For many years treeless and used as rough pasture, the High Green is now the centre of the village. The far side of the green is dominated by the former Ayton Friends’ School, opened by the Quakers in 1841 as the North of England Agricultural School. The school began in the property with the imposing porch (previously this had been the house of Philip Hesleton, the merchant who ran the village linen industry in the 18th century).
Boys and girls boarded and were given a basic education with an emphasis on farming and domestic service skills. The school was subsequently greatly extended and became more academic, but closed in 1997, when it was converted into apartments. Cherry trees around High Green were planted to commemorate the first female head of the school.
Before the school opened, the extensive Cleveland Leather Tannery extended from the houses on the south side of the Green right down to the River Leven. The last proprietor of the tannery, Betsy Martin, lived at 18 High Green. Robert Dixon, brother of George Dixon (the first superintendent of the Friends’ School) bought the two houses at the north east corner of the green. He came from Crook in County Durham, hence the names given to these two houses, ‘Dixon House’ and ‘Crook House’. Jack Hatfield, the swimmer who won three medals in the 1912 Olympics, was born in one of the stone cottages in the terrace on the south west side of the green.
Water was drawn from the old Grey Well outside the present Worthy Pearson shop. It was often unfit to drink and was replaced by the pump on the corner of the green, the well beneath being dug by local miners.
For many years a corrugated iron building, known as ‘The Tin Tabernacle’ stood on the site of the car park. It was used as a cinema and later became a gymnasium for the Friends’ School.
The Royal Oak was once a coaching inn. The sundial over the entrance has an unusual message for a drinking establishment, the Latin translating as ‘God comes to those who work’.
Nicholas Dimbleby’s statue of James Cook as a boy was erected in 1997.
Dimbleby worked back from a portrait of the adult Captain Cook to visualise how the young Cook might have appeared.
Not far from High Green is the Discovery Centre, which has been run by local volunteers since local authority library-funding ceased in 2012. It is housed in the old British School, which opened in the same year as the Friends’ School. Both schools were endowed by village benefactor, Thomas Richardson, a wealthy Quaker banker who had retired to the village. A little further down the High Street is the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum. In 1704, Michael Postgate built a small school with a house for the schoolmaster on this site. James Cook was taught there from 1736 to 1740. These buildings were replaced in 1785 by the Poor Houses, built to house village paupers. The Postgate School then ran from an upstairs room in the Poor Houses.
The area to the north-east of High Green is known as California. Houses were built here for the hundreds of men who came to the village to work as whinstone and ironstone miners. This mass immigration was likened to the American gold-rush, hence the name ‘California’. There was no street planning, and anyone in the village who owned land put up terraces of houses wherever they could, hence the irregular street plan. Bricks for these houses were made in the brick and tile works on Newton Road, using local clay.
Gribdale Gate and the Captain Cook Monument feature in the Captain Cook Tour. This tour is a circular route of around 70 miles (113km) with distinctive brown & white road signs from Marton, in Middlesbrough, through Great Ayton to the coast at Saltburn with its smuggling history, then on to Staithes and Whitby, returning across the North York Moors via Guisborough. The tour may be joined at any point although starting at Marton is the logical point, to follow the Cook story from his birthplace.
The tour can be completed by car in a whole day, but to take full advantage of the Cook related attractions, the opportunities for short walks and just soaking up the special atmosphere of Cook Country, two or more days can be spent. The tour can of course also be made by public transport and there are ample walking and cycling possibilities along the way.