I stole the title from the Whatsapp message Sheldon sent me when he found out where I’d been.
‘I hope you kept your wits about you in Whitby.’
QuickDraw Shelly they call him – always ready with a pun.
In fact, you do need to keep your wits about you when you visit this coastal town in Yorkshire – or at least a sharp eye on the weather and a strong hold on your footing – otherwise you may just get blown off the cliff top…or pushed off by a naughty ghost.
I have been staying in Teeside this past week for work – and I had always wanted to go to Whitby, ever since I read the children’s classic Room 13 by Robert Swindells as a pre-teen. It tells the story of a young girl on a class trip, who becomes possessed by Dracula. Pretty creepy. I was confused. I thought Dracula lived in Transylvania? Maybe you did too.
Those of you up on your literature will know that part of Bram Stoker’s famous novel was set in Whitby – Dracula came ashore there when the London-bound ship he was on – The Dementer – ran aground off the North Yorkshire coast. He set about terrorising the locals. Bram Stoker himself came to Whitby in 1890, looking for a holiday home. He was inspired by the atmosphere of the cliff side town – the spooky Abbey ruins steeped in religious history, bats flapping round church belfries and the red roofs of the little houses that looked out on an angry North Sea. He created Dracula, and many tourists today forget he isn’t real. They are sometimes even heard to ask the locals where Dracula is buried…
There was a certain amount of Messing About.
In practice, it’s pretty difficult to find anything in said churchyard because of the interesting effects coastal weathering has had on the centuries old residents of this cliff top resting place.
The ones that are readable demonstrate that these graves are EXTREMELY old. I’d seen old graves before, but only usually ever one or two in isolation. And given that the first of the Magnificent 7 (Kensal Green) didn’t open until 1832, and that we’ve been focusing mainly on those cemeteries and their peers, I was fascinated to see gravestones that were THIS old. And so many together! Some of the dates on the stones were in the 1700s. And the fashion for headstones during this time period seemed to include a penchant for disembodied cherub heads looking grief-stricken. The passing of time and the effects of being exposed to angry northern winds has resulted in many of the cherubs sporting something of a menacing death-metal style glow (of darkness). If it hadn’t been such a sunny day and if I wasn’t being kept company by approximately two dozen Japanese tourists and their selfie sticks, I would have been rather freaked out.
In fact, this particular churchyard (St Mary’s) was closed for burials in 1858. Amazing when you consider the last of the Magnificent 7 (Tower Hamlets) was opened only 17 years previously. These old graves have been sitting up here, gaining no new friends, for a LONG old time.
Whitby is an old whaling town, and a lot of graves here remember sailors. I was struck by the amount of headstones that read ‘in memory of’ rather than ‘here lies…’ The list of people remembered here who were lost at sea must be sizeable.
The legend goes that Count Dracula fled Whitby by ascending the 199 stairs to the churchyard and the Abbey on the East cliff and hid in a suicide victim’s grave after drinking the blood of a young girl. The story then goes on to say that you can find the graves of both the girl and the suicide victim in the churchyard to this day – they are very simply marked with a skull & crossbones.
We found this gravestone after a lot of searching. Is it related to Dracula?! More likely it’s the tomb of a pirate. In any case, we only found one. It was getting too windy to carry on looking and we wanted to climb back down to Earth & eat lunch with the holidaying mortals.
So we did. We made sure to take some myths and legends away with us too. Stay tuned for more ghostly cliff top tales another time…
All photos by Christina Owen Copyright June 2015