Not far away is Spurn Head, a wobbly tip of land that sticks out into the North Sea. Much of the land around it is below sea level and prone to flooding. The Greenwich meridian passes through it and whales swim around it. They sometimes are swept on to the beaches and find it difficult to refloat. The Humber Estuary is said to be one of the two most dangerous estuaries in the world because of a tangle of treacherous tides. The other is the estuary of the Ganges or the ‘Hooghly’ as that stretch of the river near Calcutta was once known.
Lying not far from the shifting coast is Burton Constable Hall. The owner holds the responsibility, as the hereditary lord of Holderness, for beached whales. There, in an outbuilding, is the skeleton of the whale that influenced Herman Melville’s epic work, Moby Dick.
‘Call me Ishmael’ is the novel’s famous opening, an invitation to listen to a yarn spun in Nantucket before spinning out on to the ocean’s waves. It invites the reader to follow Ishmael’s fate in the chase to conquer the whale, Moby Dick, who has both physically and emotionally wounded him. Some interesting characters, such as the man with the shrivelled heads, are unfortunately left on the quay at Nantucket. The reader follows Ishmael’s overwhelming need to chase and conquer the whale on board a ship on a blood-stricken sea for perhaps more chapters than required. And it all started when Melville read about a huge whale beached near Spurn Point in Yorkshire.
In this part of Yorkshire,there are no stone quarries. Beverley Minster was built in stone quarried far inland near Tadcaster and ferried by river, sea and canal to an outcrop of rock above leas or meadows with beavers – Beverley. Though stone was the prestigious building material and the hacking or chipping of stone was seen to be nobler than the baking of bricks, without stone quarries, bricks had to be used. Hull’s fine medieval church of the Holy Trinity is built of brick, and so is Burton Constable Hall, though in the 18th century its bricks were painted white to look like stone. That proved expensive to maintain and the bricks were rain-washed back into evidence.
Holderness not only lacks stone, it lacks trees. Woods and forests had been cut down to build the English navy. The port of Hull prospered in Elizabethan times though importing wood from Scandinavian countries to build the Elizabethan fleet that conquered the Spanish Armada and ships for its explorers and merchants. By the time Shakespeare retired to Stratford –on-Avon in the early 1600s, a rich man, many prestigious houses for the rising professional class of lawyers and physicians were built by bricklayers in cahoots with carpenters and wood carvers. This was a quick way for the up-and-coming middle class to display their increasing wealth and taste, and their affluence in modest terms. Not for them to reveal a politically dangerous taste for the continental gestures of Baroque grandeur.
The medieval Great Hall, sited east to west, remained at the core of 16th-century buildings, where manorial courts were still held and justice meted out. The warmer cross-wing on the south side of the H-shaped edifice contained the ornamental staircase to the Long Gallery for winter exercise and to the family withdrawing rooms and bedrooms. An ornamental screen hid the draughty entrance passage and the three doors into the cooler north cross-wing. One opened into the buttery for the beer barrels (safer for all to drink than the often polluted well water) and another to the pantry (where the bread or ‘pain’ from Norman French was kept),while the middle one led to the kitchen, storerooms, larders and laundry, with the servants’ quarters and stable block beyond. So the north wing was the service one and the south wing was for the family and friends with their personal servants who slept outside the bedrooms. The massive Great Hall united them all, with the owner at the high table placed across the hall at the ornamental staircase end. From this raised position he could look down the tables laid out lengthways before him and survey their behaviour and watch the hands of everyone there. Many university colleges still follow this medieval pattern.
So in a strange roundabout way, Melville came to hear of the whale beached on the remote coast near Burton Constable Hall. A few years ago its skeleton was displayed in the Great Hall which is large, but the massive whale skeleton filled it. From time to time whales are still beached along the same coast. A young one recently attracted publicity as many fire forces were called out to ease it into the sea again. But none have become as famous as the one, still in an outhouse at Burton Constable Hall that inspired the monumental novel of Moby Dick.