WHITBY: TOWN OF A MAGIC DREAM
The Yorkshire fishing town of Whitby is the location for a new film based on the haunting, supernatural stories of Arthur Machen. CAROLYN WAUDBY explores the weird credentials of the town where St Hilda turned serpents to stone and Dracula first arrived i
Whitby is the location for a new film based on the haunting stories of Arthur Machen. CAROLYN WAUDBY explores the weird credentials of the town where Dracula first arrived in England...
T he northern fishing town of Whitby has in recent decades become famous – or infamous – for its Goth Weekends. Large-scale cultural events, held at Hallowe’en and Easter, they attract thousands of visitors, celebrating gothic and alternative culture through music, film, and especially costume. Figures in top hats, blackVictorian crinolines, or sexed-up Hammer horror-style vampire garb can be seen strolling Whitby’s cobbled streets or climbing the 199 steps to its ruined clifftop abbey and church.
Whitby Goth Weekend was founded in 1994, and built on one of the town’s great claims to fame: that Count Dracula himself sailed into the harbour aboard the
Demeter in Bram Stoker’s famous novel of 1897 (see ‘Bram Stoker in Whitby’ on p42). But Whitby’s outré credentials extend far beyond the well-known vampire and were already established long before Stoker took up lodgings and penned his seminal bestseller. In fact, they stretch back millennia, to some of the earliest land and sea creatures. Add to the mix slaughter, shipwrecks, and a lucrativeVictorian industry associated with death itself and Whitby has more than its fair share of weirdness.
FOSSILS AND WHALES
Whitby’s coast is Jurassic. Its cliffs are embedded with ammonites and the skeletons of giant marine dinosaurs, exposed to the light and modern eyes for the first time due to the constant nibbling and thrashing of North Sea waves on its soft shale and sandstone.
Equally old and mysterious is jet, for which Whitby has become renowned. This type of brown coal – formed from the fossilised wood of a tree similar to the present day Araucaria or Monkey Puzzle, washed into the sea and rivers and crushed by detritus – has been used as a jewel and talisman for over 4,000 years. The ancient Greeks and Romans named it Gagates, after Gages, a town and river in south-western Turkey. They believed it had both magical and curative powers, and could, for example, ward off serpents. Jet was, and still is, found washed up on Whitby’s beaches and its residents became skilled in carving and polishing it into jewellery. A booming fashion industry was spawned when QueenVictoria adopted it on the death of her consort Prince Albert (see ‘Jet and Death’ on p40).
Prior to this, Whitby, with its location on England’s north-eastern coast, had become a major port in the bloody and dangerous trade of whaling. In 1753, several local merchants formed the Whitby Whaling Company and set off from the town’s harbour to Greenland. Between then and 1833 there were 55 whaling ships operating out of Whitby, and it is thought that the town’s whaling industry was responsible for the harvest of over 25,000 seals, 55 polar bears and 2,761 whales. Great boiler houses were built alongside the harbour to render the whale blubber into oil. Although whaling offered local men employment, many boats were lost to angry waves or crushed by ice, their crews going down with them.
THE HAPPY CHILDREN
The Welsh supernatural writer and journalist Arthur Machen visited the town in November 1916 when he was despatched by the London Evening News to pen features on life on the Home Front – in particular to cover the resurgence of the town’s jet industry as the growing number of war dead created an expanding market for funeral jewellery. As a literary visitor, he followed in the footsteps not just of Stoker but also Lewis Carroll.
Carroll first stayed for a week in 1854 with a group of students studying mathematics before attending Oxford University. In later life, he returned several times with his family, lodging at what is now La Rosa Hotel on the West Cliff – a location used in the new Machen films. Carroll was bewitched by the town, and scholars are pretty certain it helped fuel his wildly imaginative Alice tales.
Machen too was instantly struck by Whitby’s unique aura of the strange and supernatural. Having arrived by train, he stayed at the Angel Inn, a few hundred yards from the station. From here, he took evening strolls along the town’s cobbled streets and up and down its steep, narrow alleyways to the clifftops, where he looked
down on the fishermen’s houses with their uneven rows of red roofs.
