I don’t have many travel heroes, but I stand in awe of Captain James Cook, Britain’s greatest explorer and navigator, who circled the world three times in the 18th century.
Over the years, I’ve followed in his footsteps – his ship-wake, if you like – from birth to death, and every time I’m in Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast I take a walk up to his statue, high on the West Cliff, and look out over the grey North Sea, wondering what it was in the ocean mist that first turned the head of a humble farmboy.
Whatever you think about Cook’s ‘discoveries’ (erm, turned out that indigenous people already knew perfectly well where Australia was, thank you Britain), his voyages were extraordinary achievements – think the Moon landings without Mission Control. Oh, and without knowing if you were pointed the right way at the the Moon when you set off. Or even if the Moon existed at all.
So off into uncharted waters he went. Literally uncharted waters – Cook’s early orders were to find and map the unknown lands of the Pacific. He took crews of 100 men on ships barely 100 feet long, and sailed them from English shores to southern seas and back again, with only the wind to power them and blank spaces on the maps where we now find continents and countries.
It all ends badly. . .
If you don’t know the history, I’m sorry to say that it all ends badly – in a shallow Hawaiian bay in 1779.
But the 50 years of Cook’s life before that – well, it’s an extraordinary story, one that I’ve been lucky enough to trace from England to Hawaii, and points in between.
Depending on where you live, each location is exotic in its own way, though – like the young James Cook I suspect – if you stand for long enough on a blustery cliff over the wind-chilled North Sea your restless, roving mind seeks out warmth, glory and adventure, wherever that may lie.
Marton and Great Ayton
James Cook was born in Marton, a village that’s now a suburb of Middlesbrough, before Middlesbrough really existed, if that’s clear enough. You can visit the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, which isn’t in his birthplace, because that no cottage longer exists – I sense confusion building – but is worth doing if you’re entirely dedicated to following the great man from cradle to grave.
Better I reckon is to visit nearby Great Ayton – especially if you’re a foreign visitor and would rather experience A) some quintessential English countryside with nice views, than B) a suburb of what was once the British Empire’s premier iron- and steel-producing town. Of course, I’m being unfair about Middlesbrough, so just to even things up – you know the Sydney Harbour Bridge? Well that Australian icon was built by a Middlesbrough steel company, so in your face Aussies.
Anyway, Great Ayton is a pretty little town on the edge of the North York Moors National Park, and it’s where Cook’s parents moved when he was young. They lived on a farm just outside town, and Cook went to school in what is now the very endearing Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum.
It’s not too fanciful to think that young James climbed the local hill for fun – up Roseberry Topping, for a view of the moors and with the North Sea in the distance. And you can do the same today, on a really great walk that takes in the hill and the local landmark known as Cook’s Monument.
And I say it’s a great walk only partly because I researched and wrote it for the National Park – and partly because it’s, well, a really great walk.
When he was 16, the farmboy James moved to nearby Staithes, where he was apprenticed to a shopkeeper. This is where the lure of the sea surely took root – in a tight-bound fishing village on the North Yorkshire coast, where gales lashed the cliffs in winter and small clinker-built boats known as ‘cobles’ launched into the surf to go fishing for herring.
To walk down the hill at Staithes to the harbour is to walk back into the 18th century. It’s easy to picture Cook in these narrow cobbled lanes and alleys, where the bite of the salt air still lingers. He worked as a grocer’s boy in Staithes – you can learn more in the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre – but not for long. The sea was calling.
If anywhere in England really claims Captain Cook as its own, its the historic fishing port of Whitby, where Cook found his home and his vocation – apprenticed to Quaker ship-owners who ran coal ships up and down the eastern English coast.
Cook learned about navigation while living in the attic of a house that’s now the Captain Cook Memorial Museum, on the Whitby riverfront. He joined the Royal Navy in 1755 and served abroad, before being offered command of his first scientific voyage in 1768 – eventually sailing around the world on boats that were built in the Whitby shipyards that he knew so well.
And Whitby too still has the feel of the 18th century along its Georgian riverfront, and in the back streets of the old town near the house where Cook once lived. It’s a town of great character – not just a resort with a beach, but also a working fishing port and the place, other than Transylvania, most associated with the story of Dracula (which is, of course, entirely another story).
After Whitby, Cook never really lived anywhere again that wasn’t a ship – so we spare a thought for poor Mrs Cook – Eliazbeth – who bore him six children but hardly ever saw him and outlived him by 56 years.
The sea, instead, was Cook’s home – and what a journey it led him on.
Find out more in Part 2!
For places to stay and eat, and things to see and do in Whitby, check out the Cool Places Whitby guide – it’s recommended, I wrote it!