Exploring England: Whitby’s Victorian Past + Gothic Present
One hundred and ninety-nine steps ahead wind their way up to an abbey on a hill, while the wind whistles and whispers below, and the waves crash against the shore. At the very top, England’s most romantic ruin – Whitby Abbey – lies before me, sitting high on a cliff above the seaside town below.
The Abbey itself is stirring, gaunt and imposing, and as the sun floods through it’s hollow frame, it’s history rushes softly through my mind. Founded in 657 by St Hilda, Whitby Abbey has been many things over the years: a bustling settlement, the burial place of Anglo Saxon kings, the home of saints including the poet Caedmon, and the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Destroyed and looted by the Vikings in 867AD, it was rebuilt in the 11th Century by the Norman knight Reinfrid and continued to be a place of monastic life until it’s dissolution by Henry VIII in 1539. The abbey’s bells were lost to the sea when Henry’s men loaded them onto a ship which sank not long after it had left the shore – some say in heavenly retribution. From the clifftops, young lovers ever since listen for the sound of the bells in the depths below; said to be a fortunate omen when heard!
Thus in the windswept setting of the abbey, with the natural elements whirling and whispering about me, I find myself firmly placed on the stage of a real-life northern film set. The abbey is the centerpiece of Whitby’s famous Goth Weekend, and ghost-like figures silently drift in and out of the Abbey’s archways with the passing of time. Many are dressed elegantly in black, Victorian dress and those with top hats have adorned them with strange, futuristic goggles – some of which resemble the inner workings of a clock. Almost all of these wonderful characters look like they’ve just arrived here from the movie set of films such as H.G.Wells The Time Machine. With such astonishing spectacles to behold, the atmosphere is chillingly authentic!
Many photographers are also here in attendance, ready to capture their own beautiful decisive moments of strange characters passing through mysterious settings, and an age gone by. I become part of it too, leaning against the buttress of the abbey hiding away from the cold wind, the bright red metallic falls of my hair blowing in the breeze. The cameras click away. How strange I felt early on in the morning checking out of Raithwaite Hall in full costume. Here, in this setting I’m a futuristic character – a cybergothic steampunk – seeking the history of the past and enjoying every moment of it!
A fellow steampunk with the longest, purple, cybernetic hair and a gas mask floats by. The term ‘cyberpunk’ has links with science fiction and the future. The gas mask hints at survival in a post apocalypse future when ‘the world has fallen apart’, but in the present day it’s mostly there for aesthetic reasons.
From the abbey I walk through to the churchyard of St Mary’s which nestles eerily alongside it just a short distance away.
The church itself is more than nine hundred years old (founded in 1110) and together with it’s graveyard is a complete paradise for the imagination. High on the clifftop like the abbey, it is bathed in antiquity and the perfect setting for mystery, intrigue and the macabre. A few years ago I visited the graveyard at dusk to find goats making their way silently in single file past by the gravestones!
Where they had come from and where they were going to I didn’t know at the time, but the element of the bizarre had felt completely commonplace, even somewhat unquestionable.
The image of my ghostly goats has a similar atmospheric feel to a photograph taken by Francis Meadows Sutcliffe (whose name is synonymous with Whitby) depicting a farmer grazing his cows in front of the abbey. The photograph with it’s sepia tones is wonderful – just one of the many images that Frank Sutcliffe captured during his lifetime. His photographic work presents an amazing, enduring record of life in the town in the late Victorian era and early 20th century.
The Victorians were fascinated with death and the macabre. Their funeral displays were often even more elaborate than wedding ceremonies, and ‘entertainment’ often involved paranormal events, such as mesmerism, mediumship and ghost conjuring – all with the specific intention of communicating with the dead. Such activities were at this time even more popular than in any other period of recent western history.
As if to celebrate this fact a busy congregation of Victorian characters have gathered in full gothic splendour outside the main entrance of the church. Those that are here include a rather tall man whose features are hidden. I decide to name him ‘The Whitby Reaper’ as he carries a rather ominous looking sickle on his shoulder.
A beautiful Victorian musical hall girl who looks like she could be his next victim whistles by and stands in front of the gravestones, the red rooftops of Whitby dotted behind her in the distance. In an instant my mind conjures up images of Bram Stoker sitting here with his pen looking out over the tops of the gravestones to the town ahead and the sea below…
Stoker based many of the events in his novel Dracula on real life happenings that he had heard about from the townsfolk in and around the Whitby area. They told him of the Russian ship The Dmitri beached in the town’s port, and of ‘The Barguest’, a huge black, phantom hound that stalks the Yorkshire Moors and the area surrounding Whitby. Both ideas were incorporated into Dracula’s dramatic arrival at this little seaside port.
Although Bram Stoker had learnt of dark stories of the Carpathian mountains and vampires through his friend the Hungarian writer, Ármin Vámbéry, it was in Whitby that he first came across the name of Dracula. Whilst staying here, he borrowed a book from the local library by William Wilkinson entitled An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (1820). Wilkinson’s book included a short section on a “Voivode Dracula” who fought against the Turks. Stoker copied one item in particular into his notes: ‘Dracula’ in Wallachian language means ‘Devil’. From this point he had found the influence to begin creating the most famous figure in horror film and literature.
From the churchyard I head back down the steps to the town below. Church Street is bustling with activity; a veritable sea of other-worldly bodies on the trail of their own specific gothic adventure. Each has fully assumed the character of the role they have elected to play for the day.
There are zombies here that have just got married, colourful quirky clowns that stand out boldly against the blackness, and vampires that follow them with eyes as black as coal.
Growing up one of my favourite imaginary characters was a ‘Mr Benn’. In the day Mr Benn lived a normal business life going to work in his bowler hat. Every now and then he would step into a shop, where the shopkeeper would allow him to change into a particular costume. Magically he would enter the changing room through one door and then step out through another, into the life of whatever the costume represented. Each adventure that he experienced would be different and entirely based on the costume he chose.
Everyone here in Whitby has their own special Mr Benn moment today, and as I step into the shop known as ‘The Victorian Image’ I experience it twice: stepping out of the world of the cybergothic steampunk and into one of the Victorian lady! It is a shop specialising in Victorian Photography and i’m able to choose my own Victorian costume and have my photograph taken in the same way that would have occurred years ago.
Later that evening up on Whitby’s West Cliff, close to it’s magnificent whale bone arch, I look out at the brightly coloured fishing vessels passing by, as ghost tours gather for the evening. The beautiful sepia image that I have in my hand is the perfect memento from Whitby’s Victorian past, and the photographs of the Whitby Goth Weekend the most brilliant keepsake of Whitby’s gothic present today!
Co-Founder of Abeona Adventures
The above article was recently published in the press in ‘Explore England 2016’; an annual magazine owned and distributed by ‘This England’.
The Whitby Gothic Weekend is held twice-yearly, in April and October. Over the course of recent years it has grown into one of the most popular gothic events in the world, attracting attendees from across the UK and around the world.