I love a good coincidence. Sometimes you just sense that an event or moment has happened for either a particularly specific reason or not least because the feelings that it captures, have been borne out of similar inspiration from a like minded soul.
So it was with timely reverence, tinged with not a little melancholy, that I studied AA Gill‘s latest review in the Sunday Times and the revelation of his unfortunate malady, which prompted me to write this a little sooner than I’d intended.
Last week, my wife and I visited the quintessential Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby. Nestling below the most idyllic and beautiful heather-washed panorama of the North York Moors, this relatively tiny coastal town, steeped in the most fascinating of histories, exudes a typical Northern warmth and welcome that, having partial Lancastrian roots, I’ve come to recognise as synonymous with any road trip up the A1 that I’ve enjoyed over the years.
The purpose of this particular visit was twofold. Firstly to research a piece on the apprenticeships, training and maritime education provided by the Whitby Fishing School, charting the progress the fishing industry has forged in seeking to address the recent dearth of new entrants to their occupation and to assess the future prospects for young people to be employed in post-Brexit UK fisheries.
Secondly and most self-indulgently, it provided me with a long-awaited opportunity to visit and savour one of the most emblematic eateries of Northern Britain; the much loved and vaunted Magpie Cafe, home to the finest portions of Fish & Chips known to mankind and with a provenance traceable from the decks of vessels designed and constructed in the shipyard of the very same town and fished by none other than long-standing Whitby family, the Lockers, whose name and reputation as harvesters of the North Sea goes unchallenged as leading exponents of their craft.
Having enjoyed the most breathtaking of drives across the moor, from the tiny sheep-clustered village of Goathland, where we’d spent a very comfortable and most assuaging night at the typically friendly and modestly-appointed Mallyan Spout Hotel, we arrived at the harbour, where I made haste to my appointment, whilst my wife took herself off to explore the town and its beckoning and varied history.
Whitby has long been associated with maritime training, the most famous recipient of which, being none other than Captain Cook, who took up an apprenticeship with a local seafarer in 1746. Ever since then, the port has played host to a veritable succession of deckhands to master mariners and it’s heartening to find that the noble tradition is maintained, alive and well at the school that boasts a current yearly intake of approximately 120 students, split into four groups.
Founded in 2002, from a need to redress the growing chasm in the number of recruits to the fishing industry, through a migration of labour to the burgeoning oil and gas sector, local trawler owner Arnold Locker, sagely recognised that a structure needed to be implemented, to not only provide the basic skills of seamanship to budding mariners, but to focus primarily on the fishing industry, both inshore and offshore and provide a platform for youngsters to adopt the skills and competence necessary, to serve on all classes of vessel, from potters to purse seiners.
Whitby has always been autonomous as regards its fishing heritage. From whaling in the 1700’s to the day boats that now populate the fish quay, the boat building, net making and labour supply has always originated from within the district, drawing on candidates from neighbouring Bridlington, Scarborough and Filey. Today it is really no different, Parkol Marine Engineering still operate a ship-building business from the port, designing and developing some of the most modern and bespoke fishing vessels operated within UK waters and students aged 16-24 from the local hinterland, arrive at the Fishing School to embark on a course of training, that will fit them for life at sea.
The students undergo a rigorous pre-assesment to weed out any obviously unsuitable types, before undertaking two months of mandatory training modules that cover everything from sea survival and first aid to navigation and basic seamanship. The classroom work is then augmented by a further nine months of practical experience aboard a local inshore vessel, where they learn directly from the skipper and hone their skills in a working environment, that will ultimately equip them for careers as fisherman, after thorough and stringent assessment.
Having enjoyed the most educational visit myself at the school, I wandered down to the fish quay, to try and get a sense of proportion of the Whitby fleet and to get a feel for the current status quo. Under 10 metre vessels now predominate the harbour and although facilities still exist for larger boats to berth here, the majority of the bigger trawlers including those of the Locker family, now reside further North, landing their catches of white fish into the Scottish ports.
A day boat is landing its catch of brown crab and the final lobsters of the season onto the quay as I arrive and I sense that although depleted in size, the fishing fleet here still plays an important and a vital role in the sustainability of the fisheries and of course the community that it supports, so integral to the wellbeing of the wider industry. As I discuss the issues faced, with a couple of local fishermen, it’s obvious that fishing is still very much the lifeblood of the town, despite the vagaries experienced in recent years.
Finally and ravenously we adjourn to the Magpie. A destination that I’ve yearned to visit for some considerable while. Although a little early for our reservation, we’re welcomed in with almost tangible Yorkshire zeal and shown to our table.
Now then; you’ll know well, that I frequent fish restaurants on an unnaturally regular basis. I pore over menus, lust after specials boards and generally enthuse over everything that our seas yield. It’s become part of what I do and unashamedly so. I get excited at the merest hint of a seafront whelk stall, let alone dining in Soho on West Coast langoustines or gazing out from a Port Isaac clifftop as I savour the citrus-cured brill. So just imagine my unabashed delight, as the lovely ladies at the Magpie, delivered me one of the most enticing and extensive seafood menus, I’ve ever clapped my stalk-like eyes on and presented me with a dilemma that whilst delicious to behold, at the same time proved thorny in the least.
Locally caught and Whitby-landed lobster vied for position with the noted fish pie, the dressed crab, the grilled plaice, the lemon sole, the skate, monk, halibut and “woof” (wolffish) that had started to make my head spin. As we picked over a delightful tapas of garlic anchovies and chilli prawns, my wife (almost as ardent a lobster fan as my good self) declared that a half thermidor had swayed her and with pressure mounting I had to deliver my own verdict.
Well, actually, it wasn’t that hard in the end. If you’re lucky enough to know and have visited exactly where the fish has been landed. If you know the boat and the you’ve seen first hand, the auction floor where it lies resplendent, in the raw, atop crushed ice. If you’ve researched the methods and techniques by which it’s caught and the attention to detail required to preserve its quality and traceability, then it’s a really a no-brainer.
Haddock and chips it was then. Divine and cooked to perfection and I concur entirely with AA’s sentiments. Caught in the North Sea and landed into Peterhead, by the Locker family’s “Our Lass III – WY261” Absolute testament to what our fisheries are about and the opportunities they afford in terms of sustainability, traceability and responsibility. The story behind Whitby and so many other ports of her ilk, define just that.
I feel my time there on such a beautiful late November morning, was well spent and hugely productive. But I’ll have to return- if only to work my way through the rest of the Magpie’s menu!