If you’re yearning for an atmospheric English town with cobbled and winding streets, hugging the seaside in crannies and cliffs, and teaming with a sense of menace as the sun goes down, then you’re due a trip to Whitby.
Whitby lies in the northern corner of North Yorkshire, a close neighbor to Scarborough, and is a popular seaside retreat. But it’s not all sea spray and fish and chips here. It’s not all Victorian boardwalks, either. No, Whitby’s greatest claim to fame may be as part of the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (And you thought you were safe this Halloween if you just steered clear of Transylvania. Wrong!)
In the gothic tale, Dracula is aboard the ship The Demeter and is shipwrecked on the Yorkshire shore. He then storms Whitby in the form of a dark dog, runs up the hill to St. Mary’s Church and the Abbey and graveyard above the city, and soon terrorizes his victims as the vampire that he is.
In fact, Bram Stoker did visit Whitby, and it seems to be where much of his story took root in local history and scenery. The Demeter shipwreck was based on a true incident — the shipwreck of The Demetrius, a ship full of coffins being transported for burial . . . a grim cargo that proceeded to wash ashore on the town’s beaches for days after the accident.
The city of Whitby is lovely and would certainly survive as a traveler’s destination without the legend of Dracula, but she has been forever tied to the story now. And the city is all too happy to play up its link to the blood-thirsty Count. There are plenty of Dracula tours, books, and plaques to remind visitors of the city’s link to the gruesome story. It’s all in fun.
Unless, of course, you are excessively squeamish . . . or roughly four years old.
My children were taking this all in, and William, very young at the time, was growing a little skittish about Whitby. He constantly looked over his shoulder, he stayed close by our sides (unusual for the turbo-charged kid who usually ran yards ahead of us), and by the end of the day he was loudly and frequently proclaiming his dislike of Whitby.
My son never mentioned Dracula in his complaints; still, he was very clear about his feelings: he would never go back to Whitby. Never. Ever. It wasn’t his kind of town at all.
So we never did go back to Whitby. But we came close.
A few months after our visit to the sinister town, we had an unwanted visitor in our house. A small, furry, unwanted visitor. A mouse was stalking my son’s bedroom and, it seemed, spending time under his bed while William was asleep. While this didn’t make me any too happy, it really upset Will. We wanted to catch this rodent and catch him fast. However, I have a soft spot for animals and was hoping that a catch and release plan would be possible.
My son and I walked to the local hardware store one morning to discuss humane mousetraps and my desire to re-house this mouse. The owner looked at me like I was a truly daft American. He produced a humane trap from his backroom, but shook his head at my plan. “It won’t work,” he said. “You won’t get rid of that mouse,” he continued, “unless you take it many miles away, it will just come back to its home.” (Its home, of course, being my home.)
I imagine this man was overstating just how far a little mouse’s legs could carry him, but before I could question the store owner my tiny son shouted out, “Let’s take him to Whitby! We’ll take him to Whitby!” (I should note that Whitby was an hour and a half from our home.)
The store owner looked at my son, then returned his gaze to me– registering that we Americans were even more daft than he had originally suspected. I was in no mood to fight his assessment: I took the trap, told my son that was a great idea, and quickly left the shop.*
For years after, whenever someone at our house was badly behaved, they were told that they’d better straighten up or we’d take them to Whitby. A terrible fate indeed– a place only fit for the worst and most wicked.
Although not really–it’s a very nice town. Except that. . . well, it almost does seem that something is a little off about Whitby. The cliffs over Whitby began crumbing just three years ago: a potential disaster for the church. If they can’t stop the erosion, St. Mary’s could soon tumble into the sea. Locals are watching the situation with concern, and more than a little dread and disgust: the homeowners below the eroding cliff report that skulls and bones are falling from the sky into their backyards. The crumbling cliff is the church’s graveyard! This is like the wreck of The Demetrius all over again. It doesn’t bode well, my friends. . . it doesn’t bode well.
So a word to the wise: if you are naughty enough to get sent to Whitby any time soon, make sure to pack your garlic necklace. Happy Halloween!
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A few more photos from Whitby:
Above the harbor at Whitby, high up on the cliffs, sits Whitby Abbey– or the ruins of it, anyway. It was to the abbey and graveyard that Dracula ran, up 199 stairs that are still there today.
If you make it up the stairs (not such a bad climb), you have a great view of the city and the harbor below.
If I were designing this postcard, it would have a little grey mouse at its center!
*Our little mouse never did make it to Whitby. He met a different, but sad, end that I’d rather not discuss.