Sunday, 16 May 2021

Seaside Special - End of the line: Lincolnshire

One chilly Friday morning in 2016 I was on the way to Berko station and became distracted by the sign outside our M&S.  F OD HALL it proclaimed in two-foot high letters. I attempted to engage a young man with a mirthful witticism. He was bent over a large vowel swathed in clear plastic which he was slicing off with a knife ready to re-attach to the sign above the entrance.

"Got any ‘O’s?" I lobbed.

The sign-smith gave me a look of total confusion. The appeal of the classic Two Ronnies sketch was clearly a generational thing. The wrong cultural references. I didn’t think it was worth inquiring about fork ‘andles…

On the train to Doncaster (a small diversion… I promise we are still on the way to the seaside), I found myself channelling a shot of grumpy bastard as I tried to navigate through too many self-important passengers in order to find my seat. "I'm so busy!” shouted a woman into her phone, stood in the vestibule at the end of Car C. Blocking access in either direction with her shocking-pink trolly-bag. “I'm literally flying to New York on Sunday!" she bellowed. Just in case anyone in Car M had missed her executive travel arrangements. ‘Literally’, I noted. As oppose to metaphorical travels by first-class mind-palace, perhaps?

I plonked myself down, plugged in my ipod and let soothing Motorhead tunes cast aside my irritability, leaving it behind on Platform 9.

Donny is barely an hour-and-a-half up the high speed line. It is not the prettiest town in England, considering its relative Victorian affluence and later railway heritage. But the £36m redevelopment of Doncaster Racecourse in 2007 had raised the stock of the town considerably in my eyes. I was meeting my Dad and Bruv there for a low-key January race meeting.

Much as I love the racing, I’d also picked out Doncaster as a jumping off point for an exploration of some bits of the East Coast I’d never been to. Having waved Dad and Bruv off after a moderately successful day at the races, I boarded a TransPennine Express (there’s a joke in there somewhere) to my next destination. Cleethorpes: the end of the line.

There’s no doubt that I have a fascination with out-of-season seaside towns. And if they are faded glory Victorian resorts, so much the better. It appeals to some deep-seated romantic notion of decline and change.

That was more or less what I was anticipating in Cleethorpes. The early signs appeared to fit the template. After exiting the open, deserted and unstaffed station at about 8.30pm, I passed a row of shops, cafes and arcades shuttered up and bolted down. Padlocks rattling noisily in the stiff westerly. Run-down bleakness. Tick.

Only the pavilion at the end of the truncated pier had lights blazing, against which I could see half a dozen couples propping up the bar. They presented an unexpected contrast with my surroundings dressed in penguin suits and cocktail dresses. 

However, on Saturday morning, the town was alive. Promenading along the seafront I chuckled to see a woman swaddled in headscarf, parka and wellies at the head of a small train of donkeys. Each of the steeds had union flag saddle-cloths and jauntily painted bridles. I thought I recognised at least a couple from my previous year’s Cheltenham ante-post punts. I gave them no more chance of gainful occupation on that chilly day than any of those forlorn Festival bets. Wrong again. By the time I returned from my stroll, there was a clutch of giggling children atop the sturdy beasts enjoying rides up and down the beach.

Fun at the fair?

My accommodation had been top notch. The previous evening I had wandered in to a steaming pub - all bare floorboards, chipped varnish and fading wallpaper - but packed with boisterous Friday night revellers, thinking maybe I’d come to wrong place. After elbowing my way to the bar, I was shown in to the snug around the corner where the booking formalities were completed with my host Emily. The tardis-like qualities of the venue began to reveal themselves.

Through an arch off the snug, a dozen or so drinkers and bar-snackers were tucked up in the lounge. On the first floor, a more formal restaurant bore modern fittings and styling in contrast to the traditional pub décor downstairs. Two airy, sleek rooms with picture windows made the most of the view down the coastline. The place had had a recent spruce up. I could see my reflection in the new gloss top-coat.

The bedrooms were on the next floor up. As a solitary traveller, I’m used to the single room that pretty much folds out of the wardrobe, or is squeezed in under low beams with a toilet block on either side. Not here: lovely room, with a huge bathroom and again the new, clean look. “Sorry about the smell”, said Emily. “We’ve just redecorated.”

