View of Whitby including the famous Abbey
Folk Tales and Heritage Places
Heritage sites have inspired a rich variety of stories – both in historic times and into the present day. We may consider this in the context of historical events; for example, a registered battlefield with a rich militaristic history attached to the site. Stories attached to such places can even be perceived as ‘oral history’. However, we may also consider certain heritage places to be ‘spiritual’ which evoke stories simply inspired by elements of that place. Historic England (2008) certainly emphasise how certain sites can ‘reflect past or present-day perceptions of the spirit of a place’. The fame and nature of such stories is intrinsically linked to the extent of survival of historic fabric of that place.
That is not to say that every heritage site must survive in perfect condition to remain valuable for storytelling; historic ruins have played a particularly large role in inspiring creatives throughout the centuries to produce art, literature and music which captured the essence of such decaying monuments. One of the most famous examples of such ruins is Whitby Abbey. This scheduled monument and listed building is situated within a conservation area which has become a focal point of October’s Halloween festivities in the north-east of England. Some of the most famous stories associated with this North Yorkshire fishing town will be explored below.
Caedmon's Cross in Whitby
One of the earliest creatives inspired by this site included the Anglo-Saxon poet Cædmon who has at one point been conceived as the first named poet in the English language. This story has been recounted in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People – something which has now been tied into the physical fabric of Whitby by the erection of Caedmon’s Cross. This both serves as a monument to Caedmon himself whilst simultaneously attesting to a time when Whitby was a double monastery run by communities of monks and nuns. Caedmon is today known as a layman whose duty was to tend to his cattle.
Folk tales recite how Caedmon, as a little-educated agricultural worker, could not match his fellow banqueters in expertise to sing at the local feasts: ‘if he saw the harp come towards him, he would rise up from table and go out and return home’. One night, after hurrying home from such a banquet, Caedmon fell asleep in the stables where he received his famous dream. In this dream, Caedmon was once again asked to sing. But to his surprise, Caedmon was now spontaneously gifted with the words and ability of song. He sang of ‘the beginning of creation’ – a tune which he remembered even upon awakening from his dream. This dream was considered a divine gift by the local monastery, into which he was subsequently welcomed. The cross was erected in celebration of this blessing which allowed Caedmon to continue to turn lines of scripture into beautiful songs for the local monks.
Famous portrait of Vlad Tepes from the 15th century
The most famous work associated with Whitby is the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker – perhaps one of the most famous archetypal vampire stories in the English language. Many recount how Stoker resided in Whitby on vacation to receive inspiration for his creative works during the year 1890. Although the location of his residence is much debated, many believe the address to have been ‘6 Royal Crescent’. The character of Dracula himself was based on a tyrannical prince from Eastern Europe called Vlad Tepes who was nicknamed ‘Dracula – The Son of the Dragon’. Stoker allegedly read about this prince when visiting the Whitby Public Lending Library. Furthermore, the inscriptions on headstones at the Church of St Mary reportedly inspired the names of Dracula’s victims within his novel - including the very first victim in Whitby who was known as ‘Swales’.
Views of the Whitby coastline were also said to have inspired the story of the Demeter – the ship in which Dracula brought his evil forces to Whitby. The Demeter itself was inspired by the legend of the wreckage of a Russian ship called the Dmitry which Stoker perhaps learnt about upon visiting the Whitby Museum. This cargo ship wrecked off the coast of Whitby in 1885. Just as Dracula’s ship arrived from Russia with several boxes of earth from his homeland, this Russian vessel reportedly carried “a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould”. Many other physical elements of Whitby are incorporated into Stoker’s story; for example, Lucy’s sleepwalking ventures into the churchyard. Views of this church and coastline have been preserved and commemorated today by the placement of ‘Dracula’s Seat’.
Depiction of the wreckage of the Dmitry during the 19th century
We might consider that such fictional stories are somewhat divorced from the physical archaeological heritage of Whitby. However, such literature is vastly informative regarding the social history of Victorian England at the time Dracula was written. This novel clearly embodies anxieties surrounding the liberation of women, alongside the marvels of technological innovation during this period – two elements which heavily influenced the literary genre known as The Gothic. In particular, the vampires within the work of Dracula have been perceived to represent male anxieties regarding what was known as the ‘New Woman’ during the Victorian period - and the dangers which women’s liberation could unleash upon society.
This was especially concerning traditional concepts of motherhood held by Protestant Christian families. Such concerns are evident in the naming of Lucy as the ‘Bloofer Lady’ (meaning beautiful lady) and descriptions of her ‘voluptuousness’. As such, she succumbs to Dracula’s influence and is turned into a vampire. Dracula’s arrival in Whitby therefore became a symbol of the transition of vampirism (and all that it represented for the Victorians) from Transylvania into the Western world. The successful battle of the Victorians against such ‘evils’ is embodied by the male protagonists who stake the vampires. A female character called Mina Harker is also hailed as a modest, sensible yet resourceful Victorian woman who remains loyal to Victorian ideals. However, much of the symbolism within this story can be interpreted in many ways.
Victorian depictions of vampires and the underlying connotations of the bedroom
There are numerous exciting events taking place this month to celebrate Whitby and its rich heritage. This is a prime example of inspirational efforts to create ‘non-traditional’ ways to involve various different groups in the appreciation of North Yorkshire’s heritage. The following events are taking place in Whitby this October:
· Illuminated Whitby Abbey: Sat 21 – Tue 31 October 2023
· Halloween Half Term at Whitby Abbey: Sat 21 October – Sun 5 November
· Whitby Goth Weekend: Fri 27 – Sun 29 October 2023
· The Dracula Trail: Year-round