Whitby, the home of British paganism

Whitby, the home of British paganism

Scenes from the annual seaside Goth Weekender — Against the backdrop of a hate attack that left a young woman dead, Britain’s Gothic community gathers in celebration of that which binds them.

This article first appeared in Huck 13, 2009.

A stunning girl, auburn hair cascading from the hood of a black velvet cape, places a single red rose on a bench looking out to sea. It joins dozens of other floral tributes, so many you can just make out a plaque that reads, ‘An Angel Too Soon’. A couple in Victorian frock coats approach with a bouquet. The trio stand in solemn contemplation seemingly oblivious to the biting North Sea wind. They are paying their respects to Sophie Lancaster, a twenty-year-old killed in August 2007 simply for being a Goth.

It is the Whitby Halloween Goth Weekender 2008 and, over the course of an otherwise jubilant event, this scene in front of the memorial bench plays out scores of times. Most who come didn’t know Sophie, but recognise her as their kinsman and relate to the circumstances that led to her death. While walking through Stubbylee Park in Bacup, Lancashire, northern England, Sophie’s boyfriend Robert Maltby was set upon by a group of teenage boys. When Sophie tried to protect him the group turned on her. The savage attack left them both unconscious. Robert survived but Sophie died in hospital thirteen days later.

The incident rocked the Goth subculture. For the vast majority of Goths, especially those living in small rural towns unaccustomed to anything ‘alternative’, abuse such as being called “dirty moshers” or “devil worshippers” and even physical assaults are commonplace. Sophie and Robert could so easily have been them. A pressure group and forum, Alternatives Have Rights Too, was launched with the aim of getting similarly motivated attacks legally recognised as hate crimes, a mission they’re having mixed success with.

Daniel Gibbons, a nineteen-year-old Goth from Barnsley compares the situation to the clash between Mods and Rockers in the 1960s. “We’re total opposite subcultures – one is about acceptance, tolerance and individuality, the other about being the same and fitting in.” There’s one major difference though. “Unlike with Mods and Rockers there’s never been an organised clash. Goths don’t want trouble. It’s always one or two Goths being set upon by a gang. I don’t want to stereotype, but it’s always townies or chavs. Obviously they’re not all like it, but there’s something about what we are and represent that enrages a lunatic few.”

The Goths in Whitby think fear, lack of tolerance and widespread misconceptions about the culture are the main culprits behind their persecution. Laments about being perceived as ‘depressed blood-drinking Satanists’ are ubiquitous as are accounts of abuse from surprising quarters such as groups of skaters, old ladies and gaggles of girls. Daniel’s girlfriend, sixteen-year-old Becki Butterworth, says, “I’m not depressed. I don’t cut myself. I love life. I just choose to express myself this way. I tried being a Chav, listening to R’n’B, wearing velour tracksuits and that, but it wasn’t me. Goth feels right. The insults are stupid. I’m not a dirty mosher, I have a bath every day.”


The roots of Goth are commonly traced back to The Batcave, a club in Soho, London that opened in 1982 and catered to a clientele of post-punk misfits. It was here that the Goth ideology, style and mindset was honed into an identity that borrowed from new wave, dark romantic and punk. The movement diversified and spread, with scenes developing in Italy, Poland, America and Germany, home to one of the largest Goth movements (known locally as Grufties meaning tomb or vault creatures) and epic annual festivals such as Wave-Gotik-Treffen and M’era Luna that are hosted there.

Back in Whitby, the sun has deigned to make an appearance turning The Shambles, a picturesque cluster of cobbled streets in the heart of town, into a catwalk. Everyone involved – locals, tourists, Goths – is having a blast. Most are engaged in a frenzy of photography, happy to stop and pose against the backdrop of quaint tearooms and fudge shops. As the flashes go into overdrive props such as skulls, staffs and scythes are brandished with glee. For the more elaborately attired, things turn into a bit of a rugby scrum with photographers, amateur and professional alike, jockeying for poll position as their subjects crack jokes, strike poses and battle against the wind to keep their hair and headwear – wigs, pirates hats, veils, hoods – in place.

Twenty-six-year-old Stephanie Bowry from Leicester describes it as a brilliant opportunity to, “ponce about having your picture taken and feel like a celebrity,” but she recognises why everyone’s spirits, including her own, are so high: “Most people here are used to being stared at, ridiculed and berated about their appearance. At Whitby weekenders we’re celebrated. When I first came a few years ago I was quite overwhelmed. It was such a different reception to what I was used too.”

To the uninitiated, the range of interpretations of Goth looks is startling. There’s cyber, industrious, Victoriana, traditional, retro-burlesque, fetish, punk, military, mobster and hybrid styles created in Japan known as Visual Kai, Gothic Lolita or Wa-Loli – a look that combines traditional Japanese dress with Lolita and Goth. Then there’s the families – mum, dad, granny, off spring and in some cases dog, tripping about eating cones of chips and fudge all in their Gothic finery. It’s some spectacle.

