Northward bound: Exploring southward


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Just as we sussed out one famous sailor’s ties to the East Coast of England, we did so again with another in mind, Captain James Cook (1728 – 1774). When Max mentioned that Cook lived in Whitby, just south of Hartlepool, I immediately envisioned a young man looking out to sea in a town on the blustery east coast of England. Why this image came to mind was due to a wonderful book my brother Cam gave me some years ago, THE? BLUE PLANET. And, more recently, I devoured another excellent book, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS, featuring a main character whose fortune was tied to Joseph Banks, the gentleman scientist aboard Cook’s first voyage on the ENDEAVOR.

But, it’s not only James Cook’s fame which attracts visitors. The ruins of the hauntingly beautiful Whitby Abbey are just across the River Esk, reached by walking through the cobblestone streets and climbing 199 steps to this medieval structure. And, if that’s not enough, Whitby is located on the ‘Dinosaur Coast’ where fossils from the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras have been found.

We didn’t look for petrified creatures but were interested in the James Cook Museum and Whitby Abbey, so off we drove with the added benefit of seeing the spectacular North York Moors National Park.

At the suggestion of the Tourist Information in Hartlepool we opted for the park-and-ride feature, which removed any concerns about finding a parking space. Arriving in the middle of town we hopped off the bus and asked directions to the Cook Museum.

In spite of it not being a holiday and being mid-week, the warm(er) weather brought out more than us strolling around this historic town. Of course, there are the obligatory boat photos,

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and the backdrop of the harbor, crab pots, and Abbey along with my favorite subject.

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Across the river we located the old stone house belonging to a prominent merchant, John Walker, where James Cook lived for nine years.

What was coincidence was our spotting a sailboat exiting the harbor just as we were entering the museum. Max looked more closely as the boat motored closer and exclaimed we knew them! Sure enough, they were a couple we had met in Lowestoft on their boat the OYSTER CATCHER who were circumnavigating the British Isles this summer. I whistled and we waved, and, just as surprisingly, they recognized us. Before they passed by we exchanged hoped-for destinations and then wished them good sailing towards their next port.

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With that, we left the 21st century and stepped back into the 18th.

Immediately we were immersed in the world of James Cook.

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Choosing Whitby for his schooling in learning the ways of the sea wasn’t just happenstance. This town had gained a well-deserved reputation for teaching the art of sailing. Not only was navigation part of the schools’ curriculum, but also the wild and wooly North Sea was an excellent training ground.

Additionally, Whitby seamen were treated fairly and were well-fed. This most likely evolved from the tradition of merchants taking on one anothers’ sons as apprentices. This practice encouraged better treatment than the normal apprenticeship associated with living one’s life at sea. And, Cook was fortunate to find himself in the care of Captain John Walker. A devout Quake and respected merchant, Walker came from a long line of shipowners. Under him Cook served as apprentice, seaman, and master’s mate from age 17 to 26. Although he decided to leave Walker’s employment in 1755 to join the British Navy, correspondence shows the teacher/employer and pupil/employee had became friends.

Just a note on navigation, Cook was one of the first explorers who could actually plot where he was and where he was going. This was due to his having on his second and third voyage the benefit of the chronometer, a timepiece. This invention by John Harrison meant the longitude coordinate [the distance from Greenwich MeanTime (0º] could accurately be recorded.

The museum is small yet houses quite a few documents, models, and illustrations covering Cook’s time in Whitby and his global explorations. One of the earliest records of Cook’s association with Walker is a 1747  ‘Muster Roll’ of one of Walker’s ships, the FREELOVE. The document was found in 1980 under the roof of Whitby’s Seaman’s Hospital. (His name is the third up from the bottom on the left-hand side.)

