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Whitby’s Gothic Heritage

25 October 2017

Picture the scene: a typical, seaside town. Perhaps in the witching hour of 3am. It is a damp, cold night, the mists of the coast are swirling up around you, chilling you to the bone. There is not a soul to be seen in the streets, and only the rustlings of nocturnal creatures and the gentle crashing of waves upon the shores disturb the silence that has otherwise pervaded the town. You look up, past the street lights that glow ominously, the only sources of light on an otherwise moonless night, and there, eerily illuminated, is the ruins of a large, stone building, looming out of the mists and standing, imposingly, on top of a substantial and seemingly unclimbable hill. Another sound breaks the silence, the shrill shrieking of a bat, as it dives in and out of the ruined windows.

Alright, that may be a tad over-dramatic. After all, the illuminations are probably floodlights, and there is a very slim chance that Whitby would ever really be completely empty at 3am. However, even looking up at the ruins of the famous Abbey, and considering the scene in the bright lights of day, it is easy to see where Bram Stoker got his inspiration for the famed gothic novel 'Dracula'.

Stoker, like plethoras of others at the time, visited the twisting streets of the seaside town in the late 19th century. Already a successful owner of a playhouse in London, Stoker was already dabbling in writing (also successfully) until a chance meeting with Ármin Vámbéry, a Hungarian writer and traveller, revealed to him the tales of the atmospheric Carpathian Mountains, and the dark creatures that were said to lurk there. Upon arriving at Whitby, and viewing the ghostly Abbey, the scene was set.

Built 1,360 years ago by Benedictine monks, the now eerie Whitby Abbey was demolished in the Dissolution of the Monasteries just under 900 years later. Although the destruction of historic buildings is never really a good thing, that the atmospheric ruins (and the 199 steps leading up to them) inspired one of the most iconic books of the Gothic genre is certainly a silver lining to this cloud.

Instead of shying away from its connection to the dark world of Gothic horror, Whitby itself seems to have embraced it wholeheartedly. It is now a hub of activities for those who follow 'goth' culture, and twice a year since 1994, the street become filled with black clad goths, come to listen to the heavy metal bands that play at the 'Whitby Goth Weekend'.

Of course, there are many other reasons to visit Whitby. For one, you may get there on the original Whitby and Pickering Railway, now known as the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which takes you over the spectacular wild moors in charming heritage carriages. Travelling this way can almost feel like taking a step back in time to the hey-day of Whitby as a spa town. On arrival, perhaps take the breathtaking walk up to the Abbey. Tread in the footsteps of as you walk the 199 steps to the Abbey, providing you with an unparalleled panoramic view of the town. Of course, after this, lunch must be considered, and there are a multitude of delicious fish and chip shops in the streets below, perfect for that typical seaside feast.

For an alternate photo opportunity, head over to the mighty whalebone arch - a throwback to Whitby's proud past as a shipbuilder and a port for whalers. The arch was originally erected in 1853, however time and the ever-changeable coastal weather have worn at past whale jawbones, causing them to crumble. The current jawbone standing today is from a Bowhead whale from Alaska, and placed there in 2003.

Aside from various necessary modernisations, large swathes of Whitby remain relatively unchanged from Stoker's first fateful visit. As for the book itself, it remains one of the world's favourite novels - not only in the realm of Gothic stories, but in the wider scope of fiction. Studied by students of literature, made and remade in Hollywood and on television, this book is responsible for the introduction of vampire lore on to the world stage, and that is something people of all generations may be thankful for.