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The Ghosts of Haunted Whitby
Whitby is an old port on the North Yorkshire coast that is nestled among towering cliffs and where the River Esk meets the sea. It is an ancient town of winding cobbled streets, old red-roofed cottages, hotels and shops. These days it derives most of its income from fishing and tourism, but in the past whaling was one of its major industries.
The Whitby Whaling Company was founded in 1753 and the massive jaw bones of a whale stand on the West Cliffs as a reminder of the times when the town had a successful fleet of 55 whaling ships. Whitby is a busy town, and its population grows hugely during the summer months when the tourists arrive. However, it also boasts an altogether different type of resident; one that walks the streets and old buildings at night putting fear into the hearts of those unlucky enough to see them. For Whitby is a haunted place, and is home to many ghosts, apparitions and old folktales.
On the crest of the East Cliff stand the dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey, a reminder of the power and dominance once wielded by the Church in medieval times. The building of Whitby Abbey was started in 657 AD and was a religious foundation for both men and women. It was destroyed by the Vikings in 870 AD and then rebuilt after the Norman Conquest in 1067. The Abbey was founded by St Hilda, who regarded climbing the 199 steps that lead up to the building as a test of faith.
St Hilda is also believed to have rid the local area of snakes by chasing them to the edge of the cliffs and striking off their heads with a whip. Not surprisingly, in view of Whitby Abbey’s great age, there are several ghosts that are associated with the ruins. It has been said that St Hilda’s ghost, wrapped in her shroud, still roams the Abbey that she founded. Her ghost has been seen frequently in one of the Abbey’s highest windows, and the story of the apparition even made it into Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula.
Another ghostly denizen of Whitby Abbey is the pitiful wraith of Constance de Beverley. She was a young nun at the Abbey, but fell in love with a handsome young knight and broke her vows of chastity. Her transgression was discovered and she was cruelly bricked up alive in a wall of the dungeons, where she screamed for days until she eventually died. Her ghost has been seen by many people on the stairs leading up from the dungeon, still screaming and pleading to be freed from her prison of a tomb.
Haunted Lighthouses and Old Hotels
Whitby is also home to two lighthouses that were built in 1833. The tallest of the lighthouses stands on the West Pier and is now open for tourists to climb the steep, winding stairs. Unfortunately, the stairs of the lighthouse are supposedly haunted by a one-armed ghost. This phantom is the ghost of a Whitby man who is said to have fallen from the nearby cliffs to his death on the rocks below. He grins at unwary visitors and attempts to trip them on the steps, trying to get them to join him in death by falling just as he did.
The oldest building in the town is Bagdale Hall which was built in 1516. This old Tudor mansion is now a hotel, but as well as the usual amenities offered by a hotel the guests also have the chance of experiencing a ghostly encounter in its corridors. A former owner of Bagdale Hall was called Browne Bushell, who was apparently a dastardly character who ended up being executed for piracy. His ghost has been seen on the stairs of the hotel and been heard by many of the hotel guests. Bagdale Hall is also said to have been a centre of poltergeist activity in its time.
The Barguest Hound and the Barguest Coach
Whitby also is haunted by a spectral hound called the barguest. The barguest was a hound of hell, with fiery, glowing eyes, that prowled the streets of after dark. Any poor soul that heard the fearsome howls of the barguest would have been instantly stricken with terror, as only those who were soon to die could hear the unearthly calls of the hell hound. Whitby’s streets are also walked by other ghosts. At the Fitzsteps a ghost is seen wandering the path between Prospect Hill and Ruswarp, with his severed head neatly tucked under his arm. There is also an elemental spirit like a goblin called hob that is said to roam the back lanes of nighttime Whitby.
In Whitby sailors who had the misfortune to die on dry land and are buried in the earth rather than at sea, find that their graves are visited on the third night after their funerals by the ghostly Barguest Coach. The Barquest coach is pulled by headless horses and its passengers are a group of skeletal sailors who come to pay their respects to their fellow deceased seafarer. The ghostly coach travels through St Mary’s Churchyard and takes three turns around the grave which summons the corpse from the grave to join the phantom crew. The coach and its ghostly crew then drive off to be swallowed up in the darkness of the night.
Hand of Glory - Whitby Museum
One of the most grisly exhibits in Whitby Museum, and one of the most popular, is a ‘Hand of Glory’. A ‘Hand of Glory’ is a severed hand that was reputedly cut from the arm of an executed criminal while the body was still hanging from the gibbet. A ‘Hand of Glory’ was used by burglars as a light as it was believed that the ‘Hand of Glory’ would prevent the inhabitants of a house being burgled from waking up.
The preparation of the ‘Hand of Glory’ involved getting rid of all the blood from the hand, then embalming it in a shroud and immersing it in a mixture of saltpetre, salt and pepper for a fortnight. The ghastly hand was then dried out in the sun. The light was created by making a candle from the fat from the corpse of a man who had been hanged, wax and sesame from Lapland, which was then placed between the fingers of the hand and lit when the burglar broke into a house.
Bram Stoker and Dracula
Ironically, Whitby’s most famous supernatural association comes from between the pages of a book, rather than from the recollection of a ghostly encounter or gleaned from local folklore. Bram Stoker based part of his famous vampire novel ‘Dracula’ in Whitby. Bram Stoker spent time researching in the library to learn the history of the old harbour town and talking with the old sailor’s and hearing their yarns. He would have been told the story of the ship called Demetrius; a Russian schooner that a few years earlier had been wrecked on the rocks surrounding Whitby.
The Demetrius had been carrying a cargo of coffins and for some time afterwards, decaying corpses would be found washed up on the shore. In the famous novel, Dracula arrives in Whitby on a ship called the Demeter that was also carrying a cargo of coffins and it was in the town that Dracula turned Lucy Westenra into a vampire. The Bram Stoker Memorial Seat was erected in 1980 on the spot on the southern end of the West Cliff where Bram Stoker is believed to have received his inspiration for the part of the novel that is set in Whitby.
Whitby has a wide range of tourist accommodation, so if you want to go ghost hunting there are many hotels and guest houses to choose from. If you want to retrace the steps of Dracula around Whitby or go on a Ghost Walk, try one of the walks led by Harry Collett who very aptly wears a long black frock coat, black top hat and black sunglasses to take you on his spooky strolls. However, beware of hearing the howling of the barguest hound or of being tripped up on the steps of the West Pier lighthouse, or your holiday might be the very last break that you ever take!