Taking the waters

LIFE is one long voyage of discovery, as Captain James Cook must have said, and when I embarked upon an article about Whitby for this month’s Living magazine, I had no idea what fascinating trivial nonsense would sail my way.

For example, the crow’s nest was invented in 1807 by Captain William Scoresby, Whitby’s greatest whaler. Scoresby designed a canvascovered frame with a hatch underneath for the look-out to climb through and stand at the top of the tallest mast with the telescope clamped to his eye, scanning the seas for whales.

But why was it called “the crow’s nest”?

If you said because crows nest at the top of the tallest trees, you would be as wrong as Alan Davies on QI.

It is because the crow is a land-loving sort of bird which is believed to fly in a dead straight line. Sailors usually took a crow or two with them on a voyage. They kept them in baskets, and once Scoresby had invented his look-out post, the crows lived up there with the look-out at the top of the tallest mast. Over time, where the crows lived was called “the crow’s nest”.

When the weather closed in causing the sailors to lose their bearings, the look-out would release a crow. It would then make a beeline for land followed by a boat-load of lost sailors. As the crow flies straight, they’d be ashore in a jiffy.

Whaling was the second source of Whitby’s prosperity. The first source was urine.

Whitby had been just a little fishing port too far from anywhere until Sir Thomas Challoner visited Italy in the 16th Century. He spotted the Pope’s people making alum out of a rock similar to the shale of the North Yorkshire coast.

Alum was used to fix colour into woollen cloths. It was vital for anyone who wanted their clothes to look something more than sheep-coloured.

The Pope’s alum-making technique was to roast the rock for a year, drench it with stale urine and then warm the mixture back up until enough liquid had evaporated to allow a fresh chicken’s egg to float to the surface.

What an ingenious fellow the Pope must have been to have created such a technique!

Sir Thomas secretly spirited a couple of the Pope’s men back to Yorkshire – hidden in barrels – and set them to work. When His Holiness found out, he was so pis…, sorry, hacked off that he excommunicated Sir Thomas.

Whitby grew thirsty for urine. It’s own people couldn’t pass enough.

From London to Newcastle, buckets were placed on street corners and men were encouraged to widdle into them. A man with a horse and cart came round and decanted the buckets into barrels. The barrels were shipped to Whitby.

In the last two months of 1612 alone, Whitby’s alum works consumed 29,000 gallons of urine – 16,000 of it “country urine” and 13,000 “London urine”.

Naturally enough, sailors plying the urine trade were embarrassed by their cargo.

“What you got in those barrels?” other sailors would mockingly shout as they set sail.

“Beer and wine,” replied the Whitby-bound sailors, plausibly.

“Never,” shouted the teasers. “You’re taking the piss.”

And so the English language gained a new phrase. Possibly.

■ The August edition of Living is available free in Marks & Spencer, high streets and shopping malls of Durham and the Tees Valley.

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