High upon the clifftops it looms stoically, surveying the narrow, cobbled streets and still harbour waters below. Whitby Abbey is a gothic monument to a symbolic history of worship to both heaven and hell. A home to the Benedictine Monks contrasted against the inspiration for one of literature’s most hellish creations – Dracula.
These gothic roots stem from the base of the ancient abbey, winding through the town of Whitby which sits, as it has done for centuries, against a timeless antiquity of intrigue, industry and that formidable fanged shadow of the infamous Transylvanian Count.
A small settlement was first bestowed the name of ‘Witebi’ in 1078 meaning ‘white settlement’ in Old Norse. From these sparse beginnings a minor town would begin to emerge from the original twenty houses and a modest population of two hundred. Through each decade Whitby would transform, focusing on the essence of community and ingenuity to ensure its place in history.
These valuable themes saw the Yorkshire coastal town become the third largest shipbuilder in England, after London and Newcastle. From 1790 to 1791, Whitby built 11,754 tons of shipping, increasing taxes on imports and allowing the residents to extend the town’s twin piers.
Whitby has become synonymous with the traditional British delicacy of Fish and Chips. Restaurants are scattered across the length and breadth of Whitby each proclaiming to be the best, but there is one which stands out amongst them all – The Royal Fisheries. Their golden battered Cod and crinkled cut chips have been a staple of the town for decades, becoming a beating heart within the community.
Whilst Whitby has become tantamount with its proud fishing history, there was a time when the town was renowned for its whaling community. Within the year 1814 eight ships caught 172 whales, ensuring that Whitby owned over 230 tons of whale oil, the currency of the day. Standing at the precipice of the West Cliff is an archway constructed from whale bones; a tribute to a bygone era of seafaring.
Away from industry, Whitby has been the innovative home of adventure and the mysterious addiction of humanity’s thirst for exploration. James Cook’s iconic ship Endeavour was built here by Tomas Fishburn, though under the name of Earl of Pembroke. She was purchased by the Navy in 1768, refitted and renamed. A replica of the infamous ship set sail from its predecessors’ birthplace and retraced the historic route Cook first undertook all those years ago, with a smaller version taking tourists on short trips outside of the harbour.
Away from the physical and industrial footprint set by Whitby, the town is renowned as a place of creative inspiration. Acclaimed authors have been mesmerized by the narrow streets, fisherman cottages and the statuesque abbey ruins set high atop the cliffs.
Lewis Carrol, the celebrated author behind Alice In Wonderland, stayed in Whitby with many historians believing that his first publications may have been featured within the local Whitby Gazette newspaper. James Russell Lowell and Charles Dickens also visited the fishing town, falling in love with Whitby’s unique and constant heritage.
Though perhaps the most famous and enduring author whose iconic and original horror story has become an image of the gothic sentiment of Whitby is Bram Stoker. Upon seeing the towering abbey ruins, the Irish author was inspired to write the town into his classic horror masterpiece Dracula, making Whitby the location of the Vampire’s initial arrival to England against a terrible storm.
Today, Whitby looks upon Bram Stoker and his monstrous creation with immense pride. The original house that looked out onto the gothic ruins which first inspired Stoker has become a popular tourist attraction. Every year a festival celebrating all things Gothic is held, attracting a vast congregation of Vampire fans and admirers of the original bloodsucker.
Whilst Dracula may be symbolic to Whitby’s inspiring nature, Saltwick Bay and Black Nab are a source of the town’s iconic precious stone – Whitby Jet.
Favoured by Queen Victoria the black shining stone which is mined from the small rocky out croft named Black Nab, became one of her favourite pieces of jewellery. Victoria believed that it enabled her to maintain a sense of prestige whilst in mourning for her beloved husband, Prince Albert. Since then Whitby Jet has become a prized gem adorning many necklaces, rings and brooches.
On face value, Whitby ticks the traditional checklist of a seaside resort; small quaint shops, restaurants and shanty houses. Yet beneath the harbour-life skin there is a distinctive soul of intrigue and adventure. Whitby provides a new discovery with every visit, unravelling a history previously unknown. Whether it be the inspiration for a horror classic, or the hidden pirate graves buried away in the corner of the clifftop graveyard of the Church of Saint Mary, this ancient coastal town is always willing to showcase its secrets.
Whitby’s gothic imagery has ensured its place in literature, but its warmth of spirit, community and ancestry has seen it endure the hardships of changing times and sentiments. This coastal town has inspired ingenuity, creativity and history guaranteeing that that symbolic and statuesque abbey will continue to stand surveying from those iconic cliff tops.
If you want to experience Whitby Abbey, you can book tickets on English Heirtage's Website here.