by Bruce Holmes
But, strangest of all, the very instant the shore was touched, an immense dog sprang up on deck from below … and running forward, jumped from the bow on to the sand. Making straight for the steep cliff, where the churchyard hangs over the laneway to the East Pier … it disappeared in the darkness.
from Dracula by Bram Stoker, 1897
Looking across the harbor toward East Cliff, you can see the view that inspired the fertile imagination of author Bram Stoker, who stayed in the Royal Hotel on the western side of Whitby while writing his famous novel.
The above extract is from a critical point in the Dracula‘s story-line, where the Russian schooner Demeter raced across the harbor before the blast of a massive storm, with its dead captain lashed to the helm, and crashed into the pier just under Whitby’s East Cliff, whereupon the immense dog leapt onto English soil.
The dog was known to be one of the many forms into which a vampire could transform itself. Count Dracula had arrived in England.
Whitby is an ancient seaport and fishing village on the northeast coast of England and has been a haven for holiday-makers since Victorian times and has played a significant role in English history. Its harbor, once the sixth largest port in Britain, lies where the River Esk reaches the North Sea.
To commemorate the anniversary of the author’s death, the Bram Stoker Memorial Seat was dedicated on April 20, 1980–its setting carefully chosen to give visitors the same view the writer had. From this point the tourist trail takes a visitor to places mentioned in the novel.
The streets on the western side of the harbor (where Bram Stoker stayed) are full of hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. It was in one of these in East Crescent that the novels heroine Mina Murray lodged with her friend Lucy Westenra and her mother, enjoying a traditional holiday by the seaside.
In another, lived the solicitor engaged by Count Dracula to handle the cargo of the Demeter, 50 cases of newly dug earth from Transylvania.
Steps lead down to Pier Road past the fish-market to the bridge across to the eastern side. Mina ran down these steps one fateful night to try to save the sleepwalking Lucy.
The bridge was built in 1908, replacing The Drawbridge referred to in the book, which was an iron swing bridge. From here you can see the fishing vessels and, like everywhere else in the town, you can hear the cry of the gulls circling overhead, adding to the nautical atmosphere.
Once on the east side, you’ll reach Grape Lane with its 17th century buildings characterized by overhanging upper storeys here in the attic of an old sea captain’s house–young James Cook lived as an apprentice, sharing the space with 17 others. The house is now the Captain Cook Museum. Cook’s memory as Whitby’s famous son is also recognized in the statue on the western cliff.
Next is Church Street, the main street of the Old Town, the eastern side of which retains its irregular medieval layout. Shops here sell the lovely jet jewelry, famous in Victorian times.
Mina’s old sea-dog friend Mr. Swales decried the visitors who sought it as them feet-folks from York and Leeds that be always eatin ‘cured herrin’s and drinkin’ tea an’ lookin’ out to buy cheap jet.
Many of the public houses of earlier times have long since disappeared, but the quaint yards and passages still remain as they were in Stoker’s day.
In the novel, Lucy had developed a habit of sleep-walking, and when Mina checked during the night she found her friend gone, and so went out to look for her. From her vantage point on the western side, in Mina’s words:
I looked across the harbor to the East Cliff, in the hope or fear, I don’t know which, of seeing Lucy in our favorite seat.
This was the seat in the graveyard of St Mary’s Parish Church, where the girls had often read, talked and taken in the ocean views.
For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church and all around it. Then as the cloud passed and a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible . [and] there, on our favorite seat, the silver light of the moon struck a half-reclining figure, snowy white. . but it seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.
Fearful of what she had seen behind the seat, Mina ran down the steps, across the bridge to the eastern side, and along the darkened length of Church Street as fast as her trembling legs would carry her.
At the end of this street were the 199 stone steps to the church and graveyard, up which Mina tore, gasping for breath. Near the top she saw her friend and exclaimed:
There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, ‘Lucy! Lucy!’ and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes.
By the time she reached her friend, the black shape was gone, but Lucy had those pin-prick marks on her neck and a drop of blood on her nightgown.
St. Mary’s Church is well-worth investigating. It has a three-deck pulpit with ear trumpets behind, dating from 1778, and closed-in pews complete with graffiti from the 1600s. Cook worshipped here as an apprentice.
The graveyard’s headstones apparently provided Stoker with names that he used in the novel. Many of these headstones have now collapsed and, being sandstone, a lot of the inscriptions have been erased by the weather. It’s an especially eerie place at night.
Beyond the church is one of the most spectacular sights, the ruined Abbey overlooking the town. The Abbess Hilda presided over the Synod of Whitby here in 664AD, which successfully united the Celtic and Roman Churches in western Europe and fixed the date for Easter.
The buildings visible today are mostly from the 12th to 15th centuries. As with the rest of England, its ruin came about after the monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII, the Abbey being surrendered in 1540.
Returning from the church, you can pause a moment where Mina and Lucy had paused a few days after the latter’s apparent rescue (in reality, it had been too late, for she would soon die and become a vampire herself).
From that spot, Mina had followed Lucy’s eyes as she looked again to the eastern side, and what she saw bode ill for the next phase of the novel, set in London:
She appeared to be looking over at our seat, whereon was a dark figure seated alone. I was a little startled myself, for it seemed for an instant as if the stranger had great eyes like burning flames.
Bruce Holmes is a freelance travel writer and photographer who lives in Australia. His articles have appeared in a range of publications around the world. Details of Bruce’s work can be seen at www.bruceholmestravel.com