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Others associated with Cook were also on display, one being the gentleman naturalist Sir Joseph Banks. Banks was the scientist who joined Cook on the first voyage (1768-71) sailing on the ENDEAVOR. Remembering some controversy from the book I mentioned earlier, an excerpt from a 1772 letter painted this wealthy gentleman as a bit too heavy-handed in his demands. He was suppose to accompany Cook on his second voyage (1772-75) aboard the RESOLUTION; and, he altered the ship to accommodate a much larger party. These adjustments made the boat unseaworthy and had to be removed.

Banks was so upset he threatened to make his displeasure public, which would have created bad PR for the voyage. Fortunately, he didn’t but, needless to say, Banks didn’t join Cook on the second voyage and his third and last one (1776-80).

However, the naturalist Banks was given credit for his contribution to science and his assistance in ensuring the safety and comfort of Omai, a young Ra’iatean from the Pacific Islands, who became joined Cook’s expedition. In 1773 returned to England on and later sailed back to his homeland arriving safely in 1776.

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In 1762 Cook married Elizabeth Batts (1741-1835). During this time Cook was surveying the coast of Newfoundland, and, for the next few years he’d sail across in spring to continue his work then return to England in the late fall. As Max said just these journeys alone show how hardy those sailors were for typically we’d only think to sail those waters during the summer.

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They had six children but only three survived childhood; and of those, two died while in the Navy and one at Cambridge University of a fever. She tragically outlived all of them, eventually moving to Clapham where her cousin Isaac Smith lived.

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The museum followed Cook’s career, which was portrayed partly through the illustrations of those aboard, including one of Sulpher Island now known as Iwo Jima.

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What is really amazing are the detailed drawings created by the naturalists. Through their eyes and paints it was easy to understand just how significant Cook’s expeditions were for botany as well as portraits of the people inhabiting these foreign lands.

Below are brief bios of these artists who, themselves, were adventurers as well as one of their exquisite drawings.

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My photo doesn’t do the best job of showing Cook’s three voyages but at least you get an idea of the extent of his travel. He even tried to do the Northwest Passage, a route that today has become much more doable because of climate change resulting in less ice blocking the way.

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Accounts of these explorations were popular and a way to earn income from those reporting. One of those aboard, a Mr. Forster who was appointed as a naturalist on the second voyage, submitted his account.

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Yet, Lord Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty and a patron and friend of Cook’s, refuted Forster’s account and refused to sanction its printing. Forster continued to write angry letters to Sandwich but his account was never officially received.

Cook’s final voyage ended with his being killed and dismembered on the shores of Hawaii February 14, 1774. The story goes he was trying to recover a boat taken by the Hawaiians. A chief was killed by a Brit, and then upon landing, a skirmish entailed, more shots were fired, and Cook was struck by a club and repeatedly stabbed.

In trying to recover the body, the now-Captain Clerke (who later died during the voyage) learned from friendly Hawaiian priests that Cook’s body had been treated like that of a high chief. In other words, his body was cut into pieces and flesh stripped from the bones, the latter believed to convey the spiritual power of the deceased.

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One of the surprising displays was that of Captain Bligh (1754-1817) and his wife, Elizabeth (1753-1812). He served as Master on the RESOLUTION during Cook’s third voyage prior to captaining the BOUNTY in 1787 (suggested by none other than Sir Banks). Although known for an ‘uncertain temper’, Bligh had a much better reputation than that depicted by Humphrey Bogart in the cinematic version of that mutiny by Christian Fletcher.

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After climbing to the attic where Cook had lived with the other apprentices, we descended to the final display, that of food (something always near and dear to my heart, yet not so much here). We learned what the typical daily rations were…

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and, why we call something a square meal (meals were served on a square tray):

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Before I leave our museum visit I would be remiss in not congratulating Cook on his prevention of scurvy. Unlike many ships before and after his voyages, none of his crew died of that dreaded disease. This was due to Cook’s willingness to experiment with a variety of diets and enforcing cleanliness. In spite of no foregone conclusions on what worked best, Cook received a medal for preserving the health of his crew.

We left the museum with our head full of the New World explorations only to now go back further in time to the 600s.

