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Captain Cook and the rich history of Whitby

PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 January 2018

The statue of Captain James Cook in Whitby is by sculptor John Tweed and was unveiled in 1912

The statue of Captain James Cook in Whitby is by sculptor John Tweed and was unveiled in 1912

© Tony Bartholomew

A much-loved coastal town is a springboard for adventure still… 250 years after explorer James Cook set sail. Richard Darn reports

The Captain Cook Museum gives visitors the chance to see letters in the great explorer’s own hand, original paintings and drawings, ship models and maps and strange objects from newly discovered landsThe Captain Cook Museum gives visitors the chance to see letters in the great explorer’s own hand, original paintings and drawings, ship models and maps and strange objects from newly discovered lands

I can’t think of another place that has had so many names as Whitby. Over the past 1,500 years it has been known as Streanæshalc, Streneshalc, Streoneshalch, Streoneshalh, Streunes-Alae, Prestebi, Hwitebi and Witebi and Qwiteby. This is a town that by any measure should be a World Heritage Site. A unique tumbling streetscape of narrow lanes and fishing cottages, this is where the English church decided between Celtic and Roman flavours, making the Abbey headland one of the nation’s most venerated sites. St Hilda founded a monastery here because of its remoteness, but recent digs suggest it soon became a thriving Dark Ages settlement. One archaeologist only half jokingly described it as ‘the Milton Keynes of its day’.

Whitby is also rich in literary connections and it was while walking on the cliff tops that Bram Stoker had the idea for his Dracula story, which he partly set in the town, much to the delight of modern day Goths who gather here from across the world for bi-annual festivals (April and October/November).

And let’s not forget this is the home port of Captain James Cook, a timely reminder as 2018 is the 250th anniversary of his first voyage of discovery abroad a Whitby-built former colliery, HMS Endeavour. During that odyssey Cook surveyed the coastline of New Zealand and made landfall near modern-day Sydney, Australia, in a beautiful cove he called Botany Bay.

If your knowledge of this extraordinary Yorkshire explorer is patchy, you can learn more by visiting the award-winning Captain Cook Museum, which is staging a special exhibition from February 10th to recall his incredible achievements.

Whitby Piers, East and West, at the mouth of the River Esk, are under threatWhitby Piers, East and West, at the mouth of the River Esk, are under threat

From humble origins, Cook moved to Staithes to become a grocer’s assistant, but then pitched up in Whitby to fulfil his dream of going to sea. He sailed in ships owned by the Quaker Walker brothers, whose residence now houses the museum. For nine years he plied the colliery routes between the North East and London and over to the Baltic, before signing up for the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman. Already an experienced sailor, he soon gained promotion and impressed the Admiralty so much they put him in charge of its South Seas expedition to search for an unknown continent and observe the transit of Venus across the Sun (to help determine the distance between the Earth and its nearest star). Two more voyages followed and to list Cook’s discoveries would take an encyclopaedia. Not bad for the son of a labourer and former junior grocer.

All of which leads me nicely to what will be one of Whitby’s top good news stories this year. One of only two full-sized replicas of Cook’s ship, HMS Endeavour, will sail into Whitby to become a permanent tourist attraction. The vessel was bought at auction for £155,000 by Whitby-based businessman, Andrew Fiddler and his consortium, beating off bids from Portsmouth, London and Dubai. It is now being given a £750,000 refit in Stockton-on-Tees and will take part in Whitby’s 250th anniversary celebrations. Mr Fiddler is a bit of an explorer himself and like Cook a former Royal Navy officer: ‘To have secured one of the most distinctive and historic maritime attractions is fantastic,’ he enthused.

Aside from its beauty, what I love so much about Whitby is that it remains a working place at heart, not just a postcard cover. Yes there are fine restaurants like the White Horse and Griffen in the Old Town, and Andrew Pern’s recently opened Star Inn the Harbour, but there’s an attractive grittiness too. The local fishing fleet is still intact, if much reduced, catching mainly crab, lobster and the occasional salmon. The broad inlet that becomes the River Esk has always provided a haven for mariners and Cook would recognise the scene entering the harbour, particularly the 17th century stone built east and west piers. So imagine my alarm when I discovered that these iconic curving structures are under threat and possibly only have another 10 years of life in them. The search is on for a contractor to carry out vital repairs which could end up costing more than £5million. If all goes to plan work should start this year to secure their future.

In Cook’s day Whitby built more ships than virtually anywhere else in England, and they are still being made and repaired locally. And the next generation of fishermen and women are also being given their opportunity. Whitby is home to the UK’s only fishing school offering qualifications to young people wanting a career in the industry.

Whitby remains a working place at heart, not just a postcard coverWhitby remains a working place at heart, not just a postcard cover

In any one year up to 40 students learn the ropes, combining classroom studies with work experience provided by skippers from Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington. A recent graduate is already in charge of her own vessel. ‘We get young people coming to Whitby from across the UK,’ said business development manager, Andrew Hodgson. ‘Cook’s example is an inspiration and like him they lodge in Whitby while undergoing their diploma, so in that sense not much as changed. We are optimistic about the future.’

It’s good to see that Whitby remains a springboard for ambition and adventure, just as Captain Cook discovered all those years ago.

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