by Leo Owen
A lady entirely dressed as a mermaid, complete with a shimmering scaly blue tail, is carried past me and although impressive, this is completely normal. At the Whitby Goth Festival anything goes and over the years a growing number of professional photographers have been attracted by its strikingly-dressed crowd.
Whitby's often forgotten gothic reputation as one of Bram Stoker's key Dracula locations, makes it the perfect venue for this celebration of diversity. As an honorary goth for one weekend only, I spend far too long attempting to transform myself into a fluorescent-coloured “Cyber Goth” with copious amounts of eye-liner, feathers and netting.
The festival's main venue is The Spa, overlooking the very coastline Bram Stoker opened Dracula with. Here, I picture the Russian Demeter, finding refuge in Whitby's harbour by Tate Hill Pier and shocked onlookers seeing a corpse “lashed to the helm”.
Safely inside The Spa, a baby in a devil's suit catches my eye and I'm impressed by a number of couples dressed in Edwardian costume, complete with hats and parasols. Looking around, I feel underdressed in my PVC nurses gloves and bodice but nobody's judging. Some have clearly spent big bucks while others merely wear everyday clothes, making the whole event feel refreshingly stereotype free.
Aside from plenty of Goth DJs and live bands, there are an assortment of mini markets to peruse and fringe events held in smaller venues across Whitby, including a mass-organised dog walk and charity football match between the “goths” and staff of the local newspaper.
After sweating it out in PVC the night before, we stroll Whitby's narrow cobbled streets, occasionally contemplating purchasing Edwardian themed dress for the coming evening but instead buying much cheaper day-glo netting. During the day, the Whitby festival is unsurprisingly low-key – like The Count most are still too hazy from the previous night to contemplate daylight and serious activity, instead munching on locally-sourced fish and chips in preparation for the evening's entertainment.
As the sun sets, in the distance on the headland above the town we can see the dramatic ruins of Whitby's Norman abbey, St Hilda's, and its daunting 199 steps. In Dracula, Bram Stoker has Mina describe it as a “noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits”, probably getting his inspiration from his stay on The Crescent in 1890.
Looking down the hill, Whitby's maze of alleyways are crowded with black clad folk and I can see a legion of Roman Soldiers. Chatting to Harry Collett, the Chair of Whitby and District Tourism Association and organiser of Whitby Walks, I'm curious whether Whitby locals approve of the festival.
“Initially locals were a bit put-off by the goths because of all the black but they're accepted now. There's never any trouble with the goths - it's not like a stag party where people come to get drunk and covert around, it's a very pleasantly-refined affair. You don't have to be a goth to come - it's a whole family occasion bringing a lot of economic benefits to Whitby.”
Again, wandering around the fluorescent-lit foyer between band venues, looking at a centurion, monk and bride-to-be it's clear this weekend is less about the line-up and more about the vibe. New Romantics roam, Cyber Goths strut their stuff and fetish-clad ladies turn heads – every conceivable goth denomination is represented. Talking to festival-regular, 58 year-old Ian Swann, he seems to agree with Harry, telling me he's travelled nearly five hours from Ipswich with his wife because they love the festival's “very friendly feel” and its “celebration of diversity.”
Although I too am here for the festival, I'm tempted by Harry's atmospheric graveyard tours. He's lured me in with talk of the “haunted souls” along the east cliff desperate to return home, having been washed overboard into the Indian Ocean or lost in the Arctic regions.
Surrounded by such beautiful scenery, I can't help but think there are much worse places to be lost. In Whitby I'm completely immersed in a comfortable escapist's atmosphere where anything goes and I'm happily basking in this freedom. Although Goths are frequently unfairly judged according to accepted stereotypes, it seems as a group they're remarkably welcoming and non-judgemental, despite appearances.