The wartime blackout meant there was very little light, and Machen describes a full moon shining on the Abbey walls, the water and the “rocking boats”, making him feel as if he had entered an “ancient city of enchantment”. Further on in that same article of 14 November – “Wonderful Whitby in the Moonlight” – he writes: “It has been said that when one looks out over the country at night one sees in fact a mediæval landscape; and so I shall always hold that I saw at Whitby that night a mediæval city.”
Whitby inspired him to go beyond the journalistic assignment that had brought him there, and to pen a short story – The
Happy Children. The tale is a mixture of fact and fiction based on Machen’s stay in the town, which he renames Banwick. Its central character is, like Machen, a journalist from London who arrives in the evening by train. He walks from the station and describes the scene that greets him: “… when I stood on the quay there was the most amazing confusion of red-tiled roofs that I have ever seen, and the great grey Norman church high on the bare hill above them; and below them the boats swinging in the swaying tide, and the water burning in the fires of the sunset. It was the town of a magic dream.”
The Happy Children, which like most of Machen’s wartime output is a mixture of ghostly atmosphere, religious mysticism and subtle propaganda, takes place on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, celebrated on 28 December each year to commemorate the children massacred by Herod and traditionally regarded as the first Christian martyrs. In the religious ceremony, the children of a community are gathered in their local church to receive a blessing; but in Machen’s tale the children are out playing in the dark streets late into the night, their unnatural singing echoing along the town’s narrow alleyways. They are dressed all in white, while some are dripping in seaweed and others sport horrific, bloody wounds as they wind their way up to the steps to the Abbey church. In his article “In The Footsteps of Arthur Machen”, 1 Simon Clark puts forward the idea that Machen’s ‘happy children’ were apparitions of the many children killed when the Lusitania was torpedoed by the Germans the year before.
The Happy Children is one of six Machen tales filmed for the first time by Julian Butler and University of Bradford academic Mark Goodall. 2 While Whitby itself was the obvious choice for the filming of The
Happy Children, Goodall decided it would be equally perfect for the other Arthur Machen stories he has adapted for the screen – The Cosy Room, The White Powder, The Ritual, The
Bowmen and Midsummer – a package that pays homage to the portmanteau films of the 1970s under the overall title of Holy Terrors (itself taken from a collection of Machen tales published just before the author’s death in 1947).
Goodall chose these stories for their “mysterious atmosphere that would translate well into film”. Apart from a BBC production of The Shining Pyramid, he believes there have been no small screen versions of Machen’s writings – unlike the numerous television adaptations of M R James’s ghost stories, of which Goodall was a big fan. “The atmosphere was really strong. They would film them in rural locations and desolate landscapes. It wasn’t an urban form of terror, it was really genteel,” he explains. “They wouldn’t show a lot. They used suggestion to create atmosphere and they stayed in your head longer.”
The Holy Terrors films are all shot in black and white, bar Midsummer, which Goodall says “seemed to require the colour and mood of a summer night”.
Filming took place at La Rosa Hotel and other actual Whitby locations such as the Black Horse pub and the White Horse and Griffin Hotel and Restaurant. The latter two premises stand on cobbled Church Street, which leads to the Abbey Steps. Both buildings are said to be haunted, and the White Horse and Griffin boasts Charles Dickens among its illustrious former guests.
The fact that Whitby hasn’t changed much over time enhances its strange characteristics, Goodall believes. “You do feel as if you’re going back to a different age.”
A Whitby resident of 10 years, Mark Goodall believes part of the town’s palpable feel of the supernatural arises from the fact it has retained much of its traditional rituals and folklore. “Some aspects of folklore are strange and disturbing when you look back at them,” he observes.
