Captain Cook's Walk into Sailing History

Article excerpt

Byline: David Ellis

THERE are five reasons most people know about England's little North Yorkshire town of Whitby: James Cook, fish and chips, Dracula, a modern-day TV soap, and old steam trains.

Sitting astride the Esk River estuary, Whitby's 14,000 hardy souls have learned to live with the hammering winds that come in off the North Sea in winter, while in summer it can also be postcard-perfect rustic England, particularly on its older eastern side.

In those summer months it's one of the quaintest harbour towns in the country. Tourists flock here to enjoy sunny strolls along the waterfront, the local fish markets, browse the antique stores and eat fish and chips at outdoor cafes, in little restaurants whose window boxes overflow with fire-engine red geraniums, or with a pint in back-street pubs where battered haddock and chunky golden potato chips have been turned into an art form.

And taking a stroll around the narrow alleyways in search of history, in Grape Lane they find the one-time home of Quaker ship-owner, John Walker, and the seafarer student who lived in his attic a James Cook.

Cook was born at Marton near Middlesborough, and was apprenticed to a grocer in nearby Staithes. But his real love was the sea, and one day he walked the 21km into Whitby to ask Walker if he would teach him seamanship and navigation.

Today in the museum that occupies Walker's one-time terrace house, visitors learn about Cook's life in Whitby, about the Endeavour that was built here, and of Cook's world travels; there's also a statue of Cook on West Cliff and a plaque in town given by Australia and New Zealand to commemorate his achievements.

And if you are in Whitby on the morning of Ascension Day each year, you'll see a group of civic and business dignitaries making apparent dopes of themselves as they squelch through the mud of Whitby Harbour to plant, of all things, a hedge before the tide comes back in.

This bizarre ritual started in 1159 when three Norman noblemen on a pig-hunt discovered a hermit giving comfort under a hedge to a boar they'd arrowed. They beat man and beast to death, but in his dying moments the hermit prayed that God would forgive them. …