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Paul Vallely: Where Dracula remains alive and well

19 August 2022

Whitby is a place where myth and history are entwined, finds Paul Vallely

Creative Commons

St Mary’s, Whitby

St Mary’s, Whitby

IN THE porch of St Mary’s Church on the cliff top in Whitby is a notice which reads: “Please do not ask staff where Dracula’s grave is as there isn’t one. Thank you”. A second notice points visitors towards a genuine historical character, Hilda, who founded the adjacent Whitby Abbey in 657. Interestingly Hilda appears, there, to have been renamed Hild. Of which more shortly.

In fact, there is a Dracula-linked gravestone in the clifftop churchyard. It commemorates William Swales, who died in 1751. Bram Stoker, the theatre manager turned novelist, who created Dracula, visited Whitby in 1890 and borrowed Swales’s name for the vampire’s first victim after Dracula’s ship docks in Whitby.

Swales is an interesting Stoker character. He tells the heroine that tombstones can hide as well as reveal the truth. An elaborate epitaph disguises the fact that the occupant of a grave committed suicide. When men died at sea, families buried an empty coffin to lay their loved ones’ souls to rest. Not all is as it seems.

Visitors should not bypass the church for the Abbey. It speaks its own history. A Norman tower and zig-zag arches predate the Early English Abbey. An ancient squint allows worshippers in the south transept to view the elevation of the Host at the high altar. Yet the architecture of old Christendom has been overpowered by an extraordinary jigsaw of 17th- and 18th-century box pews described by Pevsner as “hard to believe and impossible not to love”.

Over the pews towers a three-decker pulpit so high that the preacher could see every individual in the church. It speaks of the passage from Sacrament to Word which characterised a shift in Anglicanism which makes the apparently intractable differences aired at the Lambeth Conference seem survivable.

Ironically, up at the Abbey, Dracula is alive and unwell — or undead, at any rate. The gift shop is selling “125th anniversary edition” copies of Stoker’s novel. At weekends, Time Will Tell, an immensely skilled three-person theatre company, offers a dramatisation of Dracula which moves deftly from comedy through Hammer horror as it promenades through what Stoker called this “most noble ruin . . . full of beautiful and romantic bits”.

The new English Heritage guide to Whitby Abbey offers a distinctly less romantic view in a fascinating history that has been significantly rewritten (if I remember the old one correctly). Hilda has, unaccountably, been rechristened Hild. History is not constant, as St Mary’s Church shows.

Stoker happily mixes fact and fiction. A journalist by training, he drew, his notebooks show, on coastguard reports of Whitby shipwrecks, conversations with seamen about local legends, and a glossary of the local dialect. His epistolatory writing style, with multiple narrators telling the same tale from different perspectives, lends itself to the business of myth-making.

Whitby may be a crucible of English Christianity, with the poetry of Cædmon and Hilda’s synodical skill; but, as Brian Groom notes in his engaging book Northerners: A history, local folklore insists that Hilda turned a plague of snakes to stone and threw them off the cliff. It’s a medieval explanation of the ammonite fossils found in the rocks below. Yet even myths speak of the pull of eternity.

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