Some say that Whitby’s red sky at night is its own bloody history burning like celluloid across the clouds.
There is no doubt that this old fishing-smacked village on the North Yorkshire coast is a place where the roads of the dead have often crossed. And indeed shipping clerk Bram Stoker was so taken by Whitby’s darkness that he based his terrifying story of Dracula there.
Even today some pundits of the occult say it is the blood of Dracula’s young innocent victims which defiles the sky as the sun sinks into the sea.
Others though say the redness is because of the curse of the Bargtjest, the Hound of Hell that dines in the gutters of the fishing village on hearts and lungs torn from drunks and the unwary. By day the Bargtjest is said to sleep in the labyrinthine smugglers’ tunnels and caves beneath the red roofs buffeting against the sides of the River Ersk.
So, if you venture out on the ancient cobbled streets after St Mary’s bell has tolled the demise of another day, listen out for the Hound of Hell … listen again, you might hear a lupine howl drowning out the crash of the waves.
Whitby is certainly an uneasy place for those who don’t have spiritual goggles on the backs of their heads – the Bargtjest could be there to knock you down around any corner, outside any sailor’s cottage or down by the teeming, fishy dockside where the gulls and cormorants wait to pick you clean.
And watch your step if you visit the tall lighthouse at West Pier, the stairs are said to be the miserable stomping ground of a one-armed lighthouse keeper who fell to his death from the cliffs in the mid-19th century. He is furious still, after all these centuries, and grins as he tries to push you down the stairs…
But could it be the salted blood of the sea which leeches into the sky? The cold cold North Sea has certainly swallowed the fortunes and the happinesses of so many who chose to dock their lives in Whitby.
Just before Bram Stoker arrived a ship called The Demetrius hit rocks outside the harbour, its macabre cargo of occupied coffins tumbled into the sea. The locals still spin yarns about the dead washing up on the beach.
In the seventh century Whitby was a place of learning, Caedmon transformed from Anglo Saxon cowherd to poet there and the abbey, on the crest of East Cliff, was to become the leading royal nunnery in Britain. After the Norman Conquest of 1066 William de Percy dedicated the abbey to St Peter and St Hilda. It was St Hilda who believed the 199 steps leading up to the abbey were a test of faith.
Some say St Hilda’s ghost, wrapped in a dark shroud, can be seen in the Abbey’s highest window. Her apparition is folded in the pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula too.
Another awful wandering wraith is the pitiful Constance de Beverley. She fell for a handsome young knight and overnight her chastity became a thing of the past. The good virginal nuns of the abbey were incandescent and bricked her into a wall of the dungeons. For days and nights her screams drowned out even the sea and the howls of the Bargtjest. The good denizens of Whitby turned a deaf ear.
Soon after, the handsome young knight was found beheaded a day’s ride away at a crossroads outside York.
One witness said said he was studying the abbey from the docks when he saw an impossibly large black dog running silently up the 199 steps to the abbey and tried to capture it on film. What he got instead was this dramatic picture of the skies over Whitby heavily laden with blood.
Later as he studied it he saw the face in the clouds – it looks for all the world like a handsome man trying to climb down into the abbey where his love is howling for her life.
But then there are so many lost souls looking down out of the blood in the sky over Whitby.