Trail of the unexpected: Gothic Whitby

North Yorkshire hides some dark secrets that come alive at Hallowe'en

The wind came wheeling across the harbour, clipping headlands, tossing seagulls into an ecstasy of screeches. Fish and chip smells curled invisibly over the bridge that spanned the river Esk. I gulped the air. Welcome to Whitby, North Yorkshire's gem, storm-tossed and marvellously British. Then the sun came out and spoilt it.

"Smashing day," said the tiny woman queuing beside me outside the Magpie fish and chip shop. "Perfect weather for a cape." Her face was white, her lips were black, and her name was Lucy. She was a goth. "I'm here for the Goth Weekend. Twice a year," she said. "The other one's due on Hallowe'en."

In the Magpie's restaurant, goths were crooking little fingers, supping tea, devouring heaped platefuls. I told Lucy that I was chasing the past, following the literary footsteps of Caedmon the poet. He was big here.

"Never heard of him," Lucy said. I tried Captain Cook, Whitby's illustrious former son and England's greatest explorer. "What did he write?" she asked, then added, "Only joking."

I escaped with haddock and chips, committing gluttony all the way along the harbour front, gazing up across the phalanx of bobbing masts and the crazy tickertape of birds, towards tiers of cottages climbing the hill to the jaw-boned cliffs above the North Sea. There stood the silhouetted abbey, the site of Caedmon's ancient cross. Just then a pensioner in vampire attire appeared and didn't give me a second nip.

Whitby plays host to tourists of every disposition. An open-topped tour bus – laden with trippers – blazed past in the distance; a gothic hearse, its coffin open, stalked the riverside. At the harbour-mouth a bungee jumper swung like a human pendulum, scaring the fish.

Yes, Whitby, with its pretty bunched-up medieval streets, was surviving its twice-annual invasion; its taverns and cafes, its little butchers' shops selling pork scratchings, were crowded with buyers. All along Church Street, bijou galleries selling jet (a polished black stone), or paintings and guidebooks, and home-made fudge, were proving the point: it was "business as usual". The exception was the candy floss, which – in honour of the Gothic weekend, I presumed – had undergone a blue rinse.

After that, I ran into a posse of noisy Australians who were also chasing Cook's ghost. They pored over maps of his famous voyages in the bookshops along Grape Lane – so twisty and dark it was once called "Grope".

Others crowded the small museum that had reputedly been Cook's lodgings back in 1746. Its exhibits include Cook's effigy, his charts and letters home, and Pacific islanders bare-breasted in an etching.

From the attic window I stared past the cluttered memorabilia and gazed – as Cook might have done from his hammock – at a seagull perched on a chimney. And I sniffed the sea.

You can't miss the sea, wherever you stand: its scent, its murmuring presence. It once made Whitby a thriving whaling port, it brought pilgrims here, and these days children splash and dabble at its edge by the west pier beach. They appear unaware that Count Dracula was once shipwrecked within the shadow of the cliffs in Bram Stoker's flesh-creeping haunted-horror tale.

Stoker, it is said, slept in the graveyard of tiny St Mary's, the church perched high in the shade of the abbey, and dreamt his spectre into existence. I climbed the 199 steps from the cobbled wynd at the end of Church Street, and then, leaden-footed, turned to look back. Tarnished headstones, black with age, their inscriptions faded, lay all around me, exuding a gothic sense of detachment; a toy-sized fishing boat ploughed its furrow towards the horizon. And there, from its plinth on the farther headland James Cook's statue raised one arm, or so it seemed.

The abbey dominates everything. It looms. It's tried to update itself with an interactive visitor centre. But 1,400 years of crumbling atmosphere haunts the site. Walking the ruins, I couldn't wait to slip back to the town, pausing only to read the inscription on Caedmon's cross: "The Father of English Sacred Song, fell asleep hard by, 680."

St Mary's church was full of old box-pews and rumours of Cook. I lit a candle, not knowing why, then began my descent.

In the Duke of York inn at the base of the steps, I sat in an alcove. I was surrounded by pictures of Whitby's past: the wreck of the Demeter, Dracula's vessel; sepia photographs of 19th-century graft; Cook's ship, the Endeavour.

I supped a pint of Black Sheep ale, staring out at Whitby, no longer in sunshine, intensely itself.

Two windswept goths came in looking hungry. The vampire-lookalike said to the barman with breathtaking aptness, "Any chance of grabbing a bite?"

Outside, a donkey padded across the sands, its tiny passenger clutching a spade. A new generation cutting its teeth on English grit.

Travel essentials: Whitby

Staying there

* Whitby Lighthouse-keeper's Cottage (01386 701177; ruralretreats.co.uk). Two nights starts at £377.

Eating & drinking there

* The Magpie Café (01947 602058; magpiecafe.co.uk)

Trenchers Seafood Restaurant, New Quay Road (01947 603212; trenchersrestaurant.co.uk).

Visiting

* Captain Cook Memorial Museum, Grape Lane (01947 601900; cookmuseumwhitby.co.uk). Adult £4.50, child £3.

Whitby Abbey (01947 603568; english-heritage.org.uk). Adult £5.80, child £2.90.

* Whitby Gothic Weekend takes place 29-31 October (wgw.topmum.co.uk).

More information

* Whitby Tourist Information: 01947 602674; visitwhitby.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
LifeReddit asked a simple question with infinite answers this week
Life and Style
Pepper, the 3ft 11in shiny box of circuits who can tell jokes and respond to human emotions
techDavid McNeill tests the mettle of one of the new generation of androids being developed in Tokyo
Life and Style
beauty
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice