Whitby is evoking the adventurous spirit of 250 years ago as it prepares to a host of celebrations on lead and sea of its most famous adopted son, Captain James Cook. Phil Penfold reports.
No one could ever accuse Whitby of being dull. The thriving port is a magnet for those who love fish and chips, not to mention ice cream, Dracula, Goth weekends, rock music and stunning scenery.
But this year, there’s something special to celebrate, and the town is pushing the boat out. Or rather, maybe that should be “guiding the boat in”. For, to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the first voyage of discovery led by the town’s most illustrious son, James Cook, the HM Bark Endeavour has returned to the quayside where she was originally built. And she is going to be a permanent visitor attraction.
Not quite the same Endeavour, for she is a replica which has been slightly adapted for today – where we are all several inches taller than our sea-going ancestors.
But Cook and her crew would recognise her instantly, even if her 4,500 metres of rope rigging have been augmented by 450 of stainless steel, and the decks are a little higher. She is only one of the pieces of the complicated jigsaw that is the Captain Cook Festival this year, which will bring together drama, music, cookery celebrations, and much more besides. It seems that everyone in Whitby is involved in some way or other; a response to the historic anniversary has delighted all the organisers “beyond our wildest dreams”, says Janet Deacon, the area director for Welcome to Yorkshire.
One of the major highlights will be the arrival for the weekend of July 6-8 of two of the vessels competing in this year’s Tall Ships event, the replica of the schooner HMS Pickle (the original ship brought the news of Nelson’s death at Trafalgar back to a stunned Britain) and the magnificent Atyla.
Captain Chris Burrows, one of the Deputy Harbour Masters at Whitby, helped pull off the coup after being asked for assistance in finding a maritime element for the event. “The Tall Ships just ‘happened to be passing by’, on the way to this year’s Race starting port in Sunderland on July 11,” he says. “I made a few calls, and the skippers of two of the ships were delighted to be asked, and immediately agreed to drop by. I was amazed, but absolutely delighted. It’s a bit like having all your nautical Christmases coming at once.”
The ships will be greeted by hundreds of local children waving flags after invitations by Chris to local schools got an enthusiastic response.
The story of Cook, and the original Endeavour, is also a jigsaw – but this time, it is one with quite a few pieces missing. For example, no-one knows when – or how - shipbuilder Thomas Fishburn was contacted by the merchant Thomas Millner. But the commission to construct a boat was accepted, and The Earl of Pembroke was launched in June 1764.
Officially known as a “Whitby Cat” (or “catte”), her duty was to carry coals up and down the eastern coast of England, from the colliery ports in the north to London and other locations in the south.
Four years after her launch, the Royal Society petitioned King George III. They wanted the Admiralty to send a Royal Navy ship off to the South Atlantic and the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. The purpose was to determine measures of latitude on charts. His Majesty agreed, and promptly handed the job on to his senior service.
They in turn began looking for a ship, an officer to command it, and a crew. That vessel was The Earl of Pembroke - which was to be elevated from the status of a “merchant collier” and to become HMS Endeavour. The Royal Society asked that the command was to go to the Scottish geographer Alexander Dalrymple. But the proposal was swiftly rejected by the Admiralty, who knew their men would not take kindly to being given orders by those who were more used to having their feet on firm ground. In fact, one high-ranking officer said that he would “rather have his right hand cut off” than give the command to the Scot.
And so, in 1768, they asked James Cook if he was up for the task. He agreed, and was instantly promoted to Lieutenant. He sailed, and the course of world history was changed forever. Cook was certainly one of the Navy’s rising stars – he had joined the service as an ordinary seaman after a time in the merchant marine, and had incredible skills as a navigator, a mathematician and a maker of pinpoint accurate charts. Despite all that talent in one man, the feeling must have been that Cook, his men and the converted ship were expendable. They could leave Plymouth, and never be seen again. And, if that happened, well, they could always send someone else.
“Cook’s story is absolutely amazing and completely inspirational”, says Janet, “and it would be a daunting task for anyone today. I think that’s why Whitby has thrown itself into this weekend, because they are so proud of their ‘son’.What was asked of him and his naval crew – augmented by botanists, illustrators and other experts – was that they should get the observation of Venus done, and then, in effect, search around the southern seas, and try to find previously undiscovered territories that they could add to the King’s growing Empire. In effect, ‘get out there, and get lucky’. It was the equivalent today of a mission to Mars, a trip out into the unknown.”
The weekend involves just about every aspect of the town’s life, from the schoolchildren who have been creating exhibitions in the libraries in the area – and the lucky handful who will find out more about Cook in the archives of the British Library, and then sail home with the Tall Ships – to Irene Myers and award-winning chef Rob Green who will be spearheading the food events.
Green is a seafood expert, but admits that even he has learned a thing or two about the food aboard ship in Cook’s time, and has had a “fascinating” time learning about recipes of the day, and how the diet improved immeasurably under the command of this pioneering seaman. Expect a few surprises on the various menus on offer from the restaurants and cafes taking part.
“People forget how much food on board the Endeavour was either preserved, fermented or pickled. And then there was the fish that was caught as she sailed along. It wasn’t all hard biscuits and dried meat! Our cooking for the Festival will reflect that theme of innovation.”
There will also be a huge range of activities and exhibitions in local libraries, schools and art galleries, each looking at different strands of Cook’s achievements – from his meticulous and skilled cartography to his identification of new and rare species from different lands. Over the weekend, more than 20,000 extra visitors are expected.
“We’re used to visitors”, says Janet, “but this is going to be a big one. The Endeavour will remain as a permanent attraction, so that is part of a lasting legacy. But in tourism, you never stop. I don’t have a motto but there’s a line
I’m always using. And that is ‘Bring on the next project!’”
Folk opera part of celebrations
A folk opera will be staged at the Pavilion Theatre as part of the festival.
Richard Grainger, who has created Eye of the Wind, promises that many of the tunes which were an everyday part of life for Cook and his crew will be heard again - many of them familiar to modern ears.
A cast of musicians and actors will tell Cook’s story of going from humble beginnings on a farm in Marton, Cleveland to becoming the world’s most famous explorer and navigator.
Cook moved to Whitby as a young man in an attempt to find his fortune at sea, which he eventually achieved with the help of the ship-owning Walker family.
The folk opera show will take place on July 5 from 7pm, with tickets costing £10.