Great Ayton is a large village, five miles south-west of Guisborough, on the banks of the River Leven in North Yorkshire. It is famous for its connections with James Cook and his family. He later became Captain James Cook RN, one of this country’s greatest explorers and navigators. His expeditions led to the colonisation of Australia and New Zealand.
James Cook was born in 1728 in Marton, near Middlesbrough. His family moved to Great Ayton in 1736 when he was eight years old. He spent most of his childhood here, until he left in 1745 to work in Staithes for a short while, before he joined the Royal Navy in 1755. He journeyed to Australia in 1770, but was killed in a fight with natives in Owhyhee, Hawaii in 1779. His father died six weeks after his son, who did not know of his death.
James’s school is now a museum and stands at the eastern end of the High Street. Here, between 1736 and 1740, he received his early education, at what was then a fee paying school. This was paid for by his father’s employer, Thomas Skottowe. The Museum features a reconstruction of an 18th century schoolroom and exhibits relating to Great Ayton. James’s father became bailiff in 1736 to Thomas Skottowe, the Lord of the Manor and moved to Aireyholme Farm, which is on the side of Roseberry Topping, a hill overlooking Great Ayton. A footpath from the village goes past the farm, which is private.
In 1755, James Cook’s father built his own cottage in Bridge Street. It was sold in 1772, when he moved to Redcar to live with his married daughter. In 1934, the family cottage was dismantled and transported to Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne, Australia, where it was rebuilt. A granite obelisk in the memorial garden, now marks the site where the cottage stood in Bridge Street. The obelisk is constructed of granite from Point Hicks in Australia.
James Cook and his family worshipped at All Saints Church. It was built in the late 12th century and the main structure is largely unaltered, apart from the removal of the original tower and the western part of the nave in 1880. James Cook’s mother and five of his brothers and sisters are buried in the family grave in the churchyard. His father is buried at Marske, near Redcar. Captain James Cook was killed, aged fifty, in Hawaii and was buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay. Thomas Skottowe, who paid for James Cook’s school fees, is also buried in the churchyard.
There is a sculpture of James Cook by Nicholas Dimbleby on High Green. It was unveiled in 1997 and depicts James, aged sixteen, looking towards Staithes, where it is thought he acquired his love of the sea. The Royal Oak Hotel on High Green, is an old coaching inn and has a sundial set in the wall above its porch, which dates from 1771. It has log fires, exposed beams and rustic charm. The Buck Hotel, on West Terrace, is another coaching inn and was built in 1742. It is popular with the local community and tourists.
South-east of the village on Easby Moor, is a sixty feet high monument to Captain Cook, which was erected in 1827.