Great Read: Unfettered Yorkshire

Story by Raphael Kadushin; Photographs by John Kernick

Just about 15 minutes west of York, at the start of my drive across Yorkshire, I realize I have entered deep English country.

The hints are hard to miss. There is the billboard advertising the local chimney sweep. There is the lamb, the sheep, and eventually the whole flock wandering across the road. And then there are the signs I pass for Gordale Scar ravine and Stump Cross Caverns, brooding place-names that seem to telegraph a spooky world ahead.

In fact, that is exactly what I am hoping for. Yorkshire played haunted muse to the Brontë sisters and Bram Stoker, whose 19th-century gothic fiction remains fixed in our collective imagination. Scratch the surface of any popular contemporary fantasy, from the Twilight saga to True Blood, and you find the direct descendants of Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff, Stoker’s Dracula, and all the vampires, wraiths, and undead that materialized on Yorkshire’s moors.

So I have come to England to drive from the Yorkshire Dales, through the North York Moors, and on to the east coast for the pure fun of scaring myself a little. I’m also here to understand why some of our deepest nightmares took hold in this homey shire of tearooms and follies.

My first stop is Haworth, 50 miles west of York. Here in the first half of the 19th century, the three Brontë sisters imagined a world of demonic villains, madwomen in the attic, and dispossessed spirits in such novels as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

The Brontë family parsonage sits at the top of the hilly town. Once I park my rental car and climb the stony spine of Haworth’s main street, what immediately strikes me is how swallowed up the home appears. Photos show the house framed by a few small graves. But in reality the cemetery swamps the parsonage, the high jagged tombstones lined up in wildly slanting rows that record the town’s body count.

Typhoid, cholera, and tuberculosis plagued Haworth in the 19th century, and more than 40 percent of children died before the age of six. Their short lives are etched everywhere in the sprawling graveyard. One tombstone features the names of six babies, all lost to a stonemason father who sculpted a sleeping child, resting its tiny doomed head on a tasseled pillow, at the base of the grave.

Clearly the Brontë sisters were sketching from life when they wrote of death. Maybe they glimpsed their own fate, too. Emily Brontë would be laid to rest beneath the bleak town church at the age of 30.

Ann Dinsdale, the collections manager of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, explains to me later that the local drinking water flowed from moorland spring to village wells and pumps by way of the cemetery grounds. Historians link that tainted water to Haworth’s high death rate. “The Brontës had their own private well,” Dinsdale notes, “but since the parsonage is bordered on two sides by the churchyard, it’s possible there was contamination to their drinking water, too.”

The home, now owned by the Brontë Society, doesn’t offer much relief. As I trail through the dim rooms, I can’t help but feel a little claustrophobic, especially in the tiny dining room where the three sisters wrote, sharing space at a small central table. “They would walk around the dining table every evening discussing their writing,” Dinsdale says.

It isn’t until I step outside, into the ocean of wild grass, that I breathe freely again. It’s easy to imagine Emily’s ecstasy, embodied by the unfettered passion of her characters Heathcliff and Catherine, when she broke loose on these moors.

By dusk the town shuts down, so I escape 11 miles north to the Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel & Spa, a coaching inn at Bolton Abbey that dates to the early 17th century. Everything here is a British comedy in comparison: my guest room anchored by a canopy bed; my late afternoon tea complete with scones; and the dog lounge, an ode to the English love of all things canine. Portraits of terriers hang near the fireplace like furry pinups, and the flocked wallpaper is stamped with silhouettes of Labradors and poodles. “One night recently,” head concierge Eddie Styles tells me, “we had ten dogs here.”

Still, it takes more than leaving Haworth to escape Yorkshire’s ghosts, which I realize the next morning when Styles starts talking again. “One bedroom here is always a bit cold, and a lot of guests ask about footsteps, although there is no room above them,” he says. “Some say it’s the ghost of a little girl lost on the moors, looking for some warmth.”

She doesn’t have to look far for companionship, as I learn when guide Alan Rowley picks me up for a marathon tour of the shire. Zigzagging all over the moors and dales, we can’t seem to outrun the wraiths. Nearly every cottage, village, and landmark harbors its own tall tale or apparition.

Rowley, who sold his pub in York to pursue an interest in local history, has heard all the legends over the years. “People in Yorkshire are natural-born storytellers,” he says as we drive 28 miles east, past the whimsical follies and water garden of Fountains Abbey, where a phantom choir of monks is said to chant at night.

