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Weekend in Whitby

I spent last weekend in Whitby with various members of the Dracula Society - i.e. the same people I went to Romania with at the beginning of the summer. Back when I lived in Oxford, I attended the annual Whitby Gothic Weekend at least three times. As far as I remember they were the Aprils of 1999 and 2000 and the October of 2001, but I didn't have a livejournal back then to record the great events, so who knows! Anyway, between the fact that the WGW always falls during term-time, and that even from Leeds Whitby is still at least a two-hour journey away, I have failed to go again ever since. So when the Dracula Society chair let me know that a few members would be there in mid-September for a long weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to put that right.

It wasn't a formal Society trip like the Romania visit - just a group of friends hanging out in a place of relevance to their interests, really. Most of the time we bimbled around the place, shopping, sitting in pubs and cafes, enjoying the local sights and so forth. But Julia (the Society chair) does like to look after us all, so she had recommended places for us to stay and made bookings at local restaurants for evening meals, while on the Sunday morning we all met up together and walked around some key sites of relevance to Stoker's novel and to the Dracula Society. For me, this made just the right balance, with plenty of opportunities to get together and do things, but also plenty of time to just wander, relax and bump into one another randomly.

I deliberately didn't take my digital camera, reasoning that I had been to Whitby and taken photos of it before, there are zillions of pictures of it all over the internet anyway, and I would prefer to just concentrate on being with people and experiencing the town. But of course once you get there, you get caught up in the beauty of it all, and our little walk around on the Sunday morning in particular brought up various things I wanted to photograph after all. So three cheers for smartphone cameras.

We began our walk by dropping in on the Great Man himself - or at least the guest-house where he and his family stayed when they visited Whitby. It is no. 6, Royal Crescent, and looks straight out over the West Cliff towards the sea:

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As Society members pointed out to me while we were there, the blue plaque is actually a bit of a lie - he didn't stay there continuously from 1890 to 1896 as it suggests, or even discontinuously for that matter. But patient fans have scoured both local newspaper editions from the time (which used to publish announcements when notable people came to stay in the town) and surviving guest-house registers, and have confirmed that the definitely did stay there in the August of 1890. Beyond that, all is spurious.

Following the West Cliff round and turning as it does into the harbour mouth, you come to East Crescent, where this little row of houses looks out over the harbour itself:

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Stoker may have had one of those in mind as the lodging where Mina and Lucy stayed during their visit. The argument in their favour, over the house where he stayed himself in Royal Crescent, is that the East Crescent houses (just about) have a direct line of sight towards the church and abbey on the East Cliff, whereas Royal Crescent definitely doesn't. But having re-visited the relevant sections of the novel since getting home, I must say I'm not very convinced. I looked pretty carefully, but couldn't find any reference in the novel to Lucy or Mina looking directly out at the East Cliff from their guest-house - only from other parts of the town while out and about on walks etc. So there doesn't need to be a direct line of sight from Mina and Lucy's guest-house to the East Cliff, and in turn that means the location in Royal Crescent where Stoker stayed himself will do just as well for their imaginary lodging.

The fundamental problem is that Stoker only ever refers to 'the Crescent' in the novel, so that technically he could mean either - Royal or East. But it's got to be said that Royal Crescent is a lot more prominent within the geography of the town than East Crescent, so seems a more natural candidate for a phrase like 'the Crescent'. Also, the mere fact that he stayed there so would have found it easy to remember and picture weighs heavily in its favour. But it doesn't really matter either way. Re-visiting those passages of the novel just after having been in Whitby myself also reminded me how vivid and evocative Stoker's descriptions of it are - much helped, of course, by the fact that the parts he was describing haven't really changed very much in the intervening 120-odd years. There are dozens of guest-houses in Whitby which could play the role of Mina and Lucy's equally plausibly - though of course it is nice to pick a particular one, look up at its windows and imagine Lucy lolling there in a half-faint with a great, dark, bat-like creature perched beside her.