That became clear when I tried to open the bedroom door after coming back from the snug later. Its thick edge had become welded to the newly painted (and clearly still tacky) frame. Cue the comedy moment as I exerted a fraction too much pressure and fell into the room as the door gave way, looking back over my shoulder in case my Stan Laurel impression had been observed by any other guests.

Earlier there had been the usual palaver trying to fill the kettle for a cup of tea: The appliance wouldn’t fit under the bathroom tap (they never do) and I had to decant water from the toothbrush glass via the kettle spout (having mercifully realised that using the shower head would have been an unsatisfactory solution). Of course, the flex was then too short to safely reach any of the sockets from a flat surface. My solution risked a small scalding hazard, but I had no other option than to perch the kettle precariously on the desk with the plug connected to a four-gang extension cable ingeniously levered up on my rucksack, having firstly disconnected the telly. When I made it to bed, I put my glass of water on the floor and found the socket I had needed earlier. Tucked by the door frame and hidden behind the duvet. I really must get on to TripAdvisor about this stuff.

The coastline off Cleethorpes was absolutely lovely. I know it is the Humber estuary really, but everything about the place felt like the proper seaside. The sand was fine-grained and soft, the water smelt salty, and just past the sports centre, wide, verdant dunes stretched out onto the foreshore. The brackish waters had led to excellent bird and wildlife amongst the mudflats and sandbanks. The coast had also attracted investment and protection: the area south of the town centre has a nature reserve, a country park, a boating lake, footpaths crawling all over the sand dunes, formal gardens with modernist sculptures, and a restaurant with a discovery centre and observatory upstairs.

My only visit to this part of the coast before had been a stay in the market town of Alford in 2014. Between the sea and the Wolds, the settlement was a strange mix of agrarian wealth, faded grandeur and lively market town. The weekend of our stay coincided memorably with the Tour De France Grand Depart from Leeds. There was also a stage in the Dales the following day. Securing the Grand Depart had been a massive coup for the County. A former colleague of mine from Civil Service days who had by then ascended to become the Chief Executive of Leeds City Council was part of a small team of advocates that had driven the idea from fanciful dream to wonderful reality. His commitment and vision were well rewarded with a superbly supported event that seeded a fervour for cycling in the County that is still flourishing.

Dad and Bruv were with us in the cottage and they were full of talk about how cycling had gripped Yorkshire that year. We watched a lot of the action on telly, but managed to haul ourselves away for a short tour de Lincolnshire seaside. Ice creams at Sandilands that sent Daughter No 2’s tongue blue and fat chips at Chapel St Leonards.

Despite these treats, I was a touch underwhelmed by the coast if I’m honest. The section from Mablethorpe south to Skegness was well endowed with dunes sprouting tufts of wiry grass and good deep sand. The land was low-lying though. A continuous sea wall ran along the coast and unsatisfactorily separated the land from the sea. Unsatisfactorily for me, that is, the casual traveller. The locals see it very differently. In January 1953 huge tides surged along the east coast of England. Waves crashed through the sea defences at Mablethorpe, Sutton-on-Sea and Skegness. The inundation eventually reached more than two miles inland. Forty-three people lost their lives. We will hear more of this east coast storm on other travels.

Every so often the sea defences, built in response to those 1953 floods, were punctuated by access roads, car parks and other cut-throughs revealing wide sweeps of sand. Anderby Creek rolled south in unspoilt and atmospheric drifts for miles. We found a strang attraction set at the back of the beach called the Anderby Cloud Bar. Excellent, we thought. Great place for a beer and to catch up with the Tour on the box. But no. The raised platform had cloud sculptures, mirrors pointing skyward and lots of quirky information about, well, clouds. The girls were a bit mystified, but I learnt loads. Were those the strains of Joni Mitchell I could hear rising from the back of the platform? “I've looked at clouds from both sides now/From up and down, and still somehow/It's cloud illusions I recall/I really don't know clouds at all”.

Anderby Creek

Heading south from Anderby Creek and through Ingoldmells, we are thrust back into mainstream tourism of Skegness. The town is the county’s largest resort and was a regular destination for my Mum and Dad, sneaking retirement weekends away with their mates. They spoke highly of the clean promenade with its attractive clock tower and blooming gardens, cafes and, whisper it quietly, plenty of folk in the same demographic. The place has retained a loyal visitor base when many other seaside resorts have seen swift decline. And it is precisely for the reasons my parents went there: short breaks in an affordable destination alongside a trip abroad. In 2011, Wikipedia tells me that the town was England's fourth most popular holiday destination for UK residents, and in 2015 it received over 1.4 million visitors.

