Dear Whitby Peeps and wonderful people worldwide,
I mentioned last week that my roof was fixed and I’m dry, at least I’m not getting any wetter. My walls are now stripped and they too are drying at a slow and very acceptable rate, I really don’t want anything to happen rapidly as that would add to the damage sustained by the four years with a leaky roof and eight years with no heat.
I’m a three-floor building built that way. All the old pictures that have materialised to date have shown me with pantile roof and two dormers, one at the front and one at the back. The front dormer has a view of the harbour to die for. I’ve seen all of my previous owners and guests spend some time gazing from that window and my current owner pulled up a chair and sat with the sun shining in through the roof on a couple of evenings, he just couldn’t believe how beautiful and placid it is.
Clearly, it’s not always like that. A number of years ago when the last owners came to stay, their son John would sit and wave at the fishermen as they either set out on the tide for their adventures in the North Sea fishing grounds, then, many hours, days or weeks later they’d return either with fish up to the gunwales and a smile that would light a darkened room or, on many other occasions when the catch would be poor they’d still wave and smile. Deep inside they’d be desperately thinking about where the money was coming for their mortgages taken out for house and boat and even through the worry and pain they’d still find time to wave at John even if the sea had been angry and violent. John was, and still is, special; he looked forward to those waves and it gave his parents Graham and Maureen immense pleasure coupled with that warm hug of community and care that is lost in many other towns but not here in Whitby. The fishermen knew they’d be back out again and come back with a bounty that would compensate but it was still hard when times were lean.
The fleet is depleted now, of course. Quotas, ecological management, and rules regarding size are all for the good of the fish and the sea but all of this was self-regulating in the 19th century when there were no factory ships trawling the life out of shoals and seabed. The fishermen themselves knew what to keep and governed it largely by the mesh size of their nets, that said, maybe I’m an old romantic, not everything in the past was for the best!
They were good days but there was also occasional desperately sad ones. On the 9th February 1861 the storm had been building for some time. My sash windows were rattling and the blast was blowing my curtains through the ill-fitted gaps. At 0830 it was becoming as light as it was going to get; there were huge dark rain-filled clouds scurring overhead. The lifeboat had already been out and rescued the crew of ‘John’ and ‘Ann’. Almost immediately they were called out again to assist the schooner ‘Gamma’. It should be born in mind that these lifeboats were open and had to be powered and maneuvered by skillful use of oars. The crew came back with their bounty of frightened humanity and managed a bite to eat and a drink only to be called back out into the storm, now even worse, they collected the crew of the ‘Utility’ and then the ‘Roe’ both of which were running aground.
The people of Whitby had heard the shouts and commotion as the team had gathered and on their return, so they gathered at the harbour entrance in the icy spray and cheered them back as they rowed into the harbour to deposit their anxious survivors on to the jetties to be comforted, fed and watered by that same townsfolk who took them into their warm homes out of the storm. The crew went back to the lifeboat shed to prepare the boat for its next outing and that turned out to be very soon. It was now high tide, the wind, rain and sleet were at their worst and the storm set to continue. They decided that it would be madness to go back out and any other distress-flares or flags would have to remain unanswered.
Soon after, the ‘Flora’ and the ‘Merchant’ were in trouble but the ‘Flora’ managed to navigate to the harbour, the ‘Merchant’ was taken by current and gale onto the rocks and the lifeboatmen, being what they are, decided they would go back into the storm to save the crew. As they approached the ‘Merchant’ a huge wave caught the stern of the lifeboat and capsized it throwing the crew into the sea. By now there was a huge crowd cheering and calling encouragement to the stricken crew but the February cold, the vicious wind and angry waves took all but one of them leaving wives, lovers, parents and siblings sobbing into their pillows on the long winter nights that followed. They repeatedly asked, “Why did they go back out?” but the question was rhetorical; they went back out because that’s what these brave men of the sea do, it was never in doubt. Just Henry Freeman survived. It had been his first call out and he was saved by a new lifejacket that had been made using cork. It was donated by RNLI.
Full story and pictures here:
On a lighter note, in 1872 I overheard my occupants talking over their evening meal about an exciting new business that had been established by Billy Fortune. It was up on Henrietta Street nestled under the cliffs on the other side of the 199 steps. His son Martin worked in the smokehouse but also ran the donkey rides on the beach through the summer and fine weather. The railway link meant that they could transport their kippers all over the country for the princely sum of 2/- (that’s two shillings) 10p and that got you 6 pairs of kippers and included the postage! There was a lot of talk about Billy and my walls smelt the wonderful aroma of Fortunes’ kippers wrapped in a bit of newspaper, on many occasions.
At the end of that century, a strange man came to town and spent a lot of time at the top of the 199 steps and beyond lurking in the graveyard and creeping around the abbey. His writings were to terrify people all over the world as he drew inspiration for his work during the long dark evenings as he prowled along dimly lit streets that were sometimes made even more intimidating by swirling fog that was filled with brandy-soaked footpads who would demand money to feed their swollen livers. In 1897 Dracula was born or more accurately, made ‘undead’ and he continued his reign of terror for many years. I’ve seen my occupants reading by the oil light and shivering in horror as the words became reality in their highly stimulated imagination. Before getting into bed they’d be looking along Church Street for any activity that might mean the asylum had been breached or the Count himself might be lurking in the mist as the wind wailed a pitiful banshee as it caught the masts and rigging of the boats in the harbour.
Back to today and I think it’s a bit of a waiting game although I have had some work done on my windows which were thought to be beyond repair; however, the expertise of Mike and the patience of George have done me proud so, fingers crossed, that’s another piece of me that will remain for posterity.
Next time, I have some anecdotes from Whitby residents, until then, take care and give me a wave as you pass…
Yours with love,
The Little Yellow Cottage x