The town museum displays one of the few remaining examples of a Hand of Glory – the severed right hand of a hanged criminal used as a talisman. 3 Whitby’s Hand of Glory was found behind the lintel of a door in a cottage in Castleton, in the parish of Danby, North Yorkshire. It was accepted that the hand, which had been meticulously ‘prepared’, was a talisman which could guarantee the success of burglars. According to a pamphlet written by Cecilia Hunter and Paul Pearson, the last recorded instance of this sort of charm being used for a break-in
was 1850 at Baysdale Abbey. The power of the hand was said to come from the fact it had been ritually prepared and had been cut from the limb of a man hanging from the gibbet. In North Yorkshire, the criminal had to be a hanged murderer, but lesser criminals were deemed acceptable in other parts of the country. A gibbet once stood on the moors above Castleton and could be the provenance of the Whitby hand.
Then there is the mediæval custom of the annual building of the ‘Penny Hedge’, believed to date back to 1159. 4 It takes place on the Eve of Ascension each year at a small, muddy beach known as Boyes Staith on the east side of Whitby harbour. It is said to stem from an incident in which three noblemen chased and killed a boar in front of the altar of a hermit in his cell. When the hermit protested, he was badly injured and later died in the Abbey hospital. He forgave the huntsmen, but the Abbot’s court brought them to trial and found them guilty on two charges.
A penance was laid upon them and their heirs. At sunrise on Ascension Eve they were to cut stakes with a knife and carry them on their backs to the town at low tide. Then they were ordered to set them at the edge of the water so that they could withstand three tides. If they or their descendants refused, they would surrender their land to the abbot. The hedge has never fallen and continues to be built today to resist the strongest tides.
And for Goodall it is the sea that is perhaps the most enduring and perhaps the most magical aspect of the old fishing town. “The North Sea is very uncompromising. The
Happy Children begins and ends with the sea. The cameraman just filmed it and I thought it was great.”
ABOUT THE FILM
Holy Terrors was launched at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford and has screened at a number of film festivals. There will also be a screening of the films in Sheffield during October as part of the Off The Shelf Festival, with an introduction by Mark Goodall and Dave Clarke. For further information and details of future screenings visit: facebook.com/HolyTerrorsFilm/. A DVD, with a facsimile of The Town of a Magic Dream booklet edited by Richard Dalby, can be purchased from email@example.com.
1 In The Town of A Magic Dream: Arthur Machen in Whitby published by Mark Valentine in 1987.
2 See Cecilia M Hunter & Paul D Pearson, ‘The Hand of Glory: The Story of a Thieves Talisman’, Whitby Archives Local History Series 17; Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society, ‘The Hand of Glory’, Museum and Library Research Paper No 1. 3 See Homer Sykes, Once A Year: Some Traditional British Customs, Gordon Fraser, London, 1977. REFERENCES Helen and Katy Muller, Whitby Jet, Shire Publications, 2013.
Mark Valentine, Arthur Machen, Seren, 1995. Richard Dalby ed, The Town of a Magic Dream: Arthur Machen in Whitby, Caermaen, 1987.
Alan Brooke, Haunted Whitby, The History Press, 2009.
CAROLYN WAUDBY is a journalist, lecturer and poet and a frequent visitor to Whitby. She has a strong interest in folklore, the supernatural and travel and has previously contributed to the Fortean Traveller section.
LEFT: Arthur Machen. FACING PAGE: Visitors to Whitby Goth Weekend descend the 199 steps from the ruined clifftop abbey to the town.
ABOVE: An atmospheric view of Whitby in 1890, with the Abbey looming above the harbour. OPPOSITE AND BELOW: Stills from the portmanteau film Holy Terrors.
ABOVE LEFT: The annual ceremony of planting the Penny Hedge, which dates back over 800 years, seen here being carried out in 1935. ABOVE RIGHT: St Hilda, with serpent-like ammonites at her feet: they were traditionally believed to be the snakes she had cast from the cliffs and turned to stone. BELOW: Whitby Museum’s Hand of Glory – the severed right hand of a hanged criminal, possibly taken from a gibbet on the moors above Castleton.