One of the best parts of doing what I do is that I get to visit places I have never visited before. Some venues are hidden gems that I’ve never heard of and others are places that I’ve always wanted to travel to.
I well remember my excitement on discovering that steam really does come from the manhole covers in New York City; being amazed at the scale of the Mall in Washington DC; being so moved at standing on the same stage as Charles Dickens had stood upon in the St George’s Hall in Liverpool, not to mention walking through the front door of Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen.
Although not quite matching a childhood dream of meeting the monarch, I have always wanted to visit the seaside town of Whitby on the coast of Yorkshire and last year I received a request from the Whitby Fine Arts Association to perform for them. Of course I accepted the invitation.
On Tuesday this week I set off for my trip. Whitby is situated at the mouth of the River Esk in North Yorkshire and rises on opposing banks of the river. The natural harbour has made it a centre for fishing and shipbuilding over the centuries. In around 1746 James Cook made his way to Whitby and served his seafaring apprenticeship on Whitby Colliers (a very specific flat-bottom design of ship, which require great seamanship to navigate), before joining the Royal Navy and discovering Australia.
My day started off as a normal run. A34, M40, cutting across past the Silverstone Motor Racing Circuit before joining the M1 to head north. It is once you are on the great North-South artery that is the M1 that you feel as if you are really going somewhere. As I drove I could see road signs directing me to many towns where I have performed before: Birmingham, Coalville, Leicester, Newark, Nottingham, Lancaster, Liverpool and more.
As I passed the landing lights of the East Midlands Airport at Kegworth, I thought about the horror of the day in 1989 when a crippled airliner tried to make an emergency landing there but crashed into the Motorway embankment instead. Unbelievably there was no traffic on that stretch of the road that night.
As you travel further north, the scenery changes and gentle lowland meadows begin to swell and grow, providing ever more dramatic vistas. In Derbyshire the magnificent Bolsover Castle stands proudly on its hillside overlooking the road below.
I stopped for lunch near Barnsley, a town that brings me more happy memories of meeting and interviewing the great cricket umpire, Dickie Bird, who has lived there all his life.
Once past Leeds my route took me slightly to the East, skirting York, with a tantalising glimpse of the magnificent Minster and away towards Pickering where the most beautiful part of the trip begins.
If I were to have followed the A64 I would have driven to Scarborough where I would have turned left and followed the coastline to Whitby but by taking the A169 in Pickering I was taken over the beautiful North York Moors: a stunning wilderness of heather, bracken and hikers.
I passed the signs to Goathland (something was filmed there: All Creatures Great and Small? No, that was in the Dales. Last of the Summer Wine? No, that was in Holmfirth which also hosted the Tour de France last week. Hmmmmm, let me think about it: I’ll come back to you later).
Another memory was stirred as I passed signs at the roadside promoting the Ryedale Festival. Way back in 1994 I wrote my show Mr Dickens is Coming, and a good friend Paul Standen, who was a superb director and advisor, suggested that we form a company and take the show on the road.
So we rented a van, hired some theatrical lights and set off for Yorkshire. Unfortunately I hadn’t really learned how to perform a one man show properly at that time and my performances were not altogether memorable, but the trip was fabulous.
The strange thing is that I was now returning to the area with basically the same show. I took the opportunity to send a message to Paul via Facebook and drove on.
The road rose up and up and up until, like a roller coaster, it tipped me over the top and there was my first view of Whitby, with its ancient Abbey ruins standing proudly above the town.
The route took me through the village of Sleight where I was actually to perform and on into the town of Whitby itself. I easily found my way to 22 Esk Terrace, a stunning Georgian five story house owned by Ruth Darling, the organiser of my event. Ruth was pottering in the front garden as I pulled up and smilingly welcomed me to her home.
No. 22 was built as a seafarer’s house (as were all the other houses in the terrace) and has a commanding view over the estuary. Ruth showed me to my room on the very top floor where I was able to admire the river below before descending two flights to join Ruth for tea in the living room.
We chatted about Dickens, about Whitby, about the moors. She told me about the many tourists who come from all over the world simply to visit the locations of Heartbeat (Ah, yes, of course! That is what was filmed in Goathland). We talked about Captain Cook and the whaling industry in the town. We discussed the Beeching cuts of 1963 which closed the rail link from Whitby to Pickering. The line has now been renovated by the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and runs an evocative steam service throughout the season.
As I had made such good time on my journey Ruth suggested that I should walk into the town for a quick explore.
Whitby is a small town which is dominated by the river Esk, at the mouth of which two serpentine harbour walls protect the town from the North Sea. As I walked along the quayside I was amazed at the huge amount of boats offering rides, including a replica of Cook’s Endeavour offering ‘The Genuine Captain Cook Experience. 25 minute trip.’ Maybe not THAT genuine, then.
