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Whitby: Town of Voyagers and Vampires

by Jane Gilbert

Whitby and Whitby AbbeyVisitors to Whitby can't escape its quintessential Britishness. From fish and chips to rainy picnics, this small fishing town on the north east coast embodies England's fast disappearing seaside tradition. While the Victorian grandeur of Plymouth and Torquay decays along rusting piers and dreary promenades, Whitby's vitality and freshness can be sensed throughout its cobblestone streets.

First colonised in the fifth century A.D, Whitby witnessed a vital turning point in the history of the English church. The cliff top Abbey, founded in 657 A.D., was the site of an early Synod Council in 664, where the Celtic and Roman churches tussled over the date of Easter. King Oswiu decided in favour of Rome. After all, it is St Peter who holds the keys of heaven. His decision brought the English church into close contact with the rest of Europe.

English poetry also sprung from Whitby. The ploughboy Caedmon, acclaimed as the first poet in the English language, died there in 680 A.D.

The abbey was destroyed by Vikings, but rebuilt in 1077. You can see echoes of the medieval gothic style in today's ruins.

In the 1700s the town became an important whaling port. The two jaw bones of the West Cliff Arch, a reminder of Whitby's whalers, tower above you. But the sixteen foot, three hundred and fifty pound bones you see today are not as old as you might think. In 2002, it was noticed that the whalebone arch was decaying. Help came from Whitby's sister city of Anchorage, Alaska, who presented the town with a new set of blue whale bones to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their relationship.

One of Whitby's most famous sons is Captain James Cook, the 18th-century explorer who discovered Australia. He was apprenticed to a Whitby ship-owner at the age of eighteen. His first voyage was on the cargo ship The Freelove, carrying coal from the north down to London. The dangerous, ill-marked North Sea waters offered the splendid practical training that allowed Cook to confront dangers from the Antarctic to the Great Barrier Reef. He rose through the merchant ranks, taking advantage of the winter months of refitting to study mathematics by night.

Whitby Whalebone Arch

Seeking wider prospects in the Royal Navy, Cook's valuable seafaring experience and leadership qualities saw him posted to America, where he protected British colonial interests against the French during the Seven Years War. He proceeded to make his name as a cartographer, mathematician and astronomer.

Nonetheless, when the Admiralty organised the first scientific expedition to the Pacific in 1768, Cook, now forty, was a surprise choice as commander. In a plain but dependable coal-bark from Whitby, renamed HMS Endeavour, Cook successfully dropped off Royal Society botanists, astronomers and artists in Tahiti, thus establishing the tradition of ship-board scientists that saw Charles Darwin sail on his landmark expedition on The Beagle.

Next, Cook headed south-southwest in search of Terra Australis, at that time a mere cartographic conjecture. Not only did he find and chart New Zealand, he successfully navigated and surveyed the world's toughest navigational hazard -- the Great Barrier Reef -- and returned to England with remarkably few losses, notably none to scurvy. Cook demanded cleanliness and ventilation in the crew's quarters and a diet including greenstuffs and citrus. His sailors' health made him a naval hero.

Captain James Cook

Cook went on to explore the South Seas in another Whitby ship, The Resolution, discovering many islands that remain British possessions to this day. After an unsuccessful search for the Northwest Passage, he was killed in Polynesia, but not before he met the king, was made a captain, and was elected with highest honours to the erudite Royal Society for defeating scurvy.

Visitors can relive the past on a replica of the Endeavour which carries tourists on excursions into the bay, while the Grape Lane house where he lived houses the popular Captain Cook Museum.

One of the most popular souvenirs to take home is a trinket made from the unique Whitby black jet stone. Formed from the remains of a tree from the Jurassic Period, the stone is only found along one stretch of Whitby coastline. Another essential memento is a print from Victorian photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. From fisherman hauling in the day's catch to moony-eyed children playing on the beach, the images from Whitby's heyday offer a remnant of a town with history dripping from every building.


You can't walk far along the winding streets, however, before you notice what Whitby is most famous for. Vampire myths are found in cultures all over the world and have been the inspiration for spine-chilling legends and innumerable films. But the most famous vampire of all, without a shadow of a doubt, was created by Victorian writer Bram Stoker. Count Dracula may have his roots firmly in Eastern Europe, but in Stoker's story he visits a small seaside resort on England's north-east coast in search of British blood. After all, even vampires need a holiday.

The infamous Count is around every corner and in every shop window. And, despite his gruesome taste for blood, Dracula has brought fresh life to this windswept part of Britain -- in the shape of tourism.

