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Sunday, 21 November 2010

Whitby Gothic Weekend

Whitby Gothic Weekend, often abbreviated to WGW or just Whitby, is the UK's biggest Goth festival, and takes place twice-yearly in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England. Although referred to as a 'weekend', the main festival events take part on Friday and Saturday, with fringe events on Thursday, Sunday and Monday.

Jo Hampshire, the organiser (who runs Top Mum Promotions), states that Whitby was chosen to host the festival due to its Dracula connections, although Wikipedia theorises that this is probably more because the town's dark'n'spooky links had already fostered a sense of acceptance within local businesses and the community rather than any 'inherent romanticism' regarding the location.

Source: Google Images
Azadeh from RazorBladeKisses (great band!) in the graveyard at Whitby Abbey
The festival originated from a meet-up of about 40 penpals who had met through the pages of NME (that's a lot of letter-writing...) at the Elsinore pub in 1994. It was held once a year until 1997 when it began to take place twice yearly, now held in April and October (Halloween weekend, of course!). It has grown into a huge event that attracts people from all around the world - possibly, nowadays, as many curious tourists as actual Goths, as, ironically, the festival's attendees themselves have become something of a tourist attraction.

Usually I'm not fond of outsiders choosing to explore the Goth scene as though it were some sort of zoo or freak show, but the WGW (now in its 16th year) is well-known for its friendliness and openness, allowing all sorts of people to congregate peacefully. It has even been described by the BBC as becoming a 'mainstream, family event'. Mainstream?! Watch your language! WGW attracts all ages, from school-age babybats to the intrigued elderly.

So what can a darkling expect from the Whitby experience? Well, upon arrival, Goths receive a map showing them the town's gloomiest hotspots and darkest delights, including the relatively infamous Pandemonium shop and local tattoo parlours. Most of the events, including the Gothic Market, are held at the town's 1,000 capacity Whitby Spa Pavillion (aka The Spa), but due to the overwhelming popularity of the event, other venues are used for overspill and for fringe events - I have heard it said that nowadays many people do not even purchase tickets for the main festival, choosing instead to take part in the dozens of fringe events.

Indeed the event often sells out, and many more people attend than there are tickets available. Whitby receives booming business during these times of the year - pubs and other businesses have been known string up 'Goths Welcome!' signs across their windows to attract even larger black-clad crowds.

Outfits range from 'typical' Goth gear to full-on festival fashion to crazy costumes - several related scenes are also well-represented, such as steampunk, industrial, rockabilly, and, increasingly, Gothic Lolita. Many people will spend weeks choosing, preparing, purchasing, or even making their outfits and costumes. Reporters and photographers throng the street in their dozens - the event is well-covered by the British media, who seem to regard it with fond, if bewildered, amusement.

Although Whitby is generally regarded as a cheerful, family-friendly event, there have still been a few (a very few) 'incidents'. In the beginning, lack of understanding tinged with a hint of prejudice brought derision; but the polite and amicable nature of most Goths (I say MOST - hey, you get idiots everywhere) has led to widespread acceptance. The Christian church also initially expressed distaste for the event (us Goths are evil devil-worshippers after all...).
Source: Google Images
Whitby Abbey stands solid and silent against the gathering dusk
In 2007 festival organisers were forced to alert police and the Whitby Gazette to what was believed to be a smear campaign to run the Goth fest out of town. A mysterious e-mail was sent to four borough councillors as well as high-ranking council officials, stating that, according to an overheard pub conversation, Jo Hampshire was refusing to pay money she owed to Scarborough Council, and she and her friends had been slating staff at the Spa.

Investigations found that Hampshire had not even been in said pub at the time of the alleged 'conversation'; and any problems relating to Scarborough Council were being drawn to a mutally amicable resolution.

The only physical incident relating to the WGW - that I am aware of, anyway - was when a reveller dressed as Nosferatu to raise cash for charity was set upon by thugs, who swore at him, pushed him about, ripped the bald cap and prosthetic ears from his head, and tore them into pieces.

The October 2007 event was dedicated to the memory of murdered Goth Sophie Lancaster, and a memorial bench was unveiled. WGW events have raised large sums of money for the Sophie Lancaster Foundation (which seeks to Stamp Out Prejudice, Hatred and Intolerance Everywhere).


Source: Google Images
A young beauty at WGW
Events and attractions that draw the crowds at Whitby include live performances from both newcomers and big-name Goth bands; the infamous Goth Market; the bring and buy stall (which now has its own website - click here), which seeks to raise money for the Bat Conservation Trust - hear, hear!; club nights; a charity football match between local newspaper reporters and a Goth team (Gothic F.C., who, I might add, always lose); a 160ft bungee jump in aid of the Royal National Lifeguard Institution (known as Dracula's Drop); and unofficial day events that vary from year to year. These day events have previously included sandcastle-building competitions; picnics; photoshoots and boat trips.


This year, English Heritage gave its seal of approval to the event, arranging for the floodlights at Whitby Abbey (a beautiful Gothic ruin standing in lonely splendour on a hilltop above the town, immortalised in the pages of Bram Stoker's Dracula and, much more recently, Robin Jarvis's babybat-beloved series The Whitby Witches) to glow Halloween shades of purple and orange. Falconers sent birds of prey swooping through the twilight skies between the haunting arches as actors conducted a full-scale Victorian funeral, complete with mutes and horse-drawn carriage.

The abbey has long been a popular destination for Goths attending the event - climbing its 199 steps to have one's photo taken in the historic graveyard is almost a rite of passage for Whitby-goers.

Bands who have previously performed at the event include Diary of Dreams, Wayne Hussey (formerly of The Sisters of Mercy), Children On Stun, London After Midnight, Libitina, Rosetta Stone, Switchblade Symphony, Faith and the Muse, Mesh, Clan of Xymox, Andi Sexgang, the Damned, Scary Bitches, The Cruxshadows, Specimen, Christian Death and Abney Park, to name but a handful.

Source: Google Images
Bats and Broomsticks is a guesthouse at Whitby primarily for Goths, decorated in stunning Victorian Gothic from attic to cellar.
There have been previous worries about the future of the event, not least last year when it was uncertain if festival organisers would be able to book venues over the Halloween weekend. But in fact the WGW looks set to become bigger than ever, whether it takes place on October 31st or not, with 2011's event (which I'm hoping to attend - fingers crossed!) cited as being a two- or even three-week (!) Gothic bonanza due to many more fringe events and spin-offs being announced in addition to the event itself.

Hope to see you there!

Listening to: A Night Like This - The Cure

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