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About A Week: Dracula

Thousands of visitors to Whitby, the Yorkshire coastal town, still choose to believe that Dracula was a historical character and is buried in St Mary's churchyard.

Peter Hinchliffe tells of Bram Stoker's famous novel.

The show begins with a close-up of a gravestone, its inscription scoured by fierce North Sea tempests. "This is not Dracula's grave," Sandy Boyle announces calmly. "He never lived. And even if he had done so he would have stayed well away from a Christian burial ground."

Hundreds of gullible folk still choose to believe that the blood-sucking count was an historical character. Down on Whitby's harbour side, where the smell of fresh fish collides with the reek of fried hamburgers, a sideshow offers the opportunity to see Dracula rise from the grave.

On the East cliff, atop 199 steps, high above the roofs of the old town, is St Mary's church, which features prominently in Bram Stoker's famous novel.

One of the central characters in the book, Mina Murray, records in her journal: "There is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones. This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town and has a full view of the harbour and all up the bay to where the headland called Kettleness stretches out into the sea."

Those who mistake fiction for fact, breathless after a long stair climb, go haphazardly from grave to grave, searching in vain for the name Dracula.

Stoker became the business manager of actor Sir Henry Irving in 1878. The two men holidayed a number of times in the Whitby area. The old fishing town, with its hilly warren of cobbled streets, fuelled Stoker's imagination. His hugely successful novel, Dracula, published in 1897, begins in Transylvania then switches to Whitby. Count Dracula, in the shape of a huge black dog, leaps from a stricken ship in Whitby harbour and disappears into a maze of alleyways.

The novel has inspired more than 800 films. In 1956 Bella Lugosi, one. of the most famous actors to play the count, was buried in his Dracula cloak.

"We're fed up of being asked where Dracula is buried," says Sandy Boyle. Sandy spent his early boyhood in Whitby then travelled the world. He was in the merchant navy for 11 years. After that he worked in the oil industry, spending time in the Middle East, Africa and Iran.
Sandy returned to Whitby when he retired. For the past five years he has been steeped in historical research. Whitby has one of the richest stories of any town of its size in England.

His slide show about St Mary's, which sails on its cliff-top site like a storm-battered stone ship, presents a fascinating condensed history of the town as well as the church. And it begins most appropriately by pointing out the difference between real events and the creation of a novelist's hothouse mind.

Sandy believes that a wattle-and-daub church probably stood on the site of St Mary's. This primitive structure would have been where the servants of St Hilda's monastery, built in 657, would have worshipped.
The present St Mary's has box pews built in the 1600s, an upper gallery where the gentry could sit above lesser mortals, an Elizabethan altar table and a triple decker pulpit.

To think of St Mary's as a stone ship which has sailed evenly along through the centuries is not too fanciful. Shipwrights worked on the building, carrying out renovations and erecting additions.

The Scoresbys, father and son, both captains of whaling ships, worshipped at St Mary's. The father, Captain William Scoresby, born in 1760, a renowned navigator, invented the crow's nest to protect seamen from severe weather conditions while on watch in Arctic seas.

"Why call it a crow's nest?" Sandy Boyle asked himself, musing over the name of the barrel look-out post placed on top of a ship's mast. "Why not name it after a seabird? A gull's nest? That would have been more appropriate."

He has a fascinating theory. He thinks William Scoresby had in mind the vicar of St Mary's in his gown, ascending like a huge black crow into that high pulpit of a Sunday morning. Not too long ago Sandy was talking to some French visitors to St Mary's. He asked if they had a nickname for their priest. "The old black crow," was the reply.

Sandy's splendid slide show is presented free of charge in a curtained-off section of pews at St Mary's. A donation towards church maintenance is welcomed and a video of the show is available.

By the way, Dracula is an astonishingly well-written book. Within the first two pages it enmeshes you in its spell. On the front cover of the
Penguin edition is a picture of Sir Henry Irving, looking suitably spooky and menacing in the stage role of Mephistopheles.

Perhaps the picture should be replaced by a warning in large letters. THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION.

But please not in blood-red type.


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