IN CONVERSATION : HELEN IN THE MONK’S HAVEN, WHITBY

 

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A section of the harbour in Whitby, protected from the North Sea by two piers.

 

AUDIO Coming soon

Helen talks to me about life on the North Yorkshire coast.


TRANSCRIPT

JO: I am just sitting with Helen of …

H: the Monk’s Haven in Whitby

JO: the Monk’s Haven in Whitby … I’m just checking our levels … I’ll turn it up slightly … and you just . I asked you whether you were Whitby born, didn’t I?

H: Yes

JO: Yes, you are …

H: Yes, I am …

JO: but you also revealed that the business is ….

H: not this business …

JO: no?

H: no … my family business, which is …

JO: what’s the family business?

H: They are called Richardson Smith and they’re a local firm of surveyors, auctioneers, and estate agents … and they own the local cattle market … and a salerooms in the town

JO: and they’ve been doing this sort of thing for …

H: over two hundred years …

JO: quite a while …

H: yes

JO: and taking two hundred off where we are now … just checking the levels … yes, that’s fine … taking two hundred off where we are now … puts us back towards the beginning of the nineteenth century but you were telling me that Whitby was quite … a presence in the British setup …

H: yes … it used to be the sixth largest town in England … [ ] .. but that was in the 1790s so [ ]

JO: was that … was that based around the activities you associate with a port?

H: yes …

JO: mainly …

H: whaling and shipbuilding and just generally the boats were known for being the best … the strongest boats … which is why Captain Cook had all his boats made in Whitby …

JO: that’s the Captain Cook museum, yes …

H: yes

JO: and Captain Cook Avenue and various things I’ve noticed …

H: Captain James Cook discovered Australia … I know now .. circumnavigated the globe

JO: yes

H: several times .. [ ]

JO: but this is where he came to commission his ships …

H: his boats … yes …

JO: I think you said it was bigger than Manchester at that [ ]

H: yes … at that time ..

JO: just to give you an idea … today it’s the most isolated …

H: town in England …

JO: yes … because you’ve got the sea on ..

H: two thirds of it … and then the other third you’ve got to go half an hour over open moorland … to get out of it ….

JO: you’re protected by the North Yorkshire moor …

H: yes

JO: that was spooky actually coming over there last night .. it was twilight … and I’ve been in mist since coming into England, most of the time … is that sea that’s doing that?

H: we … no we’re blessed with the sea fret at the moment … it’s not always ….

JO: [ ] what’s a fret?

H: it’s a mist that sits on the coast …

JO: ok …

H: it comes in off the sea …

JO: it didn’t lift for days …

H: no … well it’s very cold …

JO: yes …

H: and [ ] horrible …

JO: yes, I was wondering what was going on ….

H: but if you go literally two miles inland … it’ll be fine …

JO: yes

H: it will be like a different weather zone …

JO: that’s news to me … it’s the first time I’ve seen it … So, tell me a bit about what’s going on in Whitby …. we just had a bit of a giggle about the relationship between Scarborough and Whitby … I told you I’m off to Scarborough next …

H: yes …. and I said that Whitby people and Scarborough people had a love-hate relationship

JO: yes

H: it is … I mean … we have competitions against Scarborough … like our local rowing teams … we have two in Whitby and there’s only one in Scarborough and they come and race against them …. there is a healthy competition between the two towns, you know

JO: but I think because of the way the council arrangements are set up, you feel there’s a perception around that ….

H: Whitby gets a raw deal …

JO: yes … Whitby is pulling in quite a lot of income from …

H: tourism …

JO: regional visits in particular, yes … or is it national? I suppose it’s national …

H: national really … I mean we do get a lot of attention as being a really solid tourist destination … we’re also a major stag and hen destination … funnily enough

JO: really … so they don’t all go to Newcastle?

H: No .. because in the bigger towns, they have a policy on the door that they don’t encourage large groups of men to come in and drink whereas in Whitby, we have the opposite policy … If a publican sees a large group of men wanting to drink …

JO: the doors swing open!