Many put the Goth movement’s newfound energy down to an explosion of social networking websites such as Vampire Freaks. Becki Butterworth says, “Being able to talk to other people with similar outlooks gives you confidence. Even though there’s no other people our age in Barnsley that dress as extremely as me and Daniel, we know there’s thousands of out there ‘cos you can meet them on Vampire Freaks. And ‘cos it’s global it’s good for outfit ideas.”

The importance of ‘the look’ cannot be overstated when it comes to Goth culture. Corsets, Victoriana bustle dresses, rubber wear and leather suits are expensive pieces costing between £60-£600 which young dedicates have to save up for, sometimes for years. Outfits for Whitby are considered months in advance, especially if they have to be specially made. The clothes have an empowering effect. Stephanie Bowry says as a teenager she got picked on for being shy and bookish but when she started dressing in a Gothic style the bullies backed off. “I think I freaked them out,” she says.

Likewise Daniel Gibbons, now a confident, assured young man, says as a teenager he was withdrawn and quiet but when he started experimenting with gothic fashions, he blossomed: “The clothes were like a personal shield of confidence. When I plucked up the courage to wear eyeliner out in public for the first time people noticed me and I liked it. Eventually I actually became that person. It was no longer a shield but me.”

In addition to the threads there’s an entire world of gothic music, arts, literature, film, sculpture, architecture, clubs and philosophy. The music, both old and new, associated with Goth tends to be heavy, industrious, epic strands of rock, punk and mental. Groups such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, 45 Grave, Sex Gang Children, Sisters of Mercy (although lead singer Andrew Eldritch walks out of interviews if journalists refer to him as a Goth) and The Mission make the foundation of the Gothic musical library. The various sub-divisions of Goth make it neigh impossible to draw up a definitive list of today’s key groups although Cradle Of Filth, and US bands Crud and Type O Negative are reoccurring favourites.

Contrary to popular belief, many Goths would sooner curl up with a tome by a classic gothic or dark romantic author than bite the heads off bats. Literary heroes include JRR Tolkien, Charles Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe and HP Lovecroft, a writer Stephanie Bowry admires for being, “Genuinely disturbing. He has a dark take on the world with a scientific edge that makes it seem highly believable.” A more contemporary great is Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman comic books. “What all these writers have in common and why they appeal to Goths,” explains Stephanie, “is that they have a different, more imaginative and often darker take on the world than is the norm.”


The Goth Weekender started ten years ago by a now legendary lady known as ‘Whitby Jo’. The only Goth in a small northern mining town, she placed an advert in the NME asking for pen friends and got over 150 replies. She wanted to gather everyone together and chose Whitby due to its connection with Dracula who, in Bram Stoker’s novel, lands at Whitby Bay, an atmospheric locale framed by dramatic cliffs with a church and graveyard perched on its edge and the epic ruins of Whitby Abbey looming overhead. She hoped the fact that The Dracula Society had hosted events there would mean the locals wouldn’t be freaked out by droves of Goths. They weren’t, and soon the Weekender grew to what it is today, a bi-annual festival of events, club nights, markets, plays, cabaret and gothic stand-up comedy that attracts up to five thousand attendees.

Goth or not, anyone with the slightest sensitivity to energy will be affected by Whitby’s atmosphere. Long before the Weekender, the remotely located town – bordered by the North Sea on one side, the Yorkshire Moors on the other – was a magnet to alternatives, artists and occultists. It is said to be a point where ample ley lines (hypothetical alignments of places of ancient or holy interest) intersect. With the Abbey thought to be built on a spaghetti junction of ley lines, the site would have been important to Pagans way before Christians claimed it. Subsequently the town houses a sizeable community of practising Pagans, a faith many Goths often choose to practise, but should not be confused with the polar opposite faith of Satanism.

Attempting to unify the spiritual beliefs of Goths is tricky. Basic tenements such as being open minded, non-judgemental and tolerant of self expression crop up most frequently when Goths attempt to define the culture. In terms of religion, I met a mixed bag of atheists, agnostics, Christians, Pagans – but not one Satanist, the likes of whom, in the words of Stephanie Bowry, are often thought of as, “Show-off extremists who want to attract attention to themselves.”

And yet, the symbols most readily found in Gothic imagery are a mix of Pagan and Satanic iconography. The upside down cross and five pointed pentagram star with a point facing down are associated with Satanism, although a similar star with a point going upwards is regarded as a positive symbol of protection. Spike, lead singer of Gothic metal band Screams Of Cold Winter from Preston, owns numerous items of clothing featuring Satanic symbols. “It’s just something different,” he explains. “It’s a dark form of expression and it looks good but it definitely doesn’t mean I worship the devil.”

In terms of affinity with its beliefs and ethos, Paganism is a better fit with the Goth ideology. Steve Robson, proprietor of Free Spirit, one of Whitby’s oldest shops specialising in spiritual products (crystals, angel statues, wands, ritual herbs, witchcraft books) is a long term Pagan (not a Goth) and defines the ancient faith as being about, “Respecting nature, living within nature, preserving nature and worshipping nature.”