Further south still, the coast melds into Fenlands whose dampness spreads across three counties. I’ve never been there, but feel as though I know its mysterious qualities from the vivid descriptions in Graham Swift’s brilliant book ‘Waterland’.

Back to 2016 and Cleethorpes. The whole beach front was surprisingly busy for the last Saturday in January. Ramblers, amblers, dog walkers, joggers, kiddies' scooters (powered and manual) and cyclists. There was even a kite-surfing zone on the adjacent beach, though the near-gale blowing up the Humber had quite reasonably discouraged activity. The donkey riders were a much hardier type. Sadly the four-mile seafront miniature railway had closed for the season, otherwise I'm sure there would have been commuters too.

Surprisingly busy, despite the evidence of this pic

An information panel describing the history of the Humber forts had me scanning the estuary like the Captain of a wartime destroyer. Yes, there they were: two squat, circular concrete constructions away in the estuary that I had not noticed until then. Haile Sand Fort and Bull Sand Fort nearer to Spurn Point, were both built in World War I to guarantee safe passage for shipping convoys. They were garrisoned by up to 200 men and were not decommissioned until 1956. If this was somewhere off the south coast they would have been turned into luxury hotels or private retreats by now. As it was, the hulks currently served as navigation aids through the tricky Humber tidal clearances.

Up by the pier, the seafront took on a more traditional guise. The shuttered shops and arcades of the previous evening were not permanently closed down or abandoned for the winter, as I’d assumed. They were nearly all open and doing a decent enough trade. I bought four sticks of rock for a quid to take back for the girls (even at 18 and 16 I knew how to get in their good books). “What can you buy for a quid these days?” said the vendor. Indeed.  

Cleethorpes' art deco pier

I ventured into the Pier Pavilion, spied from the promenade the previous night, and was genuinely surprised. The bar was a well-kept and recently spruced Art Deco gem: glass and chrome ceiling lights, high backed comfy chairs and a view over the wind-whipped sea. I settled for a hot cuppa to see off the chill breeze. The tea was served up in a two-dig white china pot with matching cup, saucer, milk jug and sugar bowl. It clocked in at a staggeringly value-laden £1.70. The omens were just too good, so I sat there and struck all my big-price, low-stake bets for that afternoon’s Cheltenham trials meeting on my phone. Bargain hunting at the races.

Across the road from the pier, I spotted a café called The Leaky Boot, which seemed like an odd name. I checked out the story. Stay with me.

The café is named after a statue of ‘The Boy With The Leaking Boot’ that was presented to the town in 1918 by a Swedish immigrant to Cleethorpes who had built up a successful shipping business. The sculpture was a copy of one in a Stockholm restaurant. That itself was one of about 20 cast in a New York foundry in 1873, of which about 15 stayed Stateside.

Anyway, the statue is on display as part of a fountain in the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Garden. It had been an unlucky effigy in recent times, having been stolen and replaced in 2002 and then again in 2008. Then it was vandalised in October 2011. Then again in 2012, when two youths were recorded on CCTV as they frolicked naked in the pond and destroyed the fountain. That’s some frolick!

A replacement statue was made by a local garden ornaments manufacturer and installed with improved security later that year. It’s not just the statue that attracts problems. A nearby pub was named The Leaky Boot, but was destroyed by fire in June 2009. I decided to give the café a wide berth.

Like many seaside towns, the railways played a massive role in opening up this area. The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company were the first to market Cleethorpes as an ideal holiday destination for bracing sea air and healthy pastimes.  The station was opened in 1863, but it was not until 1884 that business took off when the company developed the resort themselves, investing in the pier, pavilion gardens and Ross Castle, an ivy-clad folly on the prom.

Cleethorpes was a hard place to pigeon-hole. Walking down the prom and into the dunes and parks was refreshing and soul-filling experience. Even the area by the train station, though a bit run down and with a few nods to the brash and tacky end of the market, was perfectly pleasant. I had earlier wandered up Seaview Street, with my hotel on its corner, past independent coffee shops and bijou brasseries housed in handsome (if not grandiose) Victorian buildings. There were enough antique, arts and crafts emporia to pass a smug glance towards many higher profile picture-postcard villages.

