“Beneath those stars is a universe of gliding monsters”
Moby Dick is one of the finest works of literature, but as anyone who has picked up the novel knows, it’s a book as elusive and hard to grapple with as the white whale that haunts its pages. So much has been written about this magnificent novel and I thought I knew quite a lot about Melville and his masterpiece, but what I didn’t know was that there is a direct Yorkshire link to the novel.
The link comes in the form of a giant whale skeleton washed up upon the shores of the Yorkshire coast. Washed ashore at Tunstall on the 28 April 1825, the unfortunate whale became a tourist attraction, with many flocking to see the remains. A doctor from Hull, James Alderson, carried out a dissection of the beast on the beach and wrote up his findings to great interest in a paper presented to the Royal Cambridge Philosophical Society. His findings were one of the first scientific studies of a whale and as a result caught the attention of the American writer, Herman Melville, who used the findings as research for his idea of a novel concerning a crazed captain in search of a white whale.
The remains of the 58 ½ foot-long sperm whale was taken to Burton Constable Hall, East Yorkshire, as the owner, Sir Thomas Aston Clifford Constable, being the Lord of the Seigniory of Holderness, had claim to anything washed upon the Holderness shore. The skeleton originally found its new home in the parklands of the Hall and it was only when the remains were recovered from the park in 1995 that they found their way into the Great Barn in the Stable Block, where they can still be seen today.
Melville wrote about the whale in his usual brilliantly elaborate style:
“Moreover, at a place in Yorkshire, England, Burton Constable by name, a certain Sir Clifford Constable has in his possession the skeleton of a Sperm Whale… Sir Clifford’s whale has been articulated throughout; so that, like a great chest of drawers, you can open and shut him, in all his bony cavities – spread out his ribs like a gigantic fan – and swing all day upon his lower jaw.
Locks are to be put upon some of his trap-doors and shutters; and a footman will show round future visitors with a bunch of keys at his side.
Sir Clifford thinks of charging twopence for a peep at the whispering gallery in the spinal column; threepence to hear the echo in the hollow of his cerebellum; and sixpence for the unrivalled view from his forehead.”
The Hall is perfect for a day trip with its interiors of faded splendour, fine furniture, paintings and sculpture, a beautiful garden designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a library of 5,000 books and a remarkable 18th century ‘cabinet of curiosities’, which contains fossils, natural history specimens and the most important collection of scientific instruments to be found in any country house. The Hall has been within the family for seven hundred years and is a historical gem with an unusual twist.
Burton Constable is situated in Holderness in East Yorkshire, 10 miles north east of Hull and 15 miles east of Beverley.
The route to the Hall is clearly marked by Historic House signs. From Beverley (14 miles) take A1035 Bridlington road, turn right at White Cross roundabout then follow A165 towards Hull. From Hull (10 miles) follow A1033 towards Hedon, turn left at Saltend roundabout and then follow signs to Preston and Sproatley.