“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door-
Only this, and nothing more.” -EA Poe
Here’s hoping that only hungry trick or treaters come tapping at your chamber door this evening.
Happy Halloween, everyone! Have fun and stay safe!
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!
* * * *
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.
The house in Germany: although we’ve packed up and left it, it hasn’t left us.
Images of autumn and Halloween are starting to flood the internet, and I’m sitting here in Florida thinking that it’s still too hot to plant pansies, wear a sweater, or start the full-on (and often pumpkin inspired) baking frenzy that I feel compelled to throw myself into this time of year. (I bake in the autumn the way birds migrate: I can’t help myself, it seems to be woven into the fabric of my being.)
I love my new environs in Florida, for all of the reasons this place inspires love: the dolphins I’ve watched in the past week; the great horned owl who graces our backyard; the glistening bay, beach, and boat docks that I walk to with my dog every evening.
But the interminable summer is a little frustrating for a girl who loves four seasons. So today, I give you this wistful image– the old house in Germany in a tinted Halloween mashup. Old, creaky, spooky, beautiful . . . and autumnal.
Hello? Yes, I’m still here. Crawling out from a long bout with the flu, but finally back out in the world and cough-free, and just in time for All Hallow’s Eve.
For, as it turns out, a different sort of Halloween. My daughter is outgrowing some of the high-jinks of the holiday, and our German neighbors don’t really trick or treat (in 2 years, we’ve had only one, very small, vampire-ish ghoul show up at our door), so the girls in the family had movie night in.
The boys, however, went deep into the holiday.
They took a road trip to Romania and Transylvania (a region of Romania). They visited Bran Castle, which has some associations with Vlad the Impaler and is widely thought to be the castle Bram Stoker based his descriptions on in Dracula. Myths of ghosts and vampires are rampant in Transylvania, but it has more to offer than that–natural beauty, old world charm, and churches that my husband said reminded him of old churches in Turkey (rustic and full of frescoes).
That’s scant information, but you know how it is getting husbands and 12 year olds to talk about their trip–“cool”, “great”, and grunts and groans. But I can read between the lines–they saw terrifying things, too horrible to talk about . . . or, maybe, what happens in Transylvania just stays in Transylvania.
The pumpkin sits, uncarved, on the front steps, and the massive bowl of Halloween candy sits undisturbed near the door–so, surely, it’s too early in the season to invoke Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.
But here I go–because it’s never wrong to call on Dickens (!), and because Europe is a haunted continent. At Halloween, on Christmas, or any given day, its history is rich and messy, and its ghosts, like Jacob Marley, won’t be silenced. In our experience, these specters whisper at you from around each corner.
In a nearby town there is an odd sign designating a speed limit for tanks. I occasionally pass this, and I always laugh and cringe at the same time. I assume it is a remnant of Cold War times, although this is just a guess. Maybe troop movements around here are frequent enough that this is still warranted? Either way, I find the sign both amusing and jarring. Do I need to be worried about tanks rolling through the city center? Probably not, but it does make me think of the citizens of Ukraine, where the everyday reality is more raw; and it also conjures a not so distant past in this historically complicated country.
In Metz, France–the city that brought us a war hero in the unlikely guise of the baker Harelle (see post “The Bread is Mightier than the Sword”)–you can’t help but see the ghosts of the past on each block, beginning with the chapel of the Knights Templar (to the right) and running up through the Second World War and the present day streets honoring the likes of Winston Churchill.
I’m always stunned by my ability in Europe to walk a city block in space and feel that I’ve walked a thousand years through time and history. William Faulkner may have had the American South in mind when he wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” but his words seem to reverberate off the stone streets of Europe. We tread on hallowed ground and haunted ground–and I couldn’t tell you were the one starts and the other stops. Especially regarding the somber ghosts of the Second World War.
I find myself pulling against visiting the concentration camps, at the same time that my conscience keeps telling me that this is something I need to do. I can’t imagine setting foot on those grounds and not feeling physically ill, possessed of the anguish of the souls who were tortured there. But those anguished souls need us to remember, don’t they? We owe it to them. I can tell you, my own Marley-esque specters are visiting me on this one.
Not all ghosts are war-torn and tortured souls, however. Our historical imps deserve to be noticed too.
So, as a sidenote on Dickens and his ghosts, here’s a travel tip for London: The George Inn in Southwick. It sits on the south bank of the Thames, is an old (400 years old, give or take) pub that’s been in business all these long years.
We stumbled on this pub in 2010. Although we didn’t stumble, really–I dragged my family out of their way to have lunch here, and it was a very good call.
Why make a grand effort to eat at this pub in a city full of pubs? Partly because of its general history–in business since the 1600’s; still boasting a gallery of balconies where plays and concerts used to take place, it is reported to be the last remaining galleried inn in London; and (here’s the kicker) an old favorite of Charles Dickens. The food here was great; I had a grilled goat cheese salad that I remember 4 years later! Granted, our waitress was less “waitress” and more “table wench” in attitude–but, if nothing else, it added a Dickensian touch to the meal. And our inquiries about the history of the inn and its famous patrons lead to a journey behind the bar, where there is a framed document bearing Charles Dickens’s signature. If my rusty memory serves, it was a copy of his Last Will that he gave to the Inn owner (knowing it would have some value), in lieu of actually paying his bar tab.
In the style of a worthy “old haunt,” this speaks of both mischief and misfortune. Our Charles Dickens was both debtor and darling, making him the perfect drinking buddy for anyone who might find themselves at the bar here and lifting a glass to old Charlie’s Last Will. Talented as he was, his life wasn’t perfect. Nor was it infinite: so raise a pint and lean in toward the framed document, and I’ll wager that you’ll hear him whispering, “Cheers and carpe diem!”
(Lore has it that Shakespeare may also have been a customer–his Globe theater was close by–but the veracity of this is lost to the haze of time gone by.)
Some ghosts loom large (the scars of a world war); some ghosts are more personal (unpaid debts). But in this season of hauntings, it’s best to give them all their due.