H: the doors swing open, yes … and there’s a lot to do … they go fishing … and they go on the railway … and they get dressed up and follow the pub crawl that takes you through every pub in Whitby

JO: really ..

H: in a day … and it goes past here at about three o clock on a Saturday afternoon and you’ll see group after group of people in fancy dress … on stag nights … and you literally have a ringside view in here … you just watch them coming past …

JO: make some very interesting pictures … I’m not going to see it, of course …

H: the funniest one was the Knights of the Roundtable which was a large group of men in grey track suits from Primark with England tee-shirts over the front of it … and we heard … we heard them before they came because we could hear these horses coming down the road and then there was a group of sixteen men mincing down the road with coconuts making the noise

JO: a la Monty Python …

H: it was hilarious … yes ….

JO: How are … how are things here? You started on a subject which I am kind of keen to know more about … the reason I said I was going to Scarborough is that I know that they were hit by some nasty weather and its repercussions very recently … it’s true?

H: [ ]

JO: I think I remember seeing two stories about sort of .. I don’t know whether you would call it ‘extreme weather’ …

H: flooding …

JO: pretty difficult weather …

H: we had some interesting flooding recently …

JO: you’ve had some too?

H: yes … everywhere did … it was very … flash flooding .. some of it … caused a lot of damage to people with the rain …

JO: that’s what I am talking about … because I went and saw it in Derry, Northern Ireland

H: yes …

JO: there, for example, an entire Park and Ride car park and vehicles had floated away … you know, all this kind of stuff …

H: yes … it was …

JO: there were still tree … bits of tree stuck up rugby posts and …

H: I don’t think it was that severe in Scarborough but I know that in certain areas it was quite difficult … the roads were closed and businesses got flooded where they were in disrepair … I think … I know one business that happened to …

JO: What … so anyone … anyone whose .. what does that mean .. anyone whose flood protection wasn’t quite what it could be ..

H: no … I just know that my nextdoor neighbour here … has a little gift shop .. and he also has a gift shop in the front .. in Scarborough seafront .. and he’d been complaining about the state of the guttering to his landlord for ages … and then sure enough … the flash floods

JO: and it found it out …

H: it found everything out … yes .. in the middle of the season … it was unfortunate timing … ’cause it was .. you know .. a busy time for them …

JO: yes

H: and then before that … but this is going back a few years … we had a storm surge which was quite interesting … sea levels were sort of a meter higher than they normally were which caused quite a lot of interesting flooding in Whitby … somebody’s Porsche was left in a car park … by the Angel and it was just underwater …

JO: boo hoo …

H: yes … funnily enough that one didn’t get towed …

JO: I’m being mean …

H: it was quite bad for a lot of the little cottages further down this street …

JO: so was that residential properties being damaged

H: yes [ ] because everybody was sort of waste deep in water … along Church Street and there was quite severe flooding … but that was a really unusual combination of the planets, and the tides and everything … and the weather … that forced it to be really spectacular [ ]

JO: I am going to reveal my theme … which is … it’s not original .. but scientists seem to be saying … well they have been for a long time now … we’re in big trouble if we keep going the way we are … and that the Earth System is going to become basically unfriendly to the human enterprise …

H: yes

JO: yes … and part of the argument is not … so you hear people talking about sea levels going up

over time … but part of the argument is … I am wondering how much of this is going to be audible because I am behind the mic … but anyway we’ll see … part of the argument is that sea level goes up by n metres … you know … 2 metres … 3 metres … 3.5 metres or something … that’s pretty obviously awful for many places because a lot of human civilisation has developed around the sea …

H: yes

JO: but … and low lying places … but the storm surges apparently … and that cocktail of factors is where the most immediate risks are …

H: yes

JO: ’cause we’re already at a higher sea level than we would have been had we behaved differently .. and it’s going to rise more … whatever we do now … it’s going to rise more already … but apparently … because of the more extreme weather … the more frequent and more intense extreme weather … we’re going to get things like storm surges and flooding on a much more regular basis around the water courses and around the seafront .. I guess around the coast …. so, I just want to say to you really … you already mentioned that your sea wall here is in a pretty bad state …

H: it’s in serious ..