Meanwhile, on the corner between the two where the cliff curves inland is the Royal Hotel, and in their lobby is a portrait of Bram Stoker donated by the Dracula Society on their first formal visit to Whitby in 1977, as the plaque below explains. We all took our turns standing in front of it and taking each others' pictures.

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The portrait in the middle is obviously just one of the best-known surviving photos of Stoker. But the background was hand-painted by one of the Dracula Society's original founders, two actors (dahling!) called Bernard Davies and Bruce Wightman (I forget which, I'm afraid), and consists of evocative images from the Whitby sections of the novel - a black dog, fishing-boats, the church above the town etc. You may see it close up for yourself if you click on the first picture.

Actually, while I was in Whitby, Julia and her partner Adrian were kind enough to sit me down and show me a documentary made about the Society in 2003, its 30th anniversary, by one of its members who worked as an editor for the BBC. It includes interviews with the founder members, spliced together with a presenter's framing narrative, hand-held video footage of the trips they have taken over the years (including the earliest ones to Romania), and numerous spots on TV documentaries and quiz-shows. The Society was formed primarily to travel to Romania, but after a few years they decided to branch out and try some other things - hence the Whitby visit and the donation of the portrait in 1977. But honestly it was so funny hearing the founder members talking about the Whitby visit in the documentary, saying how obviously it had been quite difficult to plan it all from a distance. This from people who had already been to Romania while it still lay behind the Iron Curtain! Yes, Yorkshire is evidently alien indeed to people from That London...

By 1980, though, they had recovered enough from the experience to venture a return, and this time dedicate a bench in collaboration with the local council. I saw footage of the dedication ceremony too, in the documentary. In truth it is a bit of an Archimedes' bench by now, in that much of it has been replaced since 1980, including the dedicatory plaque. But it still sits proudly at the top of the Khyber Pass looking directly across the harbour towards the church and abbey on the East Cliff, and thus commemorating the various scenes in the novel when Mina and / or Lucy look in the same direction and see either Lucy and / or Dracula in the churchyard. The pictures below show both bench and view, but I didn't get in quite close enough to capture the little plastic bat on the tie attaching the (also plastic) flowers to the bench.

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We gathered collectively at the bench at least twice for tuica brought back from the recent Romania trip and general collective toasting, as of course you would if you were in a town which contained a bench commemorating the Society you had come there with. Here, stolen from Julia's Facebook page (for which I hope she'll forgive me if she sees this!) is the group shot from the Sunday evening, taken before we all went for dinner in one of the restaurants on the west harbour pier.

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A lovely lot, all of them.

That was it for the (really very in)formal elements of the weekend, but while we were there plenty of us of course went up to the Abbey, as you do.

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I also went inside the church this time, which I've never done before, where I found that it has an incredible 18th-century interior packed full of box pews, and painted signs displaying dire warnings from the Bible.

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Meanwhile, down below, a mysterious unsailed ship was driven relentlessly through the harbour mouth...

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Alas, it was just a tourist boat taking groups out for a look at the sea - and doing a roaring trade thanks to a Pirate Day which was going on in the town. That was kind of surreal, given that the last time I'd been in Whitby it was full of Goths - it seemed like during the intervening period they'd somehow all morphed into pirates. Confusing!

It was strange all round, though, returning to the site of Whitby Gothic Weekends long past, and feeling the ghosts of that event and its people all around me. Even though it still goes on, for me it is something that belongs squarely at the turn of the century - and there I was again, doing almost the same thing, but not quite. Actually TBH one of the most striking differences was that back then I was a student, but now I have a salary, so that instead of staying in the cheapest places we could find, eating at takeaways and agonising over every tiny little purchase, I stayed in a luxurious room beautifully decorated in purple and gold, ate out at nice restaurants and Just Bought a pair of Whitby jet earrings (which I've always wanted) without worrying about it. Other than that, I hung out with people of a broadly gothic inclination, exchanged much the same kind of geeky in-jokes with them as Goths do, and enjoyed the Stoker-infused gothic atmosphere of the town. It was a little more about sharing a love of narrative and a little less about dressing up and listening to bands, but the lines are very blurry. Or maybe that was just all the tuica...?

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