I first visited Whitby in 2015. I had always wanted to visit the place due to its connection to my favourite vampire and incarnation of his story…Dracula by Bram Stoker. I wanted to see the abbey and churchyard and its surroundings and experience why it inspired Stoker to include both sites in his book. I quickly became captivated by the place that I returned again in 2017.
St Mary’s church sits perched on East Cliff, overlooking Whitby, in the shadow of the 11th-century abbey. The oldest parts of the church were founded in 1110 AD but most of the interior is 18th century. To get to the church and abbey you must climb the 199 steps. The first record of the steps was in 1340 but it is believed they were in existence long before this. It is unknown why there are 199 steps and what they represent, although some believe they were used to test the faith of church-goers. Unless you’ve walked up them you’ll never know what a test it really is! At various intervals on the steps are large flat areas with benches to the side. These were not designed with tourists in mind but acted as coffin rests for pallbearers. If you were wealthy enough you could afford a horse-drawn hearse to carry your departed loved one up the cobbled track to the side of the climb.
Many visitors to Whitby climb the 199 steps in search of Dracula, and many of the local tour guides may tell you that he is buried in the graveyard. Close to the exit are two low graves with no inscription on them but you can clearly see a skull and crossbones carved into the stone. Surely this is a prime candidate for the Prince of Darkness’ tomb! Unfortunately not*, these aren’t even pirate graves, which is another story tour guides might tell you, but probably those of a mason or freemason, which is the case of most graves with the skull and crossbones on them.
Bram Stoker himself visited Whitby in July 1890 for a holiday, just like myself (although some 120 odd years later!). He stayed at a guesthouse owned by a Mrs Veazey at number 6 Royal Crescent. It was in the town’s library that Stoker found references to a 15th-century Transylvanian prince by the name of Vlad Tepes, known for his fondness of torture and his penchant for impaling his enemies on wooden stakes. Vlad was also known by the name of ‘Dracula’ – which translates to ‘son of the Dragon’, an order that his father was a member of. Armed with this information and inspired by his surroundings, Stoker had his villain.
Whitby and St Mary’s churchyard feature heavily in the first half of the book. Characters Mina and Lucy are taking their holiday in the town (the characters were based on two sisters that were also staying at 6 Royal Crescent with Stoker) when they meet a Mr Swales (a name that Stoker found on one of the gravestones in the churchyard) who tells the women folklores of the area and the occupant of a grave that Lucy is reclining on;
“He pointed to a stone at our feet which had been laid down as a slab, on which the seat was rested, close to the edge of the cliff. “Read the lies on that thruff-stone,” he said. The letters were upside down to me from where I sat, but Lucy was more opposite to them, so she leant over and read, “Sacred to the memory of George Canon, who died, in the hope of a glorious resurrection, on July 29, 1873, falling from the rocks at Kettleness. This tomb was erected by his sorrowing mother to her dearly beloved son. `He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.’ Really, Mr. Swales, I don’t see anything very funny in that!” She spoke her comment very gravely and somewhat severely.
“Ye don’t see aught funny! Ha-ha! But that’s because ye don’t gawm the sorrowin’ mother was a hell-cat that hated him because he was acrewk’d, a regular lamiter he was, an’ he hated her so that he committed suicide in order that she mightn’t get an insurance she put on his life.”….I did not know what to say, but Lucy turned the conversation as she said, rising up, “Oh, why did you tell us of this? It is my favourite seat, and I cannot leave it, and now I find I must go on sitting over the grave of a suicide.”
I believe Stoker included this tale in the book as one of the many superstitions surrounding vampires is that they can only rest in their own soil or in the grave of a suicide.
It is due to this superstition that St Mary’s Churchyard is featured again in Dracula, when, during a violent storm, a ship called The Demeter runs aground on Tate Hill Beach. The ship is carrying Dracula, who plans to spread his vampirism throughout Britain as well as several crates containing soil from his home. The same night sees Lucy, who is prone to sleepwalking, in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church and it is here that she becomes a victim of Dracula. Mina later finds her and gives a chilling account of what she saw in her journal;
“There was a bright full moon, with heavy black, driving clouds, which threw the whole scene into a fleeting diorama of light and shade as they sailed across. For a moment or two I could see nothing, as the shadow of a cloud obscured St. Mary’s Church and all around it. Then as the cloud passed I could see the ruins of the Abbey coming into view; and as the edge of a narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut moved along, the church and churchyard became gradually visible… It seemed to me as though something dark stood behind the seat where the white figure shone, and bent over it. What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.”
You can visit a bench, dedicated to Stoker on the Kyber Pass, on the west side of Whitby, which treats you to a spectacular view of the Abbey and St. Mary’s Church which undoubtedly inspired Stoker to include the town in his book.
It’s not only famous vampires who rest in St Mary’s churchyard, it is also the resting place for other figures such as the Arctic explorer William Scoresby, who was also the inventor of the crow’s nest used on ships, and an engineer by the name of George Chapman who resides under a rare cast iron headstone.
Erosion and landslides have taken their toll on the graveyard and many of the graves have been lost and the epitaphs on tombstones worn away. The most recent landslide in 2012/13 resulted in many of the older graves becoming exposed and several bodies were disturbed and bones found at the bottom of the cliffs below.
Many of the graves mark seafaring occupants; from fishermen and sailors to lifeboat men and Royal Navy mariners. This is expected of a town that is built on fishing and whaling. Looking closely you will see many of the gravestones are inscribed with the legend “in memory of” or “in remembrance of” rather than “here lies” or “here rests”. It struck me that as many of Whitby’s residents would have been sailors and many would have died at sea and their bodies never recovered.
There is a gravestone propped against the door to the church which illustrates the perils of working on the sea. In February 1861 a fierce gale battered the east coast of England and threw many vessels into Whitby’s harbour. The Whitby lifeboat was launched 5 times that day, saving the lives of all the crew upon the vessels. On the sixth launch tragedy struck and all but one of the lifeboat crew drowned. This particular gravestone commemorates one of the lost, John Storr, who was coxswain at the time of the event. The memorial sits against the church as it was saved from falling over the cliff and into the sea that claimed its owner.
One of the reasons I love St Mary’s churchyard is the tales and folklore that surround some of the graves. Nursery rhyme characters also reside in there – a large oval tombstone in the corner of the railed off part next to the church is said to be the resting place of Humpty Dumpty, the ill-fated egg. However, as Humpty Dumpty was a famous canon rather than an anthropomorphic egg this is (probably) a legend.
Many Whitby children believe Tom Thumb is also interred here and can be found as a tiny gravestone in between two ‘full-grown’ ones. As the inscriptions have worn away one cannot tell whose graves they actually are.
Much like Brompton Cemetery and the time machine grave, St Mary’s holds a mysterious secret. Close to the grave of Humpty Dumpty, by the side of the church and the Saxon doorway is a strange epitaph immortalising the Huntrodds Family. The original inscription on the grave below has worn off so a new one was erected. This memorial has confused cryptologists for years. Many believe that it contains a hidden message or code due to the strange placement of punctuation, spacing and wording.
That’s the beauty of St. Mary’s Churchyard, in the face of the unknown, tales and legends have been born.
*Just for the record, the real Dracula, Vlad Tepes, is purportedly buried on Lake Snagov in Transylvania, Romania.
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