JO: what’s going on there then?

H: they’re doing surveys on the actual piers … and they’ve found a lot of damage at the foot of the piers that needs repairing … quite urgently …

JO: is this just … just a fact of life?

H: No … it’s just aged …

JO: it’s just old …

H: yes

JO: it’s tired …

H: natural ageing … but it’s not helped by the fact that you’ve got the … you know .. the extreme weather and things … but it just needs maintenance … general maintenance …

JO: and there .. I am coming back to an earlier thing … that’s where you feel that the .. is it the borough council

H: Scarborough Borough Council … have the funding

JO: has not necessarily jumped on it as a priority …

H: no … they haven’t jumped on the piers that are protecting Whitby .. as a priority … rather than … they’ve built a waterpark in Scarborough, with slides …

JO: yes … and would you say it’s fair to say that the consensus view in Whitby is that that’s …

H: a bit of a white elephant …

JO: yes

H: yes … that’s not to say if it had been in Whitby they wouldn’t have loved it but it’s in Scarborough .. you know … and we pay the highest rates in England .. except for one street in Cambridge which has higher rates …

JO: really? That’s a bit of a surprise ….

H: per square meter … you are sitting in the most expensive square metre rateable value in England … I think … at the moment …

JO: what does that mean .. if you don’t mind saying for a property such as this?

H: [ ]

JO: what’s the street we’re on …

H: Church Street …

JO: so it’s central Whitby …

H: it is … the old town … the Whitby old town and it’s only between three shops that way … and a few shops that way … that they’ve assessed our rateable value … as something ridiculous … which will have a knock on effect … the larger units like ours will get broken down into smaller ones that don’t then fall into the …

JO: they don’t attract that high …

H: well … if you’re such a small business like the kiosk next door … they don’t pay rates at all ’cause their square footage is too small … but they pay ridiculous rents to be in that situation which then the district valuers use to gauge the rate per square meter for everybody else … so it is going to be contested …

JO: yes

H: but just at the moment … it is ridiculously high … plus of course with all the flooding … our insurance prices all went up … because they had it that we were in a flood zone … postcode … which isn’t actually strictly speaking true because we are halfway up a cliff here … if you look at sea level and the Abbey, we’re quite a way up the hill towards that …

JO: but … flooding is not totally to do with that … is it …

H: no

JO: flash floods is to do with the drains … the water coming off higher ground …

H: yes … to be honest … we’re so close to the sea … at the mouth of the river … that it would take a rise in sea level of quite significant proportions for us to be flooded

JO: yes ..

H: ’cause obviously it’s already in the sea at our point … we’re tidal … so it’s in that [ ] … but yes it wasn’t great for local businesses … that we had increased rates … increased rents … increased insurance …

JO: and how … if … so just to finish that little bit … and I won’t keep you much longer now .. are you … are you worried … I mean when I look at some of these online .. the good quality ones … online simulators … that indicate things like coastal inundation … so they actually remap effectively the country … they change the shape of the coast …

H: my insurance provider .. the NFU … was kind enough to give me a copy of the map to explain to me why my rate … my insurance prices were going up … but I got in touch with somebody who works for the coastal preservation scheme … around here … I am lucky enough to know [ ] who’s quite high up in that .. and he wrote a letter for them … for the coastal agency to state that it wouldn’t happen the way their map was predicting … so he got my insurance down again … luckily …

JO: yes .. good person to know …

H: [ ] only happens that I was lucky enough to know somebody [ ] with the authority to do that ..

JO: but the insurance industry apparently is amongst the very few industries … certainly in the finance sector who sort of are taking climate change

H: seriously

JO: a bit more seriously … because they’re on the wrong end of it, aren’t they?

H: because they are having the claims ..

JO: but … are you … are you persuaded that we’re actually going to have to move large amounts of built up areas away from the danger zones or .. ? What do you think?

