Date with Dracula

Date with Dracula

Inspired by ‘Dracula’, Reji Thomas Mathew visits the pretty seaside town of Whitby to discover its special connection to the world-famous bloodsucker, and comes back impressed

A depiction of the vampire Dracula.

Let me confess. Am an ardent fan of Dracula. No, not of the legendary blood-sucking vampire, but of Irish novelist Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel, Dracula. Ever since my reading of Dracula, I had wanted to visit Whitby, that charming seaside town in Yorkshire, Northern England, which provided Stoker with the locations for his novel, as also the name for his vampire.

Well, it started thus, in July 1890. Bram Stoker, then working as a business manager for actor Henry Irving, was looking for a quiet place to holiday after a hectic work schedule. He was suggested the charming town of Whitby by Henry Irving himself. Accordingly, Stoker landed in Whitby, and fell in love with the place instantly. It was around this time that he had just started work on his third novel, set in Austria, whose protagonist was named Count Wampyr.

Smitten by the quiet charm of the fishing port, Stoker decided to make the sights and sounds of the place a part of his new book. Fortunately for him, he had one whole week to explore the place before his wife and son joined him for the family holiday. So, off he went, every day, taking in the beautiful views the place offered, talking to the natives and seafarers, and learning about the myths and legends of the place. He made copious notes about his interactions with nature and natives, and they provided him with enough fuel to fire up his imagination.

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey


A chance meeting

Most importantly, it was in Whitby that Stoker chanced upon the name Dracula. Yes, the same name that sends shivers up one’s spine. It so happened that Stoker borrowed a book titled An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia with various political observations relating to them, authored by William Wilkinson, a British consul in Bucharest, from the Whitby Public Library. It was an old history book from what’s now Romania. In it, he found a reference to a 15th-century ruler named Dracula, who fought against the Turks and crossed Danube River in his fight against them. The footnote in the book said that Dracula, in Wallachian language, means ‘the devil’. Stoker liked the name Dracula so much that he went back to his notes and changed the central character of his new book’s name from Count Wampyr to Count Dracula. Am sure Dracula wouldn’t have been Dracula if not for Whitby.

This is not all. Whitby has more Dracula connections. While he was in Whitby, Stoker had glanced through a coast guard report that mentioned briefly about a Russian schooner named Dmitry, which had run aground on Tate Hill Sands below East Cliff, Whitby in 1885. This gave Stoker the idea of how to get Dracula into England. So, in Dracula, we have Demeter coming to Tate Hill Sands, and when the schooner runs aground, Dracula escapes from it in the form of a large dog and runs up the cliffside, 199 steps, up to the graveyard by St Mary’s Church. Yet again, the idea of Dracula assuming a dog’s avatar was inspired by a local Whitby legend that says a howling dog indicates imminent death.

With all these stories bubbling in my mind, I landed in Whitby. The weather was pleasant. The setting was perfect. With River Esk flowing in the centre of the town dividing it into east and west sides, Whitby was fascinating, almost like a picture-postcard. It didn’t look very different from the many pictures of the place I had seen before landing here, and the place hasn’t changed much in a very long time, I was told. Ambling along its narrow streets, gaping at the houses that seemed almost fairy-tale-like, I headed towards the famed 199 steps. My first stop had to be Whitby Abbey. After all, the Abbey was the major inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula, right?

After a not-too-hard climb of 199 steps, I reached the Abbey. Situated on the East Cliff, this Abbey dates back to 657 AD, when it was a Christian monastery founded by the Saxon king of Northumbria. What remains now of that great structure are ruins, after its destruction in 1540 following Henry VIII’s orders. I visited the interactive visitor centre and learnt more about the history of the structure, as also about the life of the monks who once lived here. The audio tour took me through the many intriguing aspects of the grand old structure. The best part of the Abbey was that it afforded panoramic vistas of the town below, as also of the harbour. Sitting there, soaking in the atmosphere of the place, I now knew exactly why Stoker had wanted the Abbey to play a major role in Dracula.

Whale Bone Arch, Whitby.
Whale Bone Arch, Whitby.


Awe-inspiring edifice

Very close to the Abbey is the Church of Saint Mary. Dating back to 1110, this church is architecturally awe-inspiring. The interiors of the church were remodelled in the 18th century, I learnt. Stepping outside, into the churchyard, my joy knew no bounds. No, no, not at the sight of graves, but because this very same graveyard is used as a setting in Dracula. I went around the place, not able to believe I was actually a part of the Dracula setting. Actually speaking, the place looked quite eerie, considering most of the graves dated back to the 1700s, and looked worn out battling the elements of nature.

I remembered a legend that goes thus: Count Dracula fled Whitby by ascending the 199 stairs to the churchyard and hid in a suicide victim’s grave after drinking the blood of a young girl. It also states that you can find the graves of both the girl and the suicide victim in the churchyard to this day, and that they are marked with a skull and crossbones. Well, I didn’t look for them. Am sure you know why.

I had had a long day. It was time to treat myself to the famous Whitby fish and chips. Early next morning, I set out to explore the West Cliff. The many tourist attractions here promised an interesting time. I headed first to the Whale Bone Arch. These 20-foot jaw bones are a reminder to the times when Whitby was a thriving whaling industry and successful whalers, on their journey back home, would tie a whale’s jaw bone atop the ship’s mast as a sign that they have survived the hunt. Originally erected in 1853, these bones have been replaced twice — once in 1963, with bones given by Norway, and again in 2003, with bones from Alaska. It was worth a visit.

The small town of Whitby had more surprises in store for me. Like the Captain Cook connection. Yes, the famed sailor and explorer developed his taste for the sea in Whitby, when he apprenticed with a local shipping firm. The house where he stayed then has now been converted into a museum known as Captain Cook Memorial Museum that took me on a journey through every aspect of his life. Captain Cook’s Whitby connection doesn’t end here. Two of the vessels he used on his long and perilous voyages — Resolution and Endeavour — trace their origin to Whitby.

It was now time for me to unwind at the beach. The call of the sea was too hard to resist. The sandy beach here gave me enough privacy to mull over the many marvels of this quiet seaside town. Am so glad Stoker brought Dracula to Whitby. Am sure Dracula too had fallen for the place.