When Dracula Came to Whitby

Little has changed in the fishing port since the count’s 19th-century visit

The view from Bram Stoker’s bench in Whitby, England

The view from Bram Stoker’s bench, looking across the River Esk to the East Cliff. Tate Hill Pier is seen between the bench slats. The 199 stairs run up to the cliff to the cemetery, St. Mary’s Church and the ruins of 13th-century Whitby Abbey.

JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

More than a hundred years ago, Bram Stoker sat on a hill above this old Yorkshire fishing port, looking out to sea and imagining a storm. The black ocean rose and fell and on it a Russian schooner, the Demeter, fought to reach Whitby’s harbour. By some miracle the vessel made it past the outer harbour works, only to be caught on a final wave that smashed it against Tate Hill Pier. As it keeled over a giant black dog bounded from its deck, raced up the 199 steps to St. Mary’s churchyard and vanished. When the townsfolk boarded the ship they found its master dead and no trace of the crew. There were 50 cases of earth in the hold. And so Dracula came to Whitby.

Stoker’s novel, named for its titular character and published in 1897, set chapters 6-8 in Whitby, on England’s northeast coast. The qualities he chose it for remain: Whitby is an undeniably pretty place, but moody. The raw North Sea wind can move the town from sunlight into deep shadow in a heartbeat. Stoker was keenly aware of its effect.

A present-day visitor would recognize Whitby at once from the description Stoker had Mina Murray set down in her journal:

“The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour...The houses of the old town...are all red-roofed, and seem piled up over the other anyhow...Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey...It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits; there is a legend that a white lady is seen in one of the windows.”

Whitby does not greatly play up its role in the Dracula legend. It has, as it were, other fish to fry. There are the impressive 13th-century ruins of the Abbey, founded in 657 by Hilda, who convened the Synod of Whitby in 664 at which the method for dating Easter was agreed on. The town also has connections with 18th-century explorer Capt. James Cook. His seaman’s apprenticeship was spent here. But the town has not forgotten the ten days Count Dracula darkened its doorstep, either.

The park bench on the hill above the harbour where Bram Stoker sat, seeing his storm, bears a plaque to the writer. All the places in Whitby mentioned in the novel are visible from here: the estuary of the River Esk, Tate Hill Pier, the steps the black dog raced up to the top of the East Cliff, where the stark remains of Whitby Abbey brood and the windswept graves of St. Mary’s Church moulder. It was in one of these graves that Dracula slept, and it was in this churchyard that Mina and the doomed Lucy sat and looked at the sea. You can sit there now, at the end of an autumn day, as light leaves the sky, sensing Whitby’s mood altering, feeling a sudden, chill wind that reaches for the back of your neck.



For more information on Whitby visit the Whitby & District Tourism Association website at www.visitwhitby.com.

For information on travel in England go to the Visit Britain website, www.visitbritain.com.