27th September 1944: York - Whitby

Beautiful day, brilliant and sunny.  Paid my bill at the Chestnuts which is rather dear as the accommodation is nothing very special, although clean and comfortable.  Dawdled about rather, went to the Library again, but at last got away on the Malton Road at about one o’clock, scudding along with the wind behind, blue sky, great rolling white clouds, and green fields full of fat roan short-horn bullocks.

Noticed two modern inns, both pleasantly designed, the “Hop Grove” and the “Four Alls”, particularly the latter which has a veranda with brick columns, and is white washed all over.  The other is built in good red brick, with two very high gables.  A little further on the “Hazelbush Café” was advertising “Ham and Egg Teas.  Open”, on a newly painted board, but did not enquire whether they really had any.  About a mile past there are endless streams of ammunition dumps on both sides of the road, running on mile after mile.

Got up the sharp hill above Kirkham Priory, and from the top looked back across the Plain of York, with the Minster and the big gasometer glistening in the sunlight nearly 12 miles away.  How cheering this sight must have been to travellers coming across the moors in olden times.

Thought about going down the steep bank to see Kirkham Priory, but began to feel tired and thought I had better push on to Malton, which I reached at a quarter to 4.  Found there was a train to Whitby in 10 minutes, so decided to get on it.

Began to feel sensations similar to those which I experience in Wales as we puffed slowly up the little line to Pickering.  Saw the little town with its ruinous castle on the hill above it, and thought of old Dr John Kirk and my great uncle living there all those years ago.  Then on up a glorious valley, high up into the dales, passed a lonely little cottage with a white pea-hen strutting in the garden.  Slowly the train toiled up to the summit of Goathland Moor – memories of Father and Mother walking there 40 years ago.  Saw fast, running streams, steep bracken covered hills, cattle grazing on the low water meadows, lonely little farmsteads.

Then over the summit, and an impetuous rushing down the other side, past names long familiar to me in my childhood – Grosmont, Sleights, Ruswarp.

It was half past 5 when we rattled along by the Esk, under the high level bridge, and into Whitby Station.  Walked out into the square in a sort of dream, felt very queer, just like a ghost returning.  There was Bagdale, up on the left, where I came running down, only to fall and cut my head nearly 30 years ago, and here on the right was the harbour where I used to stand as a child and see the boats come in, looking at the forest of masts and arms and the old salts, some of whom had sailed as boys in Nelson’s time, leaning on the harbour bar.

These memories were as clear as if I had really been there, yet my own memory of the visit 30 years ago was nothing but a faint shadowy picture of the railway station looked down upon from above, which seemed so vast and which I now see is so small.

The tide was out, with the fishing smacks lying at odd angles on the mud, a great cloud of sea-gulls wheeling and crying, fishermen in blue jerseys, the mass of red and grey houses climbing up the cliff across the water and above all the old church and the Abbey ruins, just like the photographs at home.

Walked into Baxtergate, the shops all shut and silent, and a pretty little girl with long black hair running towards the harbour.  On the quay side were stacks of lobster-pots, light netting ones, not like the big wicker baskets shown in the old photos, but the heavy wooden rail at the water’s edge was the same as 60 years ago, and the fishermen themselves, still leaning there in canvas jerkins and thigh boots, as if they had not moved for half a century.

The waves were breaking on the harbour-bar in a broken white line, and overhead the everlasting seagulls, rising and falling, some floating on the harbour, ever crying.  A few boats were moving slowly about, a faint haze of blue smoke hung over the town.

Went across the swing bridge, where Father has so often stood to watch the ships move into the inner harbour.  Into Bridge Street, and asked a policeman standing there if he could tell me where Miss Rudsdale lived.  It seemed very strange to say the name.

He looked at me carefully, and said in broad Yorkshire: “Would she be old Jim Rudsdale’s daughter?”
I said "Yes, I thought so", and that she was my aunt.
“Your aunt, eh?  Well, last I heard of her she’d moved out o’Bagdale up to the west end, somewhere.  You’d best go along to Carr’s Yard, and ask old Jim Rudsdale what’s her brother.”
I said: “Carr’s Yard?  Do you mean to say Jim Rudsdale’s alive?”
“Aye, he was last I heard of him.”

I thanked him, and felt a most extraordinary fool, for I had no idea that Father’s brother was still alive.  Father never says anything about him, and in some vague way I had gathered that they did not get on very well, for I heard Father once refer to him as “a wrong ‘un”.

So back along the Quay to Bagdale, with its delightful Georgian houses and terraces, and there, on the left hand side, was Carr’s Yard, where Father spent his boyhood.  And so here it was, the Carr’s Yard of which I have so often heard, a fine block facing the road, dating from about 1750, a three story tenement behind, climbing up the cliff behind, and to the right, on the cliff itself, stands the tall thin brick house, also three stories high, with pairs of windows set very close together and a heavy pantile roof – the house to which Grandfather came nearly 100 years ago, when he began his coach building business.  There is a steep track in front of this, leading up to the old coachbuilding yard itself, where my uncle worked until about 15 years ago.

I chained the cycle to the railings, and went down the narrow passage between the buildings and the side wall.  In the first doorway stood an old man with a kindly weatherbeaten face, holding a cat in his arms, the firelight flickering in a dark room behind him.  I asked him if he could tell me where Mr Rudsdale lived, pronouncing the name Yorkshire fashion. 