This is a deceptively isolated oasis though. The main shopping streets and surrounding area carried the whiff of limited ambition. Unprepossessing would be generous. Given the 19th century investment in the town as a health resort, there was a surprising absence of important buildings, fine architecture or imposing hotels. Neither did the town have medieval shambles or Georgian crescents to add historical oomph. Any signs of the settlement’s earlier life as fishing village had been obliterated. The town was now an almost entirely working class Victorian creation, but without the visceral statements that many northern cities, towns and ports made when they flexed their wealth through public halls, warehouses or merchants residences.

And then I emerged onto the seafront road and headed back towards the station. Here there were Thai restaurants and pop up art galleries going toe-to-toe with amusement arcades and chip shops. The place is an intriguing mix of faded glory seaside and renaissance chic. The place has got plenty - if not quite everything - going for it.

The look and feel of Cleethorpes had me subconsciously pegging it as a red flag-waving working class stronghold through and through. But no. It has returned a Tory MP at every election since 1950, bar an aberration in Blair’s New Labour landslide of 1997. Cleethorpes was within the parliamentary constituency of Louth when that loathsome toe-rag Jeffery Archer won his first and only seat in the House of Commons.

One of the many financial controversies that dogged his parliamentary career ended that relationship with the east coast. Archer was a casualty of a fraudulent investment scheme involving a Canadian company called Aquablast. The debacle lost him his first fortune and left him almost £500,000 in debt. As a result, he stood down as an MP at the October 1974 General Election. That was before the resignation from the Conservative Deputy Party Chairmanship in 1986 because of the vice girl scandal; and also before his withdrawal from the London Mayoral race in 1999 because of a perjury trial where he was sentenced to four years in prison.

This period was, though, after he made up a military career for his father, incorrectly claimed he attended Wellington College; and was accused of fiddling his expenses as a charity fundraiser. Let's not mention investigations into insider dealing and into his Kurdish charity. Odious man.

Far better that the town associates with Nibbs Carter who was born in Cleethorpes in 1966, the same year Jeffrey Archer wed the ‘fragrant’ Mary. He followed a far more wholesome career as bassist with heavy metal legends Saxon.

The time had come to leave Cleethorpes. The train out of town snaked north-west along the estuary and then ducked inland around Grimsby docks. Despite there being some signs of the previous wealth that the fishing industry created in that town, it had seen far better days. Formerly handsome Victorian fish processing sheds at the docks were beyond repair with their slate roofs caved in red brick walls crumbling into dereliction. In front of them, rusting cranes and broken conveyor chutes overlooked a marina with as many pleasure craft and cruisers as fishing boats. It was an odd mix.

And then the train turned westwards, away from the Humber and hooked up with the mainline at Doncaster. I sat next to the window, and watched my Saturday bets fall over one after the other on the smartphone. I wondered what price I could get on those donkeys at Cleethorpes beach…

Round the corner to Norfolk in the next episode.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Seaside Special - God’s Own Coastline (Part 2): East Yorkshire

If you turn south from Scarborough, instead of the craggy, dramatic moors pitching lemming-like into impossibly tiny, inaccessible bays (already celebrated in last week’s post on North Yorkshire), the coastline becomes more varied. This is because, as my junior geology encyclopedia confirms, the ironstone and sandstone bedrock of the lower Jurassic geological epoch (what a great word, especially for a Collins-edition children’s book) gives way to chalks of a later period.

Geology plays a big hand in the framing of the next town down the coast. Filey Bay is capped to the north by a narrow peninsula that extends into the North Sea for a mile or so, known as Filey Brigg. Like any other large geological feature in the land, there are various myths and legends that account for its unusual appearance. Take the Hole of Horcum or Roseberry Topping, both the Devil’s work, it is claimed. My favourite is a tale that the rocks of Filey Brigg were once the spine of a dragon who terrorized the area but was ultimately outsmarted by the townsfolk. They drowned the beast when it dived into the sea to wash parkin from between its teeth. Parkin! Who came up with this guff? For the uninitiated, parkin is sticky, moist, warming cake served in flat slabs. It is the big brother of gingerbread with added oats for serious clout. Lovely stuff, but I can imagine that it would clag a dragon’s teeth with some degree of irritation. 

Filey Brigg at sunset. Parkin anyone?

Filey and then Bridlington, either side of Flamborough Head, have wonderful soft, expansive sands and pleasant, unspoilt townscapes. The beach at Filey is regularly used by racehorses in training and Bridlington has won architectural and design prizes for the beach huts (excuse me…beach chalets) on Princess Mary Promenade, North Marine Drive, South Cliff and Belvedere. 