H: No .. because locally we have really good experience with coastal defences

JO: yes

H: and …

JO: so this is the other approach, isn’t it? You actually defend yourself …

H: this is the other approach … you actually defend the main … things … we’ve things like piers and sea walls … and there’s been a major work at Sandsend which is just on the edge of Whitby … I’m from a village called Runswick Bay which is nine miles north of Whitby … my family have a house there … and that has … as long as I have lived .. in the last forty years, we’ve had about three different sea walls … sets of defences and it is eroding … and the coastal agency are buying .. the Environment Agency .. sorry … are buying up stretches of coast … which is … especially round here … it’s the … we have the highest clay cliffs in England .. at Boulby where the mine is ..

JO: yes that enormous mine …

H: vertical drop down the clay cliff … I mean it falls away from the land in slabs .. like that .. so you’ve got this sheer clay .. and it’s quite scary really to go near the edge … you wouldn’t want to walk near it … so the environment agency are buying up stretches of land … with a view to allowing those areas to recede … but to hold the bits that are worth defending … with sea walls and …

JO: so … do you think … do you imagine that over the next five, ten, twenty five years … there’s going to be a combination of retreat and defence … thinking around the country …

H: well the planning permission … yes … I mean planning permission is now really difficult to get anywhere near an area with speedy erosion … and … so they do manage it .. through designated areas … the building

JO: so you feel it’s … you feel it’s in hand generally? Or are you worried?

H: I think … I’m worried because it’s dealt with at a local level … so, for instance, Scarborough, where the borough council sits … is where the money is held to be allocated for the … you know … the different towns …

JO: yes

H: what needs doing …

JO: that’s how we started …

H: and that’s how we started …

JO: you don’t see … the necessary action …

H: we don’t see the piers being restored … I mean they in their own right are a tourist attraction

JO: yes

H: probably more of an attraction to Scarborough Borough Council than a water park … you know … more people will come … to walk down here …

JO: from further afield …

H: Whitby … to have their photo taken next to the lighthouse … to … than they come to go on a slide … at the waterpark … and let’s face it .. if you’re going to go on a slide in a waterpark, you’re going to do it in Tenerife … you’re not going to do it in Scarborough, are you?

JO: I don’t know …

H: I just don’t see why they did that …

JO: More broadly … how are … how are people here? I’ve … you kindly gave me the Whitby Gazette this morning so I rifled through it quickly … there’s a story in there which looks like a warmed over government press release about how unemployment is so low … and there’s a record low number of people locally I think … as well … on JobSeeker’s Allowance .. What’s your impression of how people are doing?

H: Possibly … work in Whitby is seasonal …

JO: right …

H: So if you are looking at the last six months in Whitby … which incorporates Easter, and August …

JO: that’s the high season …

H: that’s the high season … really high season …

JO: what happens the rest of the year?

H: it’s a lot quieter … you still have to carry your staff …

JO: sorry … I butted in a bit … but … are you … do most people that are born here stay nearby or do they disappear?

H: no .. the population of Whitby is currently 13,500 or thereabouts …

JO: so it’s a fairly small town …

H: and it is falling … quite dramatically …

JO: where do people go? Is it the young that leave?

H: well … I was brought up in Whitby and I am lucky enough to have family businesses – not just one – that I could be employed by … but I have three daughters … and one is training to be an optician … and there’s two opticians in Whitby … so is she going to come back to Whitby to be an optician? And then she won’t … there won’t be the promotion or … you know … she won’t be able to work through the profession … if she comes home … it’s the sort of place that would be lovely for her to come home to towards retirement …

JO: but she can’t …

H: but I can’t see it … they’ve offered her a job already … because they are desperate to get people to come here … same with the doctors and things … people won’t come … teachers especially won’t come to Whitby because there isn’t the promotional possibilities that you’ll find between schools in larger towns …

JO: so it’s seen as a bit of a .. sort of … .it used to be called ‘graveyard’ of a career type situation, yes?

