My recent trip to Manchester was followed by a few days in the sweet seaside town of Whitby. On the surface, Whitby seems like a strange place for a random visit: it’s a small seaside village on the east coast of Britain, and it’s not exactly the easiest place to get to. But Whitby did have one very attractive claim to fame that drew me there, despite a Megabus journey from Manchester and a two-hour, bumpy local bus ride: it’s reputed to be the birthplace of Bram Stoker’s late-Victorian ode to typewriters and phonographs (also it has a few vampires in it). I’m talking, of course, about Dracula.
Yes, according to legend Bram Stoker was inspired by Whitby’s romantic ruined abbey, eventually writing the story of the dastardly Count Dracula and his attempted invasion of England. Naturally, I figured a little sea air and rubbing shoulders with the undead would be the perfect way to round off a little holiday.
Whitby doesn’t seem a very likely place for a tale of vampires to begin. Despite the impressive ruin of the thirteenth-century abbey atop a hill overlooking the town, in the daytime Whitby seems to be a seaside resort like any other. It’s full of souvenir shops, arcades, and fish-and-chip places. Fishing boats bob in the harbour, and city folks trying to get away for the weekend drag toddlers screaming for sweets up and down the streets. In other words, pure holiday magic.
Trek up the famous 199 Steps and you’ll reach the Abbey, an impressive ruin which, even in the late winter, is full of curious visitors carrying audioguides, and one particularly enthusiastic tour guide dressed as a medieval monk. In the daylight it’s an impressive glimpse at the sacred architecture of the late middle ages, a crumbling ruin hinting at a bygone era. In the churchyard next door, weathered headstones attest to the effect of sea air on stone. As a little literary extra, the churchyard is also home to a little rounded tombstone which is said to have inspired the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty.
All in all, it’s a pleasant place to wander, particularly in the sunshine. And maybe the fact that it’s so typically ‘English’ in terms of its habits and its layout may have had something to do with it becoming the point at which Dracula chooses to begin his invasion of England. Come nightfall, too, it becomes a little easier to see how Whitby might have inspired one of English literature’s most famous Gothic villains. The sight of the ruined Abbey in the fading light of dusk is more than enough to induce a chill or two. Across the water from the Abbey are the benches where Stoker supposedly sat when he dreamed up the tale that was to propel vampires firmly into the memory of popular culture for centuries to come. Which means, in a way, that Bram Stoker is at least a little responsible for Twilight. Cheers for that, Mr Stoker.
Although I went to Whitby primarily because of its literary links, what I enjoyed most about the place was its relaxed atmosphere. A small town perched on tall cliffs, surrounded by beautiful green countryside, Whitby was the perfect place to escape to after a few days in the big city. It was sweet, welcoming, and relaxing. I spent a happy two days trudging through muddy countryside (and discovering just how singularly unpleasant it is to fall flat on your butt in ten inches of mud – in my defence, I did grow up in Australia. And at least I amused a fair number of hikers, all of them in full country-walking gear, as I squelched back to town with my trainers full of a brownish liquid that I sincerely hope was only mud). The nearby town of Sandsend, too, was a surprising and stunning discovery: a charming little village dotted with cute holiday cottages. For a kid born in a dusty country, this part of England was pure heaven, with sea, sky, and greenery wherever you looked. And, as a bonus, just a hint of literary history.