“Aye”, he replied, “I can that.  Gang up steps and round t’corner.  You’ll see his door on t’right.”

The steps were of narrow worn stones, going steeply up between two blocks into a little paved yard, where the tenements were over the top of those in the passage below.  In the corner was a tiny cottage door, on which I knocked and which was in a moment opened by a little old man looking extraordinarily like Father, but with a short scrubby beard.  The likeness was so striking there was no need for me to ask, but I said:

“Are you Mr Rudsdale.”
“Aye, my name’s Rudsdale.”
“So is mine.”
He stared at me intently, obviously puzzled.  I said: “I’m from Colchester.”
“Come in, lad.  Let’s have a look at thee.”

The room was small and low, with an unboarded ceiling, a long window with little panes looking down into the court below, a blackleaded stove, a table set for tea, a radio on a little table near the window, a horsehair sofa, an old, worn armchair on a rag rug in front of the blazing stove, photos on the walls, Whitby Harbour, the Abbey, relations, etc.

The old man stood staring at me, and at last said: “Well, well, lad, so you’re Jack’s boy.  You’ve been a long time coming, but now you’re here, sit you down, lad, sit you down.”

It was rather like a play, and I felt as if I could stand aside and watch myself talking to this strange little man, this caricature of my own Father.  But for things that occurred far away in the last century it might well have been that this cosy little cottage would now be my home, and that my Father might have been a retired coachbuilder instead of schoolmaster.

Uncle began asking me all the usual questions – how was Jack?  Was he keeping well?  Had he got a good housekeeper? and I made all the usual replies.  The old man said: “I’m far from well you know, far from well.  Asthma, asthma,” (thumping his chest) “I don't expect to leave the house again before the spring.”

He sat down and gazed into the fire, thinking I suppose of the days of long ago, when three brothers played in the old coach-building shops, or ran down Bagdale and through Baxtergate to the Harbour to see the boats come in, deep laden with fish.

At last he turned and said rather deferentially: “You’ll stop to tea, lad, won’t you?  Your cousin Cathy’ll be in in a minute.”

I thanked him profusely, but could not for the life of me think who “cousin Cathy” might be.  In a few minutes she arrived, a pleasant faced woman of 38 or 39, looking rather worn, and breathing very asthmatically.

“Some one to see you,” said the old man, chuckling and coughing.  “Bet you don't know who he is, eh?”
She looked at me very hard, and said: “Well, no I don't, but I know the face somehow.”
“So you ought, my dear, it’s Jack’s boy from Colchester, come to see us after all these years!”
“Well, my goodness!” she said.  “This is a surprise!  How kind of you to come.”

Then we had tea, and I talked to the old man about coach building.  He said they mostly did only carriage work, leaving trade carts and farm wagons to another man at the other end of the town, whose business is still open.  Now nothing is left of the Carr’s Yard business, and the old paint shop has been let to a cabinet-maker.  Cousin Cathy started talking about the rest of the family at great length, but the names “Bob’s eldest” or “Will’s boy” meant little to me as I am so out of touch with these people.  Was faintly horrified to hear that one of them, Cathy’s brother of about 39, is in the RAF and is dying of consumption in South Africa.  Felt a little chill of fear, thinking of the terrible coughs which I get every winter.

After tea it was suggested that I should leave the cycle at Carr’s Yard and should go up to Aunt Kit’s house with Cathy.  We went down to the Station Square to get a bus, and while we were waiting Cathy pointed out the name “Arthur Sawdon” on a shop front.  I said: “Let’s see, didn’t my Father marry a Sawdon first?”
She said: “That’s right, I was named after her,” and said no more on the subject.  Strange that Cathy Sawdon, dead 40 years ago, might have been my Mother.

Got in the bus and went up to West Cliff in the gathering dusk.

Street lights were just coming on, and windows glowed with subdued lights.  This is as a matter of fact the first week that any lights have been allowed here.

Great view from the cliff top across the sea to Sandsend, and the black mass of Kettleness beyond, the wind rising and the waves breaking white on the rocks.

Found that the Aunts live in a modern house, almost opposite Sneaton Castle.  Felt rather self-conscious, calling upon relatives whom I did not know, so late in the evening, when it was quite obvious that I should be expecting a bed.  However, the two old dears made me most welcome after their first surprise.

Aunt Hannah, the eldest, is about 80 I think, and rather feeble.  Aunt Kitty is not quite so old as Father, and was not feeling very well today but was most anxious to talk.  We did until half past eleven, after an excellent supper, and talked until I could no longer keep my eyes open.

They were both pathetically anxious to hear all about Father, and it saddened me to think that they will probably never see him again.  And so we sat talking hour after hour, of old people and the old times long ago, until I really felt that it was I and not my Father who lived in this town 70 years ago.  Was rather amused when we talked of old customs – the coloured Easter Eggs, the Plough Monday boys, and the Planting of the Penny Hedge.  Both old ladies had lived here their whole lives, yet they have never seen the hedge yet!  It was planted as usual this year.

At last I got to bed, and before I went to sleep opened the window and listened to the wind crying among the roofs and the ceaseless murmur of the waves.

And so ends my day.

On the 9 o’clock news tonight was the first admission of the terrible disaster which has happened at Arnhem in Holland – practically the whole of the British Paratroop force has been lost, and the few survivors have now been withdrawn across the river.  Yet in the evening papers at York last night, this was denied, although the facts had already been announced by the Germans.

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