HARD though it is to believe now there was a time, not that long ago, when Whitby made little of its Dracula connection.

There was no Dracula trail, no Dracula Experience, with blood-curdling soundtrack spilling onto Marine Parade, and not a single Goths Weekend, now a thrice-yearly fest. If you’d stopped a tourist at random and asked: “Did you know that much of Dracula is set in Whitby?”, the most likely answer would have been: “No.” That was the 1960s.

Among figures associated with Whitby, Capt Cook reigned supreme. Deservedly so, in my opinion, for while, in terms of world-wide fame, he and Dracula might well run neck and neck, Cook has the not insignificant merit of being real, and his achievements as navigator, coupled with enlightened attitudes to his men and native populations, make him worth celebrating.

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Even so, I more than once remarked on Whitby’s “curious” (the word I generally used) neglect of its Dracula connection – its role as the place where, in Bram Stoker’s renowned horror tale, the shipwrecked Count comes ashore as a large dog, races up the 199 steps, slakes his thirst on a young visitor, and takes refuge in a suicide’s grave.

I recalled filming in Whitby for the classic 1930 screen version of the novel. During breaks, visitors were sometimes startled to come across the still fanged and cloaked Bela Lugosi, the most chilling of all Counts, calmly seated on a clifftop bench enjoying a cigarette. I praised Stoker’s descriptions of Whitby. But I take no credit for the Count’s subsequent rise to top spot in the town’s tourism hierarchy. How his triumph came about I can’t say. But by the 1990s the Dracula industry was in such full flow that Whitby’s then rector took steps to stem it. He pointed out there was no actual clifftop grave to visit. He appealed to Goths not to party at the table-top tombstones. He talked of producing what would have been Britain’s first anti-tourism leaflet – downplaying the Dracula link to discourage his fans.

But the Dracula tide overwhelmed him – and it is still rolling in. On its crest Dracula is about to complete his Whitby conquest. Each evening from tonight until October 31 the abbey is to be illuminated in what its guardians, English Heritage, call its “most popular event of the year”. It’s promoted with a beautiful shot of the abbey bathed in a gentle blue light. “Step into England’s Story”, says the accompanying slogan.

YOU might be surprised that Stoker’s work of fiction is now firmly part of England’s history. Forget the 664 Synod of Whitby, which set the method of fixing Easter – an impenetrable mystery ever since. And pity poor St Hilda, before Dracula arguably runner-up to Cook in the tourism stakes.

Okay, the present (Norman) abbey isn’t the one (Saxon) where Hilda presided and the Synod was held. But the second abbey wouldn’t have existed without the first. On its exposed headland it is one of the most dramatic affirmations of the Christian faith that this country has to show. And even if you are a non-believer you will surely recognise that it is more than a little sad to find this Christian heritage ousted by a Gothic horror story.