A thick cloak of mist clings to the moorland heather. Although it’s early August Whitby Abbey is already drawing in the visitors. We plan to climb the steps to the Abbey soon enough, but begin our day at the harbour. There are hundreds of spaces alongside the railway station, but in the time it takes to get a ticket dozens more have been snapped up. Coaches arrive from Edinburgh and Leeds. Dogs are watered and pensioners shake out creaking limbs before going in search of coffee and pastries.
There are signs along the road for Goathland, the home of TV’s Heartbeat. People are buying books about ghosts, vampires, stately homes, chutney and jams, pirates and fishermen. Whitby has tapped into its nautical heritage with great success. The town is a curious mix of vampires, fishing trips, sweet shops and jewellery. At harbourside kids dangle crab lines from the old stones. The old RNLI lifeboat – the Mary Ann Hepworth – will take you out for a trip round the coast. She saved 201 lives in her service.
Whitby has a swing bridge which lets the traffic cross, then pause while it opens out to let a vessel makes its way into harbour. In the rock shop a woman tuts at the queuing, growling traffic. It turns out the bridge was stuck open a few weeks before our visit.
‘Caused bloody chaos. Cut the town in half.’
I try not to smile. ‘I wish it would get stuck when it was shut,’ she says.
But Whitby wouldn’t be Whitby without the sea and its associated industries. And that’s what brings the crowds. Judging by the white and humbug football shirts it’s quiet in Leeds and Newcastle today.
Leaving Dracula and the Abbey aside, for this blog at least, Captain Cook is central to Whitby’s fascinating past. So I decide to take a look at the Museum. The Museum feels a little quiet and pristine like a library. I know many museums are quiet – you’re not going to smoke or play Black Sabbath at full volume (you might in Whitby) – but these days they’re getting more inclusive and chatty. The Cook Museum may have been in keeping with the original Quaker household – there would have been no pictures on the walls and floorboards would have been scrubbed white. There was a brick floor and hearth to show what a Yorkshire kitchen was like.
But then I found the first maps……..They were wonderful to look at. Australia was just about recognisable with modern day Queensland running north into a huge horn. Nouvelle Hollande, the map said. In fact north Queensland joined Papua New Guinea! The map was made in 1753. There was a 1680s map of the Indian Ocean. New Zealand was believed to be part of a huge southern continent. Just 250 years ago we had no idea what the world looked like. Without this knowledge there could not be trade. Cook’s work was so vital.
This house belonged to John Walker. Cook was apprenticed to Walker and worked as a merchant seaman delivering coal from the Tyne to the Thames. In time Cook chose to join the Royal Navy and, with his knowledge and talent, began his ascendancy. The house is worth exploring. It is rich in paintings and documents and maps. I admit I was on a tight time frame, but curiosities were there to be dug out…..
- On Cook’s 3rd voyage, among the crew, was one William Bligh, later to captain the Bounty.
- Cook had a cook called Mortimer Mahoney who died of scurvy. Notes recall a ‘dirty and indolent man.’
- Marmalade of carrots was made to ward off scurvy
Cook plays second fiddle to Dracula in Whitby yet his achievements were phenomenal. Cook made detailed maps of Newfoundland prior to making three voyages to the Pacific Ocean during which he achieved the first European contact with the eastern coastline of Australia and the Hawaiian Islands as well as the first recorded circumnavigation of New Zealand.
His death in 1779 in a skirmish with Hawaiians is what is often remembered most about the captain. As I leave the Museum two boys dance around in pirate hats, rattling plastic cutlasses against the cobbles. ‘Shiver me timbers’ and ‘splice the mainbrace’ their Dad cries. They stop and stare at him as if he is mad.