In the car on our way back from Whitby to Marton Ian Boreham asked me to write a report on our tour that day around part of Captain Cook country. As I write, my stay in England already seems a long time ago; regrettably, I am back in the daily grind, yet it was only two weeks ago that I ventured for the first time to participate in a CCS meeting.
As I had put it to Alwyn Peel in an email when saying I would come: I wanted to feel something real about Cook. Not only use bookish knowledge and my own imagination, but really see, touch and smell his countryside; to have some earthly contact with something long gone, with those magnificent stories of centuries ago. To help me relive the memories of that day, I dived into my digital photo album and rewound the film back to that day.
Sunday, 22nd October, Marton
I got up early that morning. It was my intention to visit before 8 am St. Cuthbert’s Church, the little church where James Cook, "son of a day labourer", was baptised on 3rd November 1728. The day before it had been closed, but I had seen an announcement of the morning service at 8 o’clock. St. Cuthbert Church calls itself "a church where everybody is somebody and all are welcome" - an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Before breakfast I slipped out of the hotel (dubbed by many of us who stayed there over the weekend, Fawlty Towers) and walked the few hundred metres that separate the hotel from this 12th century atmospheric church. The weather still was surprisingly nice; not much wind, dry and occasionally sunny. "Beautiful Dutch cloudy skies" as we would say in the Netherlands. A whole generation of Dutch painters has found fame because of them.
Hesitatingly, a bit embarrassed in front of the other churchgoer who had come for private worship, I sneaked in and sat silently down in the back row. I tried to imagine how it must have been in 1728. Probably more frugal. Certainly without the beautiful stained glass window depicting our glorious Captain. A strict separation between the local dignitaries and the rest: hard-working, tough people. Strong people, for whom this place was the centre of all special events in their lives: birth, marriage and death.
Half an hour later I sat down for a "full English breakfast" in the dining room of Fawlty Towers. No problem for a healthy Dutch girl and a good start for the rest of the day.
In groups we left by car to tour Cook country. For some it was their first time. All of the others were prepared to guide us around and explain what we could see with much kindness and patience. I was one of those who had taken up the offer to go first to Aireyhome Farm in Great Ayton. Even for the veterans among us it was an exciting trip, because recently the local historians/archaeologists thought they had found the location of the cottage where the Cook family lived whilst James’s father was foreman of this farm. Here James Cook had spent his youth, played with his brothers and sisters, helped on the farm and had gone to school in the village.
The surroundings were marvellous. Green sloping hills, sheep, winding paths and, of course, Roseberry Topping an absolute highlight and eye catcher. The creating of myths on Cook takes shape when you imagine him as a boy standing on Roseberry Topping, his keen eyes looking at the surroundings, surveying them.
We were met by Dan O’Sullivan and Alan Bunn from the Great Ayton Community Archaeology Project. With them in the lead a mixed group of about 12 people scrambled up the path: Englishmen and women, a German mother and daughter, an Irishman, an American and me from The Netherlands. After a quarter of an hour walk over gates, through meadows and shrubs we arrived at the right spot.
I do not want to claim we were misled, but I needed a lot of imagination to believe that this place, overgrown with nettles and thistles, was an historically relevant site. Nevertheless, the indications were promising. Perhaps someone should start digging.
We enjoyed the surroundings at our leisure before we returned to the cars. Some of us went with Dan and Alan to obtain a recently published book on Roseberry Topping with beautiful photographs, and to take a much appreciated cup of coffee. When we said goodbye and I thanked Dan for the nice morning and the fascinating stories he had told us, he assured me, with a straight face, they were "all lies of course".
The group split, with Ian Boreham, his daughter Ruth, Kieran McGovern and I in Ian’s car. It was already noon and we had to hurry on a bit, because Ruth had to be back in Middlesbrough at 17.00 so she could catch her train back to Edinburgh. Rather speedily we had a look at the other monuments in Great Ayton: All Saints Church, the school (open only in the afternoon), a statue of Cook as a youth looking seriously into the future, and the site of another Cook cottage (though he never lived there himself), that had been replaced by a memorial obelisk from Point Hicks, Australia. The original cottage of Cook’s parents had been moved to Melbourne in 1934 as a tourist attraction.
A striking detail in Great Ayton was the gravestone of James Cook’s mother in the graveyard of All Saints Church that had the wrong date for his death (14th December 1779 instead of 14th February). On the reverse of the stone were the names of his brothers and sisters, who had all died. A sign of those very hard times.
We left Great Ayton and drove eastwards to Whitby. The scenery changed dramatically. The lovely green hills made room for melancholy moors. One minute the sun was shining, the next it was cloudy, and this provided a brilliant range of colours on the extensive, undulating plains.
In Whitby we first called at the best "fish and chips" restaurant in town. We were not the only people with this plan, so we had to queue up quite some time. "Four members of the prestigious CCS found dead of starvation" Ian philosophised in a moment of weakness. In the end we had a delicious meal of cod, haddock and mushy peas and enjoyed each other’s company. Kieran and I discovered not only a similarity in our interest in Cook, but also in our professional background in Human Resources Management.
With only one hour left we quickly walked to the Captain Cook Memorial Museum through the bustling streets. Not the bustle of a busy sea port, like in Cook’s time, but because it was full of day trippers. No wonder. Whitby has a rich history and is picturesque. The crowd puller stands on the west cliff of the river Esk; a pair of compasses in his right hand, a roll of paper under his other arm, his legs slightly apart, as if he could fall down any minute from his pedestal, and gazing determinedly at the horizon.
In the museum we were warmly welcomed and given the VIP treatment of being allowed to take photographs. Unfortunately we had too little time to have a good look at everything. The former house of John Walker in Grape Lane was filled to the top with the memory of his famous apprentice. The building contained a few 18th century furnished rooms, very plain as was proper for a Quaker family, to give an impression of Cook’s living surroundings of that time. On display were items attributed to Cook’s voyages and many drawings, paintings and pictures of his voyages (some being copies).
We met the assiduous director of the museum in the library. We had already got to know her in the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Marton the day before, when she gave a captivating lecture on Bligh and Cook. She has recently acquired a treasure of impressive, historical books.
Unfortunately, a glance at the clock showed us that time had marched on and it was time to say goodbye. Ian was already waiting for us in the car, ready for leaving.
Wistfully I think back to this day and to the CCS Weekend. It had been informative, inspiring and exciting, with good company. I better understand Cook because of this visit to his "roots" and the conversations with other CCS members. Paradoxically, my curiosity and imagination have increased greatly.
I am sure that I will come back for more and, undoubtedly, a visit to Staithes.
Martha de Putter-Stuiveling
Translated by Pauline Frossard
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 39, volume 30, number 1 (2007).