The smell of the British seaside, you can’t beat it: The salty smell of the sea, mixed with the smell of diesel, mixed with the smell of fish and chips and salt and vinegar. And then there is the sound of the seaside: Voices everywhere, the slow chug chug chug of the fishing boats, the bells and electronic cacophony of the amusement arcades.
In Whitby there stands The Dracula Experience which is ‘a unique tour through the Dracula story and the connection to Whitby. As you enter a dreadful fear will come upon you. The Count’s mysterious appearance and frightening warning will make you wonder if you should have come to Whitby!’
I decided to give it a miss.
Instead I walked up a steep hill to the statue of Captain James Cook, who stands proudly looking out to sea. No doubt there is a glint in his eye as The Endeavour passes beneath him, giving thirty holiday makers ‘The Genuine Captain Cook Experience.’
I still had plenty of time in hand, so walked across the swing bridge which connects the two sides of the town. The streets here are narrower and cobbled, the buildings crooked and bent through hundreds of years of subsidence and being beaten by the ravages of the North Sea.
I found the White Horse and Griffin pub, which is where Charles Dickens is reputed to have stayed when he visited the town, and around the corner the Old Town Hall which seems to have been built in miniature, with a miniature market square in front of it.
I wound my way through the streets, completely charmed by them.
It had only been a brief look around but I had seen enough to know that I would very much like to return one day to be one of the tourists. If I do return then I can visit the photo shop and avail myself of the opportunity of having my portrait taken in Victorian costume….
I returned to Ruth’s house for a short lie-down before making my way back to the village of Sleights. In my room I decided to make myself a cup of coffee and it was now that I discovered quite what amazing attention to detail Ruth has towards her guests: my mug had ‘Bah Humbug’ emblazoned across it.
At 5 o clock I was due to meet Brian Oxley, a member of the Dickens Society from the nearby town of Malton. Charles Dickens had a good friend in Malton – Charles Smithson the local solicitor – and a group of enthusiasts, headed by Brian, have made a small museum in his office.
As I pulled up outside the Sleights Village Hall Brian and his colleague John were waiting for me. We walked down the hill to The Salmon Leap for a coffee but it was closed, so we turned tail and walked back up the hill (which seemed to have become much steeper during the last five minutes) to pile into Brian’s car to drive to another pub.
For half an hour or so we sipped our coffees and chatted about Charles Dickens, the museum and my shows. It was a very nice way to relax before the show.
At 6 o’clock we went back to the hall and I started setting up the stage for Mr Dickens is Coming: reading desk, screen, chair are all placed. The white fluffy cat is hidden behind the screen. The glass carafe that belonged to Charles Dickens and has his monogram etched onto it, sits unnoticed on the desk.
As 6.30 approached I started to change into my costume. The probability of a large audience was not great; with thirty minutes to go there were six members of the committee, Brian and John and the caretaker of the hall. Not promising.
However as the clock ticked on things started to improve. One of the nicest sounds for an actor is the hum of an audience gathering and as the 7 o’ clock starting time approached I could hear more and more people coming in. Ruth popped her head in to my room every now and then to keep me posted; at just after the hour she made her announcement and I was up.
Mr Dickens is Coming is a biographical show concentrating on Dickens’s theatrical side. It uses lots of short passages from novels and plenty of characters. It is not a heavy lecture, but designed to be light-hearted and fast moving.
Audiences always like to be told of any connection between Charles Dickens and their own area and my research had uncovered the fact that Whitby is only mentioned in one novel: Dombey and Son. Further investigation showed that Dombey and Son was dedicated to the Marshioness of Normanby, whose home nearby Dickens had visited. Even better is that the mention of Whitby comes from the lips of salty sea dog Captain Cuttle. It cannot be coincidence, I told the audience, that Dickens gave him an alliterative name which mirrors that of Whitby’s favourite son, Captain Cook. Tenuous? Massively. Appreciated by the audience? Hugely.
The first half went very well and the Whitby Fine Arts Society loved it and clapped for a long time before grabbing their refreshments and settling down for act two.
Those of you have been following my blog this year will know Doctor Marigold already and this is the performance I gave for the second half. Gratifyingly the piece worked beautifully, and everyone seemed to enjoy it immensely.
The performances done, I changed, loaded up the car and drove back into Whitby, where Ruth and her husband Tony had laid on a wonderful late night supper: local pork pies, allotment-grown lettuce, beautiful Yorkshire cheese, Yorkshire Curd Tart, pickles and wine. We chatted and laughed and relaxed.
It was a superb end to a superb day.
Yes, I certainly had a lovely time in Whitby.