At the beginning of December (seems such a long time ago now) Gary and I went up to York for the weekend. We couldn’t miss the opportunity to go to Whitby – both of us being fans of Bram Stoker’s brilliant ‘Dracula’. I has visions of a dark and windswept, eerie ruin, perched on a cliff, and I wasn’t disappointed. And I wasn’t disappointed by the lovely seaside town of Whitby either.
Whitby Abbey has a long and fascinating history, but I’ll stick to the bits that concern Dracula for the purposes of this post.
Bram Stoker was staying in Whitby in July 1890. At the time he was the business manager of the actor Henry Irving, and they’d just finished a tour of Scotland. Stoker was planning a new novel and he had a week to relax before his family joined him.
One day he discovered a book in the public library about a 15th Century prince who supposedly impaled his victims on wooden stakes – Vlad the Impaler, or‘Dracula’ which means ‘son of the dragon’ (Vlad was the son of Vlad Dracul).
While in the town, Stoker would no doubt have heard about the shipwreck five years earlier of a Russian ship, the Dmitry, that ran aground below East Cliff. This became the ‘Demeter’ in Stoker’s novel – the ship that carries Dracula from Transylvania. Walking around these beautiful ruins, it’s easy to see how they inspired such a gothic classic. The wind really does whip past you, and it’s very, very quiet. The sky was overcast – and it wasn’t hard to imagine the scene with a full moon above, a bat flitting past…
Through the churchyard (where naughty locals will direct you to Dracula’s grave!) you find the top of the famous 199 steps down into the town. In the novel, the Demeter runs aground on Tate Hill Sands. All the crew are dead, including the captain who is lashed to the helm. A black dog leaps from the ship and runs up the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey.
We walked rather more slowly down them (and a lot more slowly back up later after a fish and chip lunch!). At the bottom of the steps you arrive in the beautiful town with its winding streets; independent shops abound here – selling books, antiques, clothes, and jewellery made from jet, the fossilised remains of trees from the Jurassic period only found along a seven and a half mile stretch of the North Yorkshire coastline centred around Whitby.
Cross over the bridge and you can walk along the harbour side. It was mild for December but even so, we weren’t tempted by the whale watching trips (although plenty of people were). Instead we took a gentle stroll down the West Pier. From here you can glimpse the Whalebone Arch – a monument to the dangers faced by the local whalers.
Back by the harbour we ate the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, in a lovely little café/bar – ‘The Moon and Sixpence’. If you’re ever in Whitby, do go there.
Having eaten too much, we climbed the 199 steps back up to the abbey. Wherever you are in Whitby, it seems to brood over you and it’s easy to see how it inspired Stoker’s classic tale.
But Whitby itself certainly isn’t scary. And its unusual mix of literary history, culture and a traditional seaside vibe makes it a lovely place to visit.