in April and again in October, although these days it is not just for Goths! Steampunk is the latest fashion craze, but all sorts of creative individuals, and those fascinated by the macabre descend on this usually quiet town.
I reached my destination – a pub known as The Black Horse. It has been a pub since the 16th century but has also been used as a spirit warehouse, funeral directors, and even a brothel. I sat on the bar, and ordered a pint of best bitter on cask. I was on my second pint when it happened – the lights went out!
Whitby is prone to black outs, and the entire town went dark. Despite it being just a little after 7:00 p.m., a deep darkness fell over the town. Cell phones and lighters illuminated the pub until candles and gas lamps were lit (they had obviously had practice!) Then the night carried on.
The thirty or so people all began chatting to each other, as the music that had been playing became silent. The beer continued to flow (perhaps even more liberally), as the pumps run on gas and not electric. Laughter erupted as anecdotes were exchanged and new friends were made. As I took a taxi back to my room at nearly midnight (admittedly feeling slightly intoxicated), I appreciated how fortunate I was to end my stay in such a fitting fashion.
Paul Gifford is an English born full time writer who has called California home for many years. He writes under the name P.S. Gifford. He has had several dozen stories published in print and on-line magazine, been included in anthologies and has several collections of his works available at all good on-line book sellers. You can find his website here.