I’ve always fancied going to Whitby, in North Yorkshire, to explore the Gothic setting for Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula. Last weekend, my sister and I set off on our own Dracula-inspired adventure to this infamous seaside town in pursuit of mysterious death, bloody horror and of course, scampi and chips.
Our accommodation of choice was The Black Horse Inn, right in the heart of the town. One of the oldest public houses in Whitby, it has a fascinating past, including as a funeral parlour and a brothel, making it entirely appropriate for our stay! The tiny serving bar, believed to be one of the oldest in Europe, had an astonishing range of alcoholic beverages, including several types of gin, which suited me perfectly. Fortunately, after our five-hour road trip we were sufficiently tired to sleep deeply enough to be unaware of any bats buffeting their wings against the window in the dead of night. The next day, we were ready to explore….
Our first stop was the world-famous Whitby Abbey. We climbed the 199 steps up to this magnificent ruin, which looks out over the harbour and the North Sea. In Dracula, on the night of the storm, when the Demeter made its way into the harbour through the sea-fog (we saw some sea-fog too), the searchlight of one of the lighthouses revealed a corpse lashed to its helm with a string of rosary beads and a crucifix. As soon as the ship arrived, a huge black hound jumped ashore and fled up the steps to the abbey. I have to admit that it was quite hard to imagine this tempestuous and terrifying scene, as the weather was glorious, with blue skies and sunshine, but the abbey is breathtaking and we were just as mesmerised by its majestic beauty as Bram Stoker had been over a century ago.
Built on the site of a former monastery, the present ruins date from the 11th century. Five centuries later, the abbey was closed down after the Suppression of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII, and left to decay. In 1830, the central tower fell, and the building suffered bomb damage in WW2. However, much of the shell remains and it is an awe-inspiring place to visit.
Just below the abbey is St Mary’s church, which is very unusual in that it has boxed pews. In her diary, Mina Murray described her visit to the graveyard: ‘the red eyes that I had seemed to see in the sunset on the windows’ of the church. Mina’s friend, Lucy Westenra, was attacked by Count Dracula there, which Mina discovered to her horror when she followed her one night. The graveyard doesn’t seem to have changed since Stoker scribbled his notes on a bench there in 1890.
Bram Stoker was a regular visitor to Whitby, even though he lived in London, where he worked as the manager of the Lyceum Theatre. When he came to the town in August 1890 with his wife and son, he stayed at 6 Royal Crescent, which now bears a blue plaque. It was during this stay that he began writing the opening scenes of Dracula. A bench marks his favourite place to sit, on the West Cliff, overlooking the town and the abbey.
In addition to following the Dracula trail, the most macabre discovery we made in Whitby was the Hand of Glory, at Whitby Museum. A fascinating and gruesome artefact, it is worth further investigation and I will be back soon with the full history behind this rather sinister object.