Since the age of eleven, Luke Baker, a fifteen-year-old from Barnsley and friend of Becki and Daniel, has been a Goth and practising Pagan. Growing up he was interested in nature, folklore, witchcraft and from an early age Christianity never “made sense” to him. Like many rural youths he discovered Paganism through a mixture of local history, the Internet and an older mentor, the owner of a New Age and Wiccan shop in his hometown. Young Pagans are not something you come across much in urban areas, and Luke believes this is because, “In cities young people don’t know about their area’s ancient history and don’t feel any connection to nature. So why would they want to worship it? Plus a lot aren’t British, or their parents aren’t, so all the folklore and that – it’s not their culture.”

How someone chooses to practise Paganism – meaning country dweller or rustic in Latin – is fluid, the faith open to different paths and interpretations. It could simply be by having an appreciation of nature. Or, like Luke, you can perform ceremonies and rituals to celebrate Sabbaths (there are eight a year) and practise the art of spell casting. Spells are a Wiccan trait, although, says Luke in a thick Barnsley accent, “There’s fine line between’ two. I wouldn’t class myself as Wicca as I don’t follow it’all. But ‘cos I do spells, others would.”

For his age Luke is impressively dedicated to his craft. Last year he started growing herbs in his parent’s garden to use in spells and rituals. He refers to the Soraya Book Of Spells but often adapts them and creates his own according to the outcome he wants. “It’s not rigid,” he explains. “As long as yuh know what ya tryin to say an’t do, that’s what counts.” He defines spells as, “A manipulation of energy. Somethin’ you wish to happen an’ form your life. Anyone can do one.”

Luke prefers to practise alone, although occasionally he works with a sixteen-year-old girl called Kirsty, his only Pagan friend of a similar age. He takes me through the spell casting process: “I get mi cauldron [nervous laugh] – then light charcoal an’ put ‘int centre. Then depending on’t spell, I sprinkle different dried herbs on’t charcoal. While they burn I chant or do incantations.” His most common spells are ones for luck, protection and guidance. He’s never cast a love spell – “Yuh got tuh be able to do tha spell correctly, ‘cos there’s chance yuh cud end up with something bad” – but feels he’s had success with the protection spells. “I don’t fall down or hurt myself. Last time I did a protection spell two days later a load of lads were chucking apples at mi. Big handfuls of apples it were, loads of ’em, and not one of ’em hit mi.”

Unsurprisingly, Luke only shares his beliefs with people he knows are open to such ‘alternative’ ways. Like his friends Becki and Daniel, he has a profile on Vampire Freaks but also Wiccan Together, a social networking site for Pagans and Wiccans. His parents are accepting of his beliefs, but his Christian Grandmother is fiercely against it. “Once she saw my Book Of Shadows, that’s like a notebook where you store all knowledge of yuh craft, an she flipped out.” So what’s the link between Goth and Paganism? “There in’t one really, not like an official one. For me, an quite a lot ‘other Goths, the two connect but one’s more a social scene and culture but the other is my actual beliefs.”


Goth metal band Screams Of Cold Winter are storming through an epic set. Their female drummer is going at it hell for leather as are both the guitarists and keyboardist. The performance of lead singer Trish Lee, a bubbly blonde with va-va-voom curves decorated with fantasy tattoos of fairies poured into a corset, personifies the contradictions of Goth; poignant yet hardcore, powerful though vulnerable, dark but sexual, initially intimidating but actually, on introduction – “Hiya everyone, we’re so happy to be here” – extremely warm and personable. She has incredible presence and the audience, a motley crew of moshers, fetishists, retro-burlesques, Gothic Lolita’s and gimps, stand hypnotised.

There’s also more to Trish than meets the eye. For two years she worked as a Social Lifestyle teacher in Lancaster Farm, a juvenile and young offenders prison. Through her classes she tackled issues that stem from prejudice. Her students were initially aghast at having “a Goth” for a teacher and it took a long time for them to stop pointing at her piercings and bombarding her with, “Miss, why you got that shit in your face?” and “Miss, do you drink blood?” Sometimes it got darker: “I’m in here for attacking people like you Miss,” one student said.

Despite the obvious challenges of the job, Trish achieved many small victories, with inmates on their way out of prison offering veiled assurances such as, “Actually Miss you’re alright. I won’t beat up weirdos like you any more.” Based on her experiences she wrote ‘Finding Her Wings’, a song dedicated to Sophie Lancaster that asks questions of her killers: “I ask them if they understand they’ve stolen a young woman’s life simply because she was different to them. I ask them if they understand the enormity of what they’ve done.”

By Sunday night, the end of the Goth Weekender, Sophie’s bench is laden with bouquets. Goths on their way out of Whitby stop by to pay their respects one last time before the flowers and the humbling roar of the winter North Sea. The enormity of what happened hangs heavily in the air.