Whitby Abbey TombsIn the early 1890s, when Bram Stoker was writing his famous novel, Whitby was a thriving port and fishing town. It was also an increasingly popular seaside resort for wealthy and fashionable Victorians. When the fishing industry began to decline in the later part of the twentieth century, Whitby survived because of its popularity with tourists. Bram Stoker often took his holidays here. He stayed in The Duke of York, a riverside inn, whilst working on the novel.

Locals tell the tale that pigeons perched on the window ledge of Stoker's room, pecking away with their beaks at their own reflections in the glass. They say this found its way into the novel when the Count's nails scrape against Lucy's window as he tries to get in, hellbent upon making her one of the undead.

In Stoker's novel, after the shipwreck of The Demeter, Dracula runs up the famous 199 steps to the graveyard in St Mary's church in the shape of a black dog. An examination of the ship's log shows that the crew members had been gradually disappearing since she left Varna in Russia. But it is the ship's cargo which gives readers a clue about how Dracula managed to travel so far without being noticed -- it is full of coffins.

This passage of the novel is based on historical fact. A few years before Stoker came to Whitby, a ship called The Demetrius was damaged on the rocks near the harbour. Its cargo of coffins tumbled into the sea. The locals revelled in telling yarns about the dead bodies that appeared on the town's beaches in various stages of decay for weeks after. A bench on the cliff top path is inscribed with the words 'The view from this spot inspired Bram Stoker (1847-1912)'.

The Dracula Experience WhitbyAlthough if all the hotels, cafes and street corners laying claim to a Stoker connection are telling the truth, it's a wonder his book wasn't a thousand pages long.

One tourist attraction less concerned with facts than fun is the Dracula Experience on the West Cliff. Sinister music attracts the attention of passers-by. Visitors wander through the darkness while animated characters re-enact the story, including a Dracula figure that rises again and again from his coffin. A mix of live actors and edifying displays create a semi-serious atmosphere of horror. Whilst you might not emerge shaking with fear, the Experience certainly offers a lively introduction to Whitby's Dracula heritage.

Those seeking a more authentic experience, while taking in some of the town's historical sites, should opt for one of the themed walks offered by expert local guide, Harry Collett. You can choose between general ghost tours and dedicated Dracula walks, as well as more educational options, exploring the town's maritime history and that of the surrounding countryside. Of course, it's the Dracula walks which are always the most popular.

'Our fear of vampires,' suggests Harry, 'is as ancient as our fear of darkness.' Not frightening enough to keep away the two thousand goths who flock to Whitby each May and November for a Dracula festival. And tourists are always fascinated by the depth of Harry's knowledge. The questions he is most often asked are 'Is Dracula still alive?' 'Where is he buried?' and 'Are you Dracula?

Don't forget to visit the ancient Abbey, even though it will mean climbing the famous 199 winding steps. I clambered up towards midnight under a full moon. With the Abbey floodlit orange against the night sky and the broken tombs and faded inscriptions of nearby St Mary's church graveyard, the view when you get to the top is well worth it. Perhaps it was the sound of the sea crashing into the base of the cliffs, or the shakiness of my legs after the long climb, but it was easy to imagine Dracula lurking in every shadow. I certainly felt relieved to get back to the relative normality of the town.

Whitby Abbey

Whitby will continue to cash in on the Dracula connection as long as the world's most enduring horror novel remains popular. But, whether you tremble at the top of the 199 steps or laugh at the models in the Dracula Experience, it really doesn't matter. Vampires may seem a million miles away when you are chomping away on traditional British fish and chips by the shore, but there are enough plastic Dracula souvenirs around to scare anyone.

Related Articles:

Discovering Whitby Abbey, by John Ravenscroft

Cook's Tour: Exploring "Captain Cook" Country, by Keith Kellett

More Information:


Whitby Abbey Virtual Tour

Whitby Abbey Home

Whitby Abbey

The Whitby Graveyard

Whitby Abbey (Mysterious Britain)

Whitby Jet

Harry Collett's Dracula Walks

Dracula (Wikipedia)

Bram Stoker (Wikipedia)

The Whitby Guide

Writer, teacher and psychologist Jane Gilbert comes from Devon, England, and lives by the sea in Italy. After studying English Literature, she ran away to Brazil where she travelled extensively and cuddled sloths. She likes giraffes and curl reviver.

Article © 2006 Jane Gilbert
Dracula Experience photo © Jane Gilbert. Cook painting and graveyard photos courtesy of Wikipedia.org. Whale tusks photo by Ian Britton, courtesy of FreeFoto.com. Additional photos courtesy of Britainonview.com.


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