H: yes … quite possibly yes … I mean the majority of the industry in Whitby is around tourism and so if you are involved in .. you know … hotels or restaurants or cafes .. you have a longer season than, for instance, you would have in Scarborough … our season is longer [ ] … but it is very difficult to find staff … so you carry your staff over your winter … but you need extra staff in summer so that’s why you will get people that will come into work [ ]

JO: just for the season …

H: yes … and so that will skew those results …

JO: so if I look at the local population … that 15,000

H: 13,500

JO: 13,000

H: I think it is at the moment …

JO: if I forced you to divide them into three pens … one called ‘thriving’ … one called ‘just about getting by’ and one called ‘struggling’ … what’s … how does it break down, do you think?

H: a lot of people retire to Whitby

JO: yes

H: and the silver surfers have got a lot of money … they’ve got end-salary pensions … they’ve got a lot of money ..

JO: yes

H: seventy year olds …

JO: so there are some well to do retirees …

H: there is a lot of [ ]

JO: is that … what .. a third of the population here? Or ..

H: I wouldn’t know …

JO: just an impression … I appreciate you don’t know but at a guess … what do you think?

H: I would say that the population in Whitby will be ….

JO: so, let’s call those ‘thriving’ … who’s doing pretty comfortably ?

H: the retired people …

JO: how many … what percentage do you think?

H: I .. honestly …

JO: 2,000 …

H: out of the 13.5

JO: only a rough .. it’s like a .. I’m only asking you .. if you guess …

H: I would say a third …

JO: as much as a third …

H: I would say there’s a lot of ….

JO: so they are doing alright …

H: retirees that are sitting on pensions … [ ]

JO: so the workers are .. who … are sort of getting by just about ….

H: everybody’s on minimum wage …

JO: yes

H: nearly everybody in Whitby … is on minimum wage plus tips …

JO: ok … and what does that enable you to do in terms of building a life etc?

H: it doesn’t … it doesn’t enable you to buy property locally because the prices are skewed by the value of the holiday cottages and the retirement homes ….

JO: ok … so that sounds familiar to other parts of the UK …

H: yes … I mean Whitby …

JO: you’ve got a fair number of people who are working and basically just sort of feel that they are treading water maybe …

H: very much so, yes … and if you want to progress in any sort of professional career … you have to work in York or somewhere out of Whitby so it’s very difficult to live here with its isolation … it’s difficult to live in Whitby and have that kind of a job … or … there’s a lot of men in Whitby who work on the rigs … [ ] massive … a lot of people ’cause they used to [ ]

JO: rigs?

H: oil rigs …

JO: oil rigs …

H: so that group of the population are disproportionately wealthy to the others that are staying in Whitby …

JO: are those still in [ ]

H: they live in Whitby … I mean a lot of the guys work [ ]

JO: is this the North Sea oil?

H: No. They work in Africa … [ ]

JO: right … so they are working all over the place …

H: yes … they’re all over the world now … in fact, lots of them choose to live and base in Thailand rather than England because it is warm ..

JO: goodness me … sure …

H: they used to say there were no men left in Whitby because they were all off working off Aberdeen … The other thing they say about Whitby is it’s where the men are men and the women are men too …

JO: nice …

H: they are so used to bringing up children on their own … their husbands away at sea or away on the rigs …

JO: they’re both roles effectively …

H: so they look after it themselves and they’re quite a formidable group of very strong women

JO: well … you seem formidable … so just to finish up .. the ‘struggling’ category … is it as many as a third, do you think?

H: it’s difficult …

JO: for example, is there a Whitby food bank … for example …

H: I believe there is … which has been set up by one of the local churches … it’s an independent thing …we do have a really bad drug problem in Whitby .. caused by the isolation I think and boredom … also once you get into a community like Whitby … it is difficult to identify it because it is dealt with within the community [ ] it is invasive within the community …

JO: yes

H: and I know that the police have these statistics … “there’s no crime … there’s no crime” … but .. you know … drugs is a funny crime to identify and to see …

JO: and I am guessing … [ ] it’s often the case seemingly that in places … [ ] I come from Bath and people .. there’s plenty of that going on in Bath … there is at least an argument … I don’t know whether it is true for sure … but there’s an argument that in touristy places it might be slightly easier to get hold of money and stuff or ….