Forty miles farther east we pass Castle Howard. Here in 1940, the collapse of the home’s central dome was a chilling forewarning; two sons of the family would be killed in action in World War II, joining Yorkshire’s long line of lost youth. Finally arriving at the North York Moors National Park, we circle a squat block of stone on Danby High Moor that appears to have a head.

“That’s Fat Betty,” Rowley says, pointing to what looks like Yorkshire’s own combination Easter Island head and wife of Lot. “She dates back centuries and is said to be a farmer’s wife who got lost on the foggy moor and turned to stone. But Betty still has to eat, and if you stop and feed her, it’s considered good luck.”

As I size up the pile of lollipops and chocolate bars littering the ground (in spite of park officials discouraging the tradition), I can’t help but think that what Betty could really use, after standing sentry so long, is a sleeping pill. Her blank white face stares, fixed, over the moors.

At least she scans an evocative view. As we continue east, it’s easy to see how the Yorkshire landscape whipped up the vivid imaginations of its residents. The tumble of low hills and moor meadows conjures a sense of roiling drama. Curving rows of ancient dry limestone walls trail like lacework through fields. Stranded villages, a duet of sandstone and slate, suddenly rise from the rocky ground and, just as quickly, melt back down into the stippled light.

At Helmsley the scene cheers up. A quintessential moorland market town, it exhibits the three laws of nearly every Yorkshire village: People come attached to a dog (Labs and terriers preferred), tearooms frame a cobbled square, and the bakeries sell “millionaire shortbread” (cookie squares layered with caramel and topped with chocolate). But only a few miles out of town, when we stop for dinner at the Star Inn, the mood darkens again.

“I was born in Whitby,” says Andrew Pern, part of a growing crop of chefs who have turned Yorkshire into a serious dining destination. “We would go up to the abbey as kids and play hide-and-seek among the graves. We didn’t like to show we were afraid, but when someone didn’t come out …”

I had delayed my visit to Whitby—aka Dracula’s home—in order to finish my trip on a high note of macabre melodrama. At dinner, Pern’s black pudding and foie gras had distracted me from his warnings. But lying in bed that night at Swinton Park, a stately home turned hotel run by a baronial family, I can’t shake the image of the abbey graveyard.

Perched on the edge of the craggy Yorkshire coastline, the horseshoe town of Whitby rises in stony layers to the cemetery of St. Mary’s Church and the arched ruins of the seventh-century Whitby Abbey. In the soft midday light, the town looks like the ready-made cover of a horror novel. Bram Stoker chose this as his setting for Dracula while summering in a guesthouse across the harbor from the abbey in August 1890.

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In fact, the original edition of Dracula, published in 1897, follows local geography so closely you could still map the area through a reading of the novel. The vampire’s ship, the Demeter, runs aground at the sands of Tate Hill. At the cemetery of St. Mary’s Church, the parched Dracula sinks his teeth into the doomed, sleepwalking heroine, Lucy Westenra.

And fictional protagonist Mina Murray, Lucy’s friend, climbs the real church stairs to the graveyard just in time to see a gruesome sight: “… My knees trembled … something raised a head … a white face and red, gleaming eyes.”

I walk up all 199 wide stone steps panting, weak-kneed myself, to the church. Then I walk back down into the lap of the town, which makes a thriving living off its Dracula pedigree. I pass the Boo Tique boutique as well as shops hawking chocolate coffins and skull bracelets. Such souvenirs sell out during the town’s regular goth festivals, when a whole Drac Pack of revelers dressed as vampires, zombies, and ghouls mobs Whitby.

“It used to be underground, but now everyone comes,” Elaine Horton tells me, standing in her Pandemonium goth shop surrounded by satin corsets and vampire T-shirts as she runs her fingers through her blue hair. “I’m not sure why.”

I can only guess. Climbing the steps to the church one last time at dusk, I end up back in a cemetery, a fitting bookend to my trip’s first graveyard, at Haworth.

It occurs to me that maybe the high gothic tales, with all their vampires and ghosts, resonate so strongly now because they allow us to fantasize in an age when so many of our stories, blog posts, and tweets have become prosaic. Or maybe it’s because the best horror stories capture something profound: the bogeyman under the bed, our unnamed fears, an elegiac sense of inevitable loss.

Whatever the reason, some constants remain. Whitby’s tile roofs, glowing red in the sinking sun, look firmly rooted in place. So does the old gothic road, as it carries all those stories down to the North Sea below—only to be churned up by the waves and swept back, again, to the shore.

This feature, penned by Raphael Kadushin, first appeared in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. 

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