It’s a gusty afternoon in Whitby, a seaside town in north Yorkshire. I’m racing through the grounds of the thirteenth-century Benedictine Abbey, frantically chasing my hat which was blown off by the wind into the clifftop headland. Spinning restlessly in the breeze, it nearly disappears from view in the shadow of the stone arches.
Far off in the distance, the sea waves crash gently against the fossil-rich Jurassic coastline. Only the soaring medieval ruins of the abbey seem firmly set atop the lofty East Cliff, unshaken.
With the tall and thin gothic pillars on each side of the nave, the abbey seems like a long-legged spider ominously looming over the town.
Founded on England’s northeast coast in AD 656, Whitby is an old fishing and whaling town. Whaling vessels ventured out of Whitby Harbour to Arctic Greenland to capture whales, seals and polar bears in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Once the sixth-largest port in Britain, Whitby had earned its place in shipbuilding and maritime history.
One of the most famous ships of all time, The Endeavour, was built here for Captain Cook and carried him on his first voyage of discovery to Australia and New Zealand.
Steeped in maritime folklore and legends, Whitby is a place to escape the mundane in search of melancholic and dark adventure. After all, it is the birthplace of the most popular horror story, Dracula.
With his nineteenth-century novel, Bram Stoker sealed Whitby’s reputation as the UK’s most gothic town.
Many of the locations mentioned in the novel still exist, making Whitby a place of pilgrimage for die-hard Dracula fans and Goths who travel here twice a year for Whitby Goth Weekends.
There is no other town in England where you can blend in wearing a long black cloak from the Victorian era, creeper boots and dark makeup.
Clutching my reclaimed hat close to my chest, I leave the abbey and head towards St Mary’s Churchyard where Bram Stoker used to hang out with local fishermen and coastguards, drawing inspiration for Dracula from their gripping folktales.
Located perilously close to the edge of the cliff, the graveyard shrinks in size due to erosion and landslides, which is the reason why the solitary 6-meter-high Caedmon Cross commemorating ‘the first English poet’ may soon be relocated for safety.
I pause to read the inscriptions on the weathered sandstone graves. Many of them honour those who perished at sea. Some are nameless and shrouded with mystery, like the one with carved skulls and crossbones frequently confused for Dracula’s grave.
As I descend the 199 steps of Church Street, I see tourists sitting on benches originally designed as coffin rests. Soon the morbid scenes give way to a vibrant view of the cobblestone streets of Old Town.
Local bars tempt passers-by with chips and all sorts of fresh fruits of the North Sea. Shops are packed with tourists searching for souvenirs and pitch-black Whitby jet jewellery.
Narrow gaps between the houses reveal secret yards and passageways. I wonder who would dare to walk here at night knowing Whitby’s reputation for ghostly apparitions.
I cross the Swing Bridge to get to the west side of the town where street musicians perform sea shanties to the delight of travellers.
The sun is about to set exactly where it rises, into the North Sea. As they point their cameras at the horizon, neither locals nor tourists seem to ponder upon this unusual optical illusion typical of very few places in England.
I look up at the abbey, which has been proudly overlooking the town from the clifftop for over one thousand years. It reminds me of the Latin inscription on the Whitby Coat of Arms: Fuimus et Sumus (‘We have been and we are’).
Getting there: The Yorkshire Coastliner buses and the Northern Rail trains run regularly to Whitby.
If you travel from London, take a train from London King’s Cross for the shortest and most direct route. The average train journey takes about six hours and requires two changes.
Touring there: Join Story Walker ‘Dr Crank’ on a group or individual tour of the historic part of Whitby. You can choose a Ghost, In Search of Dracula or Heritage and History tour.