by Donna Cuttress
We considered ourselves lucky to be visiting the famous churchyard of St. Mary’s in Whitby on such a beautiful spring day.
As my partner uses a walking stick, we debated climbing the 199 steps that run from the town up the cliffside to the churchyard, but decided we would ‘take it slow.’ We stopped at the benches situated at intervals and were relieved to see we moved quicker than a lot of red-faced youngsters! Afterwards, we found out that the benches were ‘coffin rests.’ Many years back, Whitby folk requested to be carried up the steps to their final resting places, rather than along nearby Green Lane, which was nicknamed ‘Hearse Road.’ During cholera outbreaks in the 19th century, burials happened at night, so being a pallbearer must have been not only exhausting but treacherous!
The view from the top is spectacular, though. As you round the final corner, you are met first with a sign ordering you to be respectful of the graveyard, then by the huge and beautiful Caedmon’s Cross. Despite the many visitors, there is enough space for the graveyard not to become overcrowded.
St. Mary’s is a very old graveyard and its setting can be bleak in the winter months. Graves have fallen over the eroding cliffside at various times, spilling bones onto the houses in the town below.
Many of the benches in the graveyard face the powerful North Sea. You are surrounded by the sound of the waves crashing against the cliffs and the songs of swallows, finches, and sparrows that dive from grave to grave. We sat for a while and waited while each coach-load of tourists came and went, some looking bemused at the stones, bored even, eager to visit the hauntingly impressive abbey.
Many of the stones have had their facades washed away. Some are still intact but almost illegible: pockmarked sandstone doesn’t weather well against a raging North Sea storm. We managed to make out some of the grave markings. One that intrigued me depicted an artist’s easel, but the writing was hard to decipher.
We wandered about the graveyard, trying to read names, dates, and family history on various gravestone. Some told where they died and how, in beautiful, intricate stonemasonry.
One gravestone I found almost by accident, hidden away. It bore the year of burial 1828, initials, and the names John and Elizabeth Clegg? Legg? It seemed to to have squeezed itself among the extravagant Gothic headstones.
It was easy to lose myself in the romanticism of the graveyard. It’s famously been mentioned in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and this has attracted a lot of attention, some of it it not so welcome. The warning to be respectful is there for a reason. There were even recent plans to ban the visiting ‘Goths’ who have made Whitby, the graveyard, and the adjacent abbey a place of pilgrimage.
A certain stone caught my eye. Was that Lucy? Could this have been an inspiration for Stoker?? I was getting caught up in the surroundings. My old inner Goth was overexcited!
We decided to go inside the chapel. As I read the old church notices in the main porch: ‘Funerals on Sundays precisely at 4 o’clock,’ I noticed my partner picking something up from the path outside. Before I could ask what it was, we were greeted by three lovely older ladies who ran the gift shop and answered questions. The shop in the vestibule sells locally made items, not factory-stamped tat, so it was a pleasure to browse in there.
The chapel is unique, an imposing and impressive place that can hold up to a thousand people. The Cholmley pew — they were the old Lords of the Manor — is raised on huge wooden pillars shaped like twisted sugar. Next to it stands a three-tiered pulpit with ear trumpets attached, for those who were hard of hearing. A large silver candelabra hangs in the centre, still used for candlelit services today. (I’m not a regular church-goer, but I really want to attend one of these!) The whole place is heated by a huge, looming furnace which sits in the middle of the chapel. On a bitter, stormy day, it would be much needed. There is so much to see, it’s easy to overlook some of the gems, like the charity bread cupboard, medieval christening fonts, and the 15th-century Parish Chest.
As we left, saying goodbye to the ladies, I asked my partner what he found outside. Dramatically, he beckoned me toward the gravestones and took something from his jacket pocket. “Well? Driftwood or …?”
“A stake! What a place to find it: the spiritual home of the Vampire!” I shouted, my inner Goth out and proud. Yet now it looks like, well … driftwood. Wishful thinking, I suppose.
I can understand how this graveyard is much loved, worshipped even. It’s a very peaceful place, yet dramatically set, crammed with history and graced with a famous literary connection. Do visit the Abbey — it’s beautiful — but climb those 199 steps and come to the chapel of St. Mary’s parish church, with its evocative, picture-perfect graveyard. It is every horror lover’s dream or nightmare!
Donna Cuttress is a short story writer from Liverpool, UK. She has been published by Crooked Cat, Sirens Call, Flame Tree Publishing, and others. She has had work featured in Solarwyrm’s Clockwise Tales and written reviews of classic horror films and TV programmes for The Spooky Isles site.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.