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Creative Pilgrimage: Visiting Whitby
Following in the footsteps of Bram Stoker to visit the birthplace of a dark legend!
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to visit Whitby but I’ve never made it… until recently.
The last weekend of September saw me steaming up to Yorkshire on a train to meet with my old friend— and former writing partner — Mark Wright. We started our careers by co-writing a host of audio dramas, books and short stories and, while we haven’t worked together for many years now, we’re in touch pretty much every day. Earlier this year, Mark suggested a visit to Whitby to celebrate our fiftieth birthdays and I jumped at the chance.
But why Whitby? That’s simple - Bram Stoker.
In late July 1890, after a successful but gruelling tour of Scotland, Stoker was encouraged to holiday in the North Yorkshire seaside town of Whitby, by his friend and client, Henry Irving. Stoker arrived a week before his family, booked a room at Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse, 6 Royal Crescent, and found himself inspired.
It was here, on 8th August, that he took a stroll to the local library, now the Quayside fish restaurant on the harbour. Here he read of a fifteenth-century prince named Vlad Tepes who had the unfavourable habit of impaling his enemies on stakes! Ouch! Vlad was also known by another name — Dracula, the ‘son of the dragon’.
As you’d know if you read my recent Top 10 Villains post, I’ve loved Dracula ever since I was knee-high to a bloodsucker, long before I actually read Stoker’s classic novel. I think I first experience the Dark Lord while watching Scooby Doo, followed closely by a heady mix of the Munsters, the 1980 Drak Pack series from Hanna-Barbera, various appearances in the Beano and - best of all - Wall’s sugar filled Dracula lolly which turned your mouth red.!
By the time I finally read the novel, I’d been introduced to both Lee and Lugosi and was already hooked, an obsession that has endured ever since. I’ve only written the Count once — a coda to the classic Dracula Files strip for Scream, but that’s a story, and a post, for another day so make sure you’re subscribed!
Surprisingly, a visit to Whitby had always alluded me until now, and readers, it’s safe to say I loved every minute of our trip, even going so far as to stay in a cottage with an appropriate name…
Here I thought I’d share some of the highlights of our pilgrimage, both Drac-related and otherwise. One of my wife’s fears was that I’d return ladened with Vampire tat… sorry, quality Dracula merchandise. Was she right to worry? Hmm. I’ll keep a tally as we run through our itinerary…
The Dracula Experience
Okay, let’s get this out of the way first. The Dracula Experience is indeed that… an experience never to be forgotten! Did we enjoy it? Yes, but not always for the right reasons. The harbourside attraction is a ghost house walkthrough and, yes, we were there at the front of the queue, waiting for it to open at 11 o’clock on Saturday morning like a pair of giggling schoolboys.
Having both experienced our fair share of dodgy seaside attractions over the years, we went in with open eyes, which was lucky as it was pretty damned gloomy inside.
The Experience takes you through the story of Dracula, chronicling the Prince of Darkness’s arrival in Whitby to his ultimate destruction, bringing Stoker’s tale to ‘blood-curdling’ life via models and — ahem — ‘realistic’ waxworks. A couple even jerk around on rails including this fellow. Remind you of anyone?
It’s almost Gary Oldman’s classic turn as Drac. Almost. In fact, it’s fair to say that much of the Experience is modelled on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation, to the extent that you wonder if a licence fee has ever been demanded! But I don’t want to be uncharitable. If you enter freely and of your own free will, keeping expectations to a minimum, you’ll have as much fun as we did, ‘piloting’ the Demeter and taking selfies with a cape worn by Christopher Lee at an undisclosed point in his career at Hammer. Apparently, the cape weighs 112 lbs thanks to the lead weights sewn into its hem to help it flare out while stalking victims and can only be worn by a man at least six-foot-four.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to put that to the test.
However, I did nearly jump out of my socks as a Dracula mask leapt out at me, mounted on a telescopic arm. Needless to say, Mark found this hilarious.
But The Haunted Mansion this is not (although a very familiar voice encourages you to ‘hurry ba-ack’ as you exit, but only after you’ve watched a ten-minute film including footage from, you’ve guessed it, Bram Stoker’s Dracula!)