Whitby Abbey stands on a bluff looking out to the North Sea. The abbey must have been an imposing sight when seen in a distance. It is now and that’s with only some huge stone walls and large windows outlining the sky. Imagining how this would look at night, it’s no wonder Bram Stoker used this for his tale of Dracula.

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The site was the place of a Christian community led by a famous abbess Hilda in the 600s. The Venerable Bede, the same monk who wrote about Redwald of Sutton Hoo, described her as exemplary. She was of noble birth (the grand-niece of King Edwin, King of Northumbria) and was abbess of the double monastery in Hartlepool prior to moving to this more prominent abbey in Whitby.

During these times it wasn’t unusual to have double monasteries, meaning both women and men sharing the same religious center. But, what I find really interesting is that it was common for these monasteries to be run by women, not men. Yet, in a book I’m reading about medieval women, historians, including Bede, say women were possibly more likely to adopt Christianity than men. The reason presented is that men couldn’t afford to show a softer side, one that forgave enemies and championed peace over going to war and acquiring more earthly riches. Therefore, women naturally took a larger role in spreading the word of Christ and converting kinfolk to this new world religion.

It’s not to say, though, that men still didn’t perceive women as second-class. All one has to do is read about the early Anglo-Saxon laws where the worth of a person is strictly laid out in terms of compensation for crimes committed. Here, it’s quite clear the value of a female was less than that of a male. Yet, it’s still refreshing to see some women, at least, obtain status and power during these Dark Ages; and, Hilda definitely left her mark since it’s said the future of Christianity in England was determined at a synod held here in 664 C.E.

In the 7th and 8th centuries this headland featured a much smaller church. The ruins of today are remnants of construction dating after the Norman invasion in 1066. Like most religious bodies, the abbey became quite wealthy. In addition to being a religion, Christianity was also a business, and pilgrims trekking to this site were charged for anything and everything to do with paying homage to Christ and any saint’s bones languishing in a tomb.

One of the biggest changes was during Henry VIII’s dissolution (looting) of the Catholic monasteries and churches 1536-40,*  and Whitby didn’t escape either. Chums of the king, the Cholmleys, took over the land and built a large manor right next to the cathedral. Today the visitor’s Center is located in this solid stone house. We picked up our audio guides, stuck them to our ears and proceeded to wander around with the other tourists.

* To fund his lifestyle, Henry needed a good source of income; and, the Catholic monasteries was the fatted calf with income four times that of the crown and real estate comprising one-sixth of all of England.

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Next door to the ruins and the manor house is St. Mary’s Church, a small building

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a pulpit with ear trumpets (evidently used by the preacher’s wife),

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and ancient relics recovered on the grounds.

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From here we descended the 199 steps to the town’s narrow, cobbled streets

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and looked for lunch across the river while checking out the sights.

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We decided on some sausages and chips advertised for £3.10. We sat down to order and noticed the menu now said £6. Realizing we had seen the take-away price, which is always less than the sit-down one, we decided to order take-away and wait outside.

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We then decided to catch a local bus to Robin Hood’s Bay just five miles south of here. Once again we were a bit startled at the price (£14) so we backed out of there, too, and grabbed the park-and-ride bus to our car and drove there :)

This tiny coastal town is situated at the end of the Coast to Coast Walk, which is why we saw so many folk outfitted in hiking gear with walking sticks.

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We arrived two hours prior to low tide, so you can imagine the extent of the shore when it’s dead low.

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Walking back up the hill to the car park (due to hardly any turn-around space the advice is to walk down the steep hill and back up) we passed plenty of little homes for holiday rental, many with appropriate signs such as this one:

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It was a beautiful day and I snapped photos of a manhole cover for Ellen

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and spring flowers,

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recognizing some as ones my sister really likes (I just can’t remember the name).

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Reaching the top we gazed once more at the bay then retraced our way through the moors to our new port of call, Hartlepool.

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