Captain Cook Memorial Museum, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in September 2010

James Cook rose from humble surroundings to become one of Britain’s best-known figures.  A celebrated explorer, navigator and cartographer who achieved the rank of captain in the Royal Navy, he twice circumnavigated the globe.  After charting the Newfoundland coast following the Seven Years’ War, Cook made three epic voyages to the Pacific between 1768 and 1779.  He was the first European to sail to Hawaii, to circumnavigate New Zealand and to land on Australia’s eastern coastline.  In addition, Cook sailed in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

An excursion to the prize-winning ten-room Captain Cook Memorial Museum in the popular seaport of Whitby in North Yorkshire makes for a lovely, if long, day trip from London.  The harbor-side house museum built in 1688 belonged to Captain John Walker, a local ship owner, to whom the young Cook was apprenticed.  Cook lodged in the house from 1746 to 1749.  This is the only building remaining today with which James Cook can definitely be associated.


The ground floor of the museum has been furnished according to a household inventory taken in 1751, with some items being antiques and others reproductions.  The Walker Family, who were Quakers, lived well but simply.  It is said that Cook lived in the house’s attic with its high-timbered roof along with up to 16 other young apprentice seamen.


James Cook was born to a Scottish farm manager and his locally-born wife in Marton-in-Cleveland, Yorkshire in 1728.  The second of eight children, Cook first worked for a year and a half in a grocery in the fishing village of Staithes near Whitby After deciding to go to sea, Cook was introduced to the Quaker brothers John and Henry Walker who owned a number of three-masted collier barks which transported coal between ports such as Newcastle and London and also from across the North Sea.  Cook’s first voyage to London on a collier bark was in 1747, and during the next seven years he worked on four different Walker vessels before resigning to join the Royal Navy. 


Whitby, the port where Cook learned the skills of seamanship, lies at the mouth of the River Esk.  Those arriving by train will enjoy the beautiful scenery as the track winds down the narrow gorge which the Esk has cut through the North York Moors National Park, one of the United Kingdom’s largest expanses of heather moorland.  In the eighteenth century Whitby, then a substantial port with several shipyards and a dry dock, was home to some 250 ships trading coal and alum.  Today the town, with a population of 14,500, is roughly the same size as it was during Cook’s era.


Substantial portions of Whitby’s vibrant old town can still be seen by visitors.  If one were to ignore the modern shop windows, then in many places the narrow streets and picturesque alleys make it easy to imagine oneself in an eighteenth-century town.  In addition to its beautiful two-mile-long (3.2 km-long) sandy beach, the seaside community also boasts the dramatic ruins of Whitby Abbey which was founded in 658.  The seventeenth-century Benedictine abbey ruins overlooking the town can be accessed via 199 steps and a very safe walkway up the so-called East Cliff.  These same steps lead to St. Mary’s Church, the Norman tower of which dates back to 1110.      


Whitby can be reached from London by train or coach.  It is possible to depart London’s Kings Cross Station at 7:00 AM and arrive back in London at 9:05 PM after a stay in Whitby from 12:05 PM to 4:05 PM.  Four hours is adequate time to stroll around town, enjoy the delightful museum and also have a bite to eat before returning to the train station. Although the museum is situated on the far side of the small harbor, that is still only a short walk from the station.  Incidentally, one must change trains twice both northbound (in Darlington and Middlesbrough) and southbound (in Middlesbrough and York).  Train fares vary wildly, so make sure to purchase tickets online as far in advance as possible at


Coach service is also available to Whitby from London’s Victoria Station.  However, at eight hours each way, this is typically longer than the train; so an overnight stay in Whitby would be required.  Book coach travel online at

North Yorkshire generally has cool summers and mild winters due to the influence of the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic The region is sheltered against the worst of the moist westerly winds by the Pennines, and the proximity of the North Sea means that temperature extremes are rare.  While late, chilly springs and cool summers are common, so are stretches of good weather in the autumn.  On average about two out of three days are dry throughout the year.   

In addition to its excellent permanent collection, the splendid Captain Cook Memorial Museum also features special exhibits.  The current offering is “Northward Ho!  A Voyage towards the North Pole 1773” highlighting the exploits of another Yorkshireman, Captain Constantine Phipps, who sailed north of Spitsbergen for the Royal Navy.

From April through October the Captain Cook Memorial Museum is open daily from  9:45 AM until 5:00 PM.  Between November and January the museum is closed completely. Both operating hours and days of opening vary for February and March.  Consult for specific details.  Adult admission is GBP 4.50.     


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 314 of the 320 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  Web site:

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