The Undead

Yesterday I visited the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, on Whitby’s East Cliff, whose graveyard was used as a setting by Abraham (Bram) Stoker in his story “Dracula “. A recording of Bruckner’s 1869 motet, “Locus iste” was playing, doing nothing to minimise Whitby’s Gothic associations. Two significant land slips, in November 2012 and later, led to human remains falling to the street below the churchyard, I learned.

It is a hundred and twenty eight years this week since Stoker spent a week at Mrs Veazey’s lodgings on the West Cliff’s Royal Crescent, Whitby, before being joined on holiday by his wife and baby son. The Crescent was in fact only ever half completed; commissioned by George Hudson, the “Railway King”, its development abruptly ceased when his financial corruption came to light.

Five years before the Stokers came to visit, the brigantine Dmitry had run ashore in Collier’s Hope at Whitby during a violent storm, only to succumb to the following morning’s tide.The blog “Wreck of the Week” explains:

“She must have been among the most memorable of the many wrecks at Whitby, her loss to a freak accident in apparent safety a shocking counterpoint to her safe arrival when all seemed lost.”

This too was used as material by Stoker, appearing as the Russian schooner Demeter, from Varna. In his story, the ship’s crew are already dead when it runs aground, and a huge black hound leaps ashore to run up the 199 steps towards Whitby Abbey. The vampire Dracula has arrived.

“Jet black” is easily identified in Whitby. Its etymology lies in the Greek gagates: “from Gagai” (a town in Asia Minor). The mineraloid jet, derived from decaying wood under extreme pressure, is most frequently found in seams of shale between Robin Hood’s Bay and Boulby. A distinctive “Jet line” appears above sea level, and the seams extend under the sea, pieces often breaking away in rough weather to be washed up on shore.

Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, his widow Queen Victoria decreed that only jet jewellery was to be worn by the women of her Court in the first year of mourning, beginning a huge wave of popularity for it as an accessory.

In March this year, the Northern Echo reported that the meteorological Beast from the East had sucked millions of tons of sand from the beach at Redcar, twenty five miles up the coast from Whitby, to make the most complete revelation for many decades of the 6000 year old petrified forest and peatbed below.

“Dracula” was first published as a play entitled “The Undead”, and Stoker hoped that the actor Henry Irving, for whom he worked as business manager, would take the lead role. After a test performance, Irving said that he never wanted to see it again. However, Stoker retained Irving’s aristocratic bearing and histrionic acting style for his main character, successfully redrafting his play as an epistolary novel.

I slept well after my visit to the coast on one of the hottest days on record. This morning, I walked past York Minster, Northern Europe’s second largest Gothic Cathedral. It was here that in 1984 the late David Jenkins, known for his controversial theological statements, was consecrated as Bishop of Durham. The consecration was twice interrupted by protesters. Two days after the service, the Minster was struck by lightning and badly damaged by fire. This morning, I hear thunder reverberate around its belltowers.

They say there’s a blood moon tonight.

Postscript: another day passes, and I am on the train to London. I reach p177 of Jane Rogers’ 1991 novel “Mr Wroe’s Virgins”. The plot, at this point in Hannah’s voice, takes us to a new location:

“Whitby is a charming town.”

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