Dracula, Cook and the Khyber Pass

August 30, 2020

A Pakistani vacationing by the North Sea relates his amazing journey of surprise upon surprise

Whitby – A beautiful seaside town in North Yorkshire, England. 

This is a true story, folks. It was in a quaint little town on the North Sea, about 50 miles northeast of York, England, where we stumbled upon all three -- Dracula, Capitan Cook and the Khyber Pass.

The town called Whitby is a very popular seaside resort immersed in history. It is renowned for many things, not least some of its residents. One of the most famous among those was a certain Captain Cook.

Captain Cook stands tall gazing at the North Sea from Whitbys the Eastern cliffs.

In 1746, a 19-year-old James Cook moved to Whitby for three years as an apprentice to John and Henry Walker, the Quaker coal shippers of Whitby. The old residence of John and Henry Walker today serves as a museum dedicated to Captain Cook. The displays include some very interesting personal items of the Captain, including an original hand-drawn map, a manuscript describing incidents on his voyage to the South Pole in 1773-74 and an official copy of his will.

Cook’s “Endeavour” (replica) sailing out of the Whitby Harbour.

A replica of Captain Cook’s famous ship, Endeavour, (built in Whitby) is also docked on the Whitby harbour. One can jump aboard for a small fee, setting sail for a 30 to 60-minute journey while singing songs along with other shipmates and the cheerful and informative crew.

Of course, Captain Cook is not the only famous resident of Whitby. Count Vlad, more commonly known as Dracula, was born in Whitby too. Bram Stoker, on his way back from Scotland, stopped over in Whitby for a while, setting up at Mrs Veazey’s guesthouse, at No 6 Royal Crescent, at the end of July 1890. It was here in the public library that he came across an account, in William Wilkins’ book, of the fascinating history of the Romanian Prince Vlad Tepis, also known as Dracula (Son of a Dragon) for his famous fighting spirit.

Bram Stoker’s view that was eternalised in “Dracula”. One can almost see Dracula landing on Whitby's shores and charging up those 199 steps.

While perched on the western cliffs of the town, looking across the pier at the eerie ruins of Whitby Abbey, Stoker became so fixated on the view that he went on to use the setting in his famous novel, Dracula. One of the early chapters of the novel has Dracula landing in Whitby in the form of a dog and bounding up the famous 199 steps leading to Whitby Abbey. If you are so inclined you can go looking for Dracula’s first fictional victim, buried somewhere in St Mary’s graveyard situated right next to the Abbey. Bram Stoker, it is said, took the name, Swales, from a tombstone in this graveyard.

St Mary’s graveyard where Dracula’s first victim still lies.

Today, the beginning of the 199 Steps is lined with innumerable souvenir shops, most of them selling Whitby’s most famous stone: the Whitby Jet. The stone became very popular amongst Victorian women when Queen Victoria took to wearing jet jewellery while in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert.

So enticing are these small shops and their glittering wares that it is humanly impossible to ignore them, as is obvious from the crowds they pull. I tried bounding up the steps like Dracula, just to avoid them. The tactic fails when you happen to have your better half with you.

Since jet jewellery does not come cheap for tourists, the stone sure lives up to its reputation as a symbol of mourning, mainly for married men who have to dish out precious sterling to buy the stuff for their relentless wives. I for one, can still feel the pain.

The famous 199 steps that start with the “Mourning” stone shops and lead up to Whitby Abbey.

In fact, so intent was I in trying to avoid the shops that I forgot to count the steps leading up to the Abbey.

The Abbey itself is as mysterious and beautiful as described in Stoker’s novel. The Benedictine monastery was, like so many others, destroyed by King Henry the VIII in 1539. Like many ruins, the Abbey has its own ghost story. It is said to be haunted by a nun, named Constance de Beverly, who was bricked alive for falling in love with a knight and revoking her vow of chastity.

The beautiful and eerie ruins of Whitby Abbey.

To reach Whitby Abbey on the eastern cliff from his residence at 6 Crescent on the western side, Stoker would perhaps have used the Khyber Pass. The Victorians were very proud of their colonial possessions, particularly the jewel in the crown, the undivided India -- often naming places in England after famous sites in their overseas colonies. One such Englishman was George Hudson, also known as the Railway King for bringing the rail to Whitby. In the mid-19th century, George Hudson purchased an estate on the western cliffs and built a road connecting the pier to his estates, naming it the Khyber Pass. The winding road, which can be covered in a 10-minute walk, has small tunnels reminiscent of the original Khyber Pass.

Whitby’s very own Khyber Pass tunnel for pedestrians.

If history is not the only thing that inspires you, Whitby has the best fish and chips in UK. There have been many ‘UK’s Best Fish & Chips’ title holders in Whitby over the years. For 2019, Trenchers, was voted as the best. Also, Whitby’s blue flagged beaches are very popular and quite crowded with tourists in the summer.

Whitby’s popular blue flagged beach.

And then of course, there is the annual Whitby Regatta, probably the oldest sea regatta in England (more than 170 years old), that usually takes place in August, packed full with a weekend of yacht and rowing races and ending with a magnificent fireworks display.

Hopefully Dracula will not land in Whitby again, so one can enjoy the clean and cool waters without a fear.

Speaking of Dracula, there is Whitby’s undeniable connection with the Gothic – don’t miss the Whitby Goth Weekend, happening since 1994. This bi-annual festival (held in April and October) attracts Goth tourism from all over the world. Most hotels in and around Whitby are fully booked around the time so it’s advisable to book well in advance.

All in all, Whitby is one of the best resort towns to visit in England with so much to see and marvel at. The best thing about the town is that there is something for everyone. Make sure it’s part of your travel itinerary to England and don’t forget your Goth costume.

The writer is a development professional and an avid traveller. He blogs at www.travelpangs.com and can be reached at niazakbar@gmail.com

Dracula, Cook and the Khyber Pass