Malcolm Barker: Weird and wonderful drawn to Whitby, like goths to a flame
The latest manifestation of problems created by Bram Stoker’s book emanates from the old churchyard of St Mary’s Parish Church, where the Rector of Whitby, the Rev David Smith, is seeking to discourage photographers from draping gloomily (and sometimes scantily) clad goths across the ancient stones.
The forthcoming gothic season will demonstrate whether the church’s admonitory notices have the desired effect. It will begin on October 27 with a five-day Fringe Festival carrying across Hallowe’en. The main event, Whitby Gothic Weekend, is scheduled for November 4 to 6.
Over those weekends, the town will be thronged by weird and wonderful sights as the goths gather, together with punks, steampunks, bikers, metallers, Victorians, rivetheads and members of other strange sects. They all seem to share a liking for dressing in black, face-painting, flesh-piercing and having a jolly good time.
It is doubtful whether many of them will be concerned about the Rector’s attempt to ban photography in the churchyard. They are there for fun, friendship and wonderfully cacophonous music.
They flock around looking about for oddities, like the Mancgoffs (Goths from Manchester) who, by tradition, carry rubber ducks round with them. It is a huge social gathering from Britain and abroad.
The participants may behave uproariously, but cause little trouble. One year, when there was some hooliganism and vandalism near the Parish Church, it was goths who paid reparations and made good the damage.
Jo Hampshire, founder-organiser of the weekends, has issued a statement offering full backing for the Rector and his churchwardens, and adding that the actions of a thoughtless minority were “not only disrespectful, but also offensive”.
The only people really miffed by the Parish Church’s attempt to retain the dignity of its churchyard are the Gotharazzi, the crowd of photographers who flock to town on the cloak-tails of the festival-goers in the hope of securing striking and bizarre images. One cameraman even suggested that the ban would put an end to the Goth Weekends, an unlikely claim.
The huge event which draws the cameras began in 1994, and from the start it was bigger than expected. Jo Hampshire, from Barnsley way, decided on a seaside holiday and suggested to some like-minded friends that they might want to come along. Having no knowledge of Whitby’s pubs she picked one from the telephone directory as a rendezvous, and hit on the Elsinore at the top end of Flowergate.
It is one of the town’s smaller pubs, but the landlord and his staff were welcoming and kept on smiling as more and more of Jo’s friends arrived, some 200 in all. Then there were the bands, with names like Inkubus, Nightmoves and 12 Candles. One musician recalled later that the pub did not seem big enough to fit the bands in, never mind the crowd.
Thus began what is now a bi-annual event. No link with Dracula was made in that hectic first weekend, but Bram Stoker’s black and gothic book soon cast its shadow over the Whitby Goth Weekends.
Published in 1897, it included a scene set among the Parish Church’s graves. At first Bram Stoker’s narrator, who was looking across the harbour, could see nothing, but as a cloud passed he thought he saw a dark shape behind a churchyard seat occupied by a figure in white. The shape bent over the figure: “What it was, whether man or beast, I could not tell.” In fact it was the evil Count, perhaps in the form of a dog, laying claim to poor Lucy, one of his victims.
Bram Stoker is not needed to make St Mary’s Churchyard a daunting place, especially at night when the moon appears in a rift in the clouds to send shadows chasing amid the weather-beaten stones. Many years ago it was a dare among Whitby lads to climb the famous 199 stairs in the dark and sit on a block of stone marked at one end with a skull and crossbones, The Pirate’s Grave, while the church clock chimed the hour.
Some, far more daring and foolhardy than I, undertook this feat at midnight, thus compounding the reputed horrors of the churchyard, barquests, gytrashes, headless horsemen, the undead and so on, with the threat of parental wrath aroused by their absence from their beds.
It was of course impious behaviour. Many generations of folk lie there, for it is the town’s hill of the dead, full of old Whitby family members, the Linskills, the Storms, the Nobles, the Drydens and, yes, the Barkers.
Coffins were borne up the 199 steps, sometimes set down on benches known as coffin-rests to provide brief respite for the pall-bearers. By tradition, funeral services were late in the day, and in the dark of winter the ancient church would be lit by candles.
The dead were then laid in their graves, where most slumber on awaiting the resurrection, but for a few there has been rude disturbance. From time to time erosion has caused skeletons to be ejected from the cliff face, whereupon they tumbled down onto Haggerlyth, causing great dismay.
The churchyard was closed for burials in 1861, and the town’s cemetery moved to Gallows Close, a name that might interest the goths. Over the years the winds and driving rain that scour the headland have ravaged St Mary’s headstones, so that inscriptions are either completely obliterated or rendered illegible.
Some names were collected by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society in 1877 before the weather chiselled them away. Now for the most part the townsfolk’s ancestors lie anonymous and at peace, long past caring about goths, photographers, Dracula, or, indeed, anything else.