However, there is a link between the attraction and Stoker himself. The building that now houses the Dracula Experience was once the Captain’s Reading Room where Stoker met with sea-farers and researched local legends. It was probably here that he interviewed several members of the Royal Coast Guard who recalled a schooner that had run aground on Whitby’s Tate Hill Sands a few years earlier.
The Dmitri had originally set sail from Varna in Eastern Europe, although few of its crew survived the shipwreck. The cargo was a mystery, the ship’s hull containing crates packed only with fine sand, but that was nothing compared to the giant black hound that was said to spring from the ship to charge up the 199 steps from the beach to St. Mary’s Church high on the cliff above. The sailors Stoker interviewed compared the beast to the barghest, a monstrous hellhound that, according to legend, stalks the moors, able to shapeshift into a headless man or woman. According to the legend, even hearing the barghest’s baleful howl is enough to send you to an early grave.
🧛♂️ DRAC MERCH TALLY 🧛♂️
None in the Experience itself (incredibly there isn’t a giftshop) although fridge magnets and a coaster were purchased in the Whitby giftstore at the end of the harbour.
Commemorative plaque and bench
We were spared spectral hounds as we climbed the steps to the West Cliff to find the site of Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse, now marked by a blue plaque mounted by Whitby Civil Council.
It’s not the only commemorative feature as, a short walk will lead you to Stoker’s Memorial Seat, a bench erected to mark the view that inspired so much of the novel.
Sitting here, you look over Tate Hill Sands (thankfully free of shipwrecks) to see the majestic Whitby Abbey exposed to the elements on the opposite side of the harbour, the ruin nestled behind St. Mary’s.
As Mina Murray writes in Dracula, Whitby Abbey is “a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.”
What Stoker didn’t probably see was graffiti instructing you to ‘KEEP MUNCHING CHIPS!’
I mean, it’s not bad advice as it happens, especially in Whitby! (Keep reading for more on that!)
All three locations play a major part in the novel: The Abbey with its one-hundred and ninety-nine steps, St. Mary’s church where Dracula had his wicked way with Lucy Westenra, and Tate Hill Sands, where in to the novel on the 8th August — the date Stoker first read about Vlad Tepes — a schooner called the Demeter runs aground carrying only silver sand and boxes of ‘mould’. No sooner has the ship crashed to a halt, its crew all dead, a ‘fierce brute’ of a hound bounds from the Demeter and runs up the Abbey steps to the moors, never to be seen again…
Or is it?
St. Mary’s Church
We didn’t run up the steps ourselves. Nor did we count them to find out if there were truly one-hundred and ninety-nine. I was too busy trying not to land flat on my face as we made the climb.
The graveyard itself is suitably windswept offering stunning views of the harbour surrounded by crooked gravestones. It is here that Mina and Lucy sit enjoying the view, and where Mina later finds her friend in her nightgown two days after the shipwreck, having apparently sleepwalked through town from the Royal Crescent to the graveyard.
Following her noctambulating friend, Mina finds Lucy swooned on a seat, a dark figure with pale skin and red eyes hunched over her. From that point in the novel, Lucy’s fate is sealed and Dracula’s reign of terror begins.
Luckily no vampire suitors were ready to corrupt us as Drac did poor Lucy although our time among the graves — one of which gave Stoker the name of Dracula’s first victim on the Dark Lord’s arrival — did inspire us to rewatch the Doctor Who vampire classic The Curse of Fenric back at Demeter Cottage later that evening over a Saturday night curry!
It’s clear to see why Stoker was so inspired by Whitby Abbey, which has been a ruin since its dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539.
Now maintained by English Heritage, it’s a haunting place, stark against the sky and steeped in history and myth, most notably the legend of the snakestones which dates back to the Middle Ages. The Whitby of the time was apparently plagued by snakes of all shapes and sizes. Fearing for their lives, the locals turned to the Abbess of Whitby, who would later be canonised as St. Hild. The seventh-century holy woman — whose ghost is mentioned in Mina’s journal — prayed to God that the snakes’ heads be removed and their bodies cast into the sea. The saint’s prayers were answered and to this day you can still find the calcified remains of the headless serpents dotted along the Whitby shoreline. Of course, we now know that these are in fact ammonites, but that didn’t stop Victorian entrepreneurs from carving snakes’ heads into the fossils to sell them to gullible tourists.
🧛♂️ DRAC MERCH TALLY 🧛♂️
What? We did things that weren’t related to vampires? Well, admittedly Drac still played a role from time to time, but here are the rest of our recommendations if you make a Whitby pilgrimage of your own.
Eating and drinking
Mark headed off first thing Saturday morning to pick up a pair of kippers from Fortune’s, Whitby’s only traditional smokehouse. and they were delicious accompanied by poached eggs.
Our first destination on Friday evening was Whitby’s Magpie Cafe, home of world-class fish and chips. I’m afraid I didn’t take any pictures as I was too hungry by the time we got inside. The queue was already winding up the street by the time we arrived, but the wait was worth it!
As far as I’m aware, Sherlock Holmes has nothing whatsoever to do with Whitby, but that doesn’t stop this charming tea room from claiming the Great Detective as its own. Sherlock’s even goes so far as to make up a fictional history for the building on Flowergate, declaring that this 17th-century lodging house was eventually purchased by the Holmes family in the late 1800s.
“It was at this point allegedly,” the menu states, “that a young Master Holmes would enjoy his time by the sea in Whitby, before taking in the purifying waters of the Victorian Spa on Bagdale and Pannett Park.” They even claim that it was during this time that Holmes “honed his perspicacious and astute logic over a cup of this house's finest imported tea and a slice of home baking!”
All nonsense as far as it comes to canon, but who needs canon anyway… especially when the coffee is so good we were back the next day for more!
🔎 SHERLOCK MERCH TALLY 🔎
I tried to escape without buying a tin mug. Really I did.
The White Horse and Griffin
It was impossible to pass this little boozer on the way to our cottage.
I mean, just look at it!
Built in 1681, the White Horse & Griffin was the first Coaching Inn from Whitby to London and was the base for Captain James Cook and William Scoresby when hiring the crews for their expeditions.
And when I call it small I’m not kidding! The bar is super-narrow, meaning you can only fit a few people in it (although the restaurant did look bigger!)
The beer, however, was worth the squeeze!
Furbellow & Co
Hidden away on Sandgate, Furbellow & Co describes itself as the ‘purveyor of fine things’ and both Mark and I could have sunk a lot into an entirely new wardrobe.
🧛♂️ DRAC MERCH TALLY 🧛♂️
Nothing - although I did pick up a rather natty red herringbone scarf. Dark red. Almost wine. Which, of course, Dracula never drinks.
The Little Bottle Shop
The last thing I need is another bottle of flavoured gin for the collection. That’s what I said when I stepped through the doors of the Little Bottle Shop.
Also, worth a taste - Yorkshire Pudding Beer!
🧛♂️ DRAC MERCH TALLY 🧛♂️
Whitby Gin: The Prince of Darkness edition. An imposing black bottle? Crimson spirit? Aged in a transylvanian cask (apparently) with cherry and citrus notes? Instant purchase!
The Whitby Bookshop
As if either of us could pass an independent bookshop, especially one at the bottom of our lane!
The Whitby Bookshop is practically perfect in every way. Friendly and with a great selection. Well worth a visit.
🧛♂️ DRAC MERCH TALLY 🧛♂️
“For the dead travel fast”
And almost as soon as it had begun, our trip to Whitby was over and I was racing home. I’ve titled this post a ‘creative pilgrimage’ as that’s exactly what it was, tracing Stoker’s footsteps and imagining the great man gazing out at the views that inspired his writing.
Plus, while walking the cobbled streets, Mark and I came up with a short story featuring new characters we created long ago for Project: Twilight but were cut from the early drafts. The outline — currently entitled The Lock In — is the first story we’ve plotted together in a decade.
Now, we just need to write it…
Have you made any creative pilgrimages over the years? Let us know in the comments!