H: I would think ….

JO: Do you see many people begging, for example?

H: Not really … and we don’t have a lot of people living rough on the streets here either … [ ]

JO: thinking about it … I don’t think I’ve seen anything today … I mean … I’ve only been up for what … two hours … but everywhere I’ve been in the country so far … and bear in mind I started in Cornwall and went up the left, turned round in Scotland, and came down … everywhere .. I’ve seen people begging … everywhere … I’ve been asked for money everywhere ..

H: yes … I mean we have …

JO: this is the first place maybe where I haven’t seen much …

H: you .. we have one Big Issue salesperson on the other side … near Boots …

JO: yes ….

H: and then we have one guy who reckons to be doing sand sculptures … now is that begging or is that a guy genuinely sculpting sand .. ?

JO: but that’s how he’s getting money …

H: we have another girl who runs around with a cart covered in fake tattoos and I think these are gang led forms of begging …

JO: really?

H: Yes [ ]

JO: so it’s got some level of organisation to it …

H: I think so .. I think the tattooed girl and the sand sculpture person are … I think if somebody else tried to sculpt sand nearby … I think they’d get stopped and the guy that’s there now would be put back in place …. I don’t think that … I don’t know whether it’s … that’s just [ ] …

JO: that’s how it seems …

H: that’s what it looks like … it’s not … it’s … on the point of sounding really … I don’t know .. racist, I suppose … it’s not local people that are doing it … they’ve come from wherever .. they don’t speak English and they are selling tattoos and sculpting sand in Whitby … so you’re not sort of helping a local person that’s set up some innovative scheme to beg … you’re supporting a … what we perceive locally as a gang led system …

JO: is there … I mean there is a gang … there are gang organisations involved in things like people trafficking … we’re not talking about that kind of thing here are we?

H: No. I don’t think so.

JO: Just a sort of small, informal level of organisation …

H: Just … Yes … just .. there’s … you know … where did the girl who sells the tattoos suddenly spring up from? And where did the guy who’s sculpting sand suddenly spring up from? They’ve come to Whitby to do it …

JO: So if we’re talking about struggling people as a whole … is that a third … as much as a thirdof people here or is it less do you think?

H: it’s difficult to say because it is a busy little town … you know .. we do have …

JO: maybe slightly less than on average in the UK …

H: yes .. I mean things … the problems … of things like homelessness in Whitby tend to get dealt with internally … do you know what I mean … the people in Whitby …

JO: what does that mean? Are people housed for example?

H: well if you’ve got people … if you’ve got … because Whitby is such a nice [ ] .. and families are so .. still here … a lot of the time … you know … it’s not as disparate as, say, living in a city is .. where you don’t know [ ]

JO: there’s a bit more of a community?

H: there’s a very strong sense of community in Whitby and a very strong sense of family and if one of your family was homeless you would give them a settee at the least you know … and it would get sorted … but that’s because of the community that these problems haven’t become more [ ]

JO: so it’s being dealt with by people … as someone in a .. I think

H: the local people deal with their own …

JO: yes … an Edinburgh … an Edinburgh resident who was born in Pakistan said, in Pakistan, people look after each other, not the government …

H: yes …

JO: and to an extent I think you are saying here

H: in Whitby that happens to a large extent …

JO: the community is still doing that a little bit …

H: I overheard somebody .. I was in a shop in Whitby … and they were saying they were looking for work in Whitby and they had been unsuccessful in looking for work in Whitby … and he said “unless you’re from one of the seven families of Whitby, you can’t find a job in Whitby” … and I thought, am I one of the seven families? I had to sit and think. Which seven families? And then I realised that it was just the expression … but I had to think before …

JO: it’s quite funny … yes … is there a statue of your ancestor somewhere?

H: No. My grandfather was called Tush and he was 6ft 4 and blond and Viking .. you know …

JO: he sounds like a good looking man …

H: and he was probably son of Tush, son of Tush, son of Tush …. so there you go …

JO: that’s great … thank you very much …

H: ok .. no problem …


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