Bridlington beach: no dogs please

Mrs A and I, sometime around 1993 and before the arrival of children, came to Bridlington to see a thrash metal band. Mrs A was working with a specialist metal record label at the time and one of the bands had asked her to manage them. I thought this was just fantastic. Reflected rock ‘n’ roll credibility was all mine! The band were called Reign. We pitched up at the Bridlington Spa where the band were playing on a stage off the main theatre after the bingo finished and before the ‘70’s disco fired up. A fart between two cheeks. Clearly the town was not ready for a post-thrash doom and grunge workout inspired by the finer moments of Metallica. The sparse crowd, waiting for a bit of Sweet and Abba, were somewhat taken aback by screaming guitars, guttural vocals and pummelling bass drum weaves. I thought they were brilliant.

Earlier that year, we had driven up to the band’s lair just outside Newcastle amidst a freakish snowstorm. We slid and skidded up an icy single track lane to Reign’s small rehearsal barn behind a farmhouse. Over a few beers, we were treated to a run through of their album ‘Embrace’. I’d been to thrash gigs in small venues on plenty of occasions, but nothing quite prepared me for the intensity of that session. Ear splitting and ferocious, the band slammed out dirge-classics with uplifting titles like ‘Forlorn Existence’, ‘Wings Of Sorrow, and ‘A Sombre Tale’ whilst Mrs A and I were pinned against the back wall in a sonic armlock.

That gig in Brid was the last we saw of Reign. The option to manage the band was not taken up by Mrs A and we went our separate ways, leaving behind a little slice of thrash metal madness at the Spa.

The land in between Filey and Bridlington is home to swathes of static caravan parks and holiday villages. The popularity of these caravan parks withstands the ravages of fashion and taste. In contrast to the cliffs to which they cling that crumble in the face of wind and wave.

The area has an enduring relationship with mass tourism. Billy Butlin opened a huge holiday park outside Filey after the war. Construction had begun in 1939 and was completed on the understanding that it would be requisitioned by the RAF as a wartime base. On decommissioning, the shrewd Butlin bought it back at 60% of its original cost. Filey camp was his pride and joy. All Butlin’s new ideas were poured into this site first. It was also his biggest venture, extending to some 400 acres and eventually accommodating nearly 11,000 happy campers. The site even had its own railway branch, forking off the current Scarborough to Hull line at Hunmanby to ferry holidaymakers in and out. I find the scale of the operation mind-boggling.

The branch line and station closed in 1977. Butlin’s closed its doors in 1983 and after a failed relaunch under a new owner, was demolished in 1991. The site was eventually redeveloped as an upmarket Hoseasons holiday village. It competes for business with the myriad caravan and chalet parks that the original site was partially responsible for spawning. We will return to this theme many times on our journey. I hope to be a little more charitable about them than the irascible Paul Theroux. Though it will be a challenge. Brace yourselves.

South of Filey, the landscape changes again. Bempton Cliffs rise gradually out of the bay. The chalk edifices cut and thrust with the broiling sea along fissures, crevices and inlets for six or seven miles around Flamborough Head, before falling away to Bridlington. Genuinely thrilling landscapes. 

Bempton Cliffs

These cliffs are the highest in England, despite what popular myth would have us believe about an off-white range to the west of Dover. Flamborough is not a bad base from which to explore this stretch of coast. We stayed in a B&B in 2003 in the centre of the village. It had a couple of decent boozers, a restaurant and two pretty bays at North and South Landing were only a short stroll away. You have to take your chances with the caravan parks anywhere beyond the village limits, but it is worth the risk. Most of the cliff top is accessible from a well-maintained path. The RSPB centre provides a fantastic haven for seabirds and twitchers alike. This sanctuary facilitated two memorable firsts for me: the up-close sight of a puffin in glorious Summer plumage; and also direct hit from a sizeable dollop of guillemot bab… I view the place with no little affection. 


The RSPB centre has improved significantly since that time and on our last visit my Dad was able to visit the viewing platform via a wheelchair accessible path and saw kittiwakes, gannets and the like for the first time in years.

 On that earlier trip, we had strolled inland from the cliff edge to Bempton village and had a beer and something to eat in the solid, white-rendered White Horse Inn, sat foursquare on the main road junction. Mrs A eyed the seafood platter on the menu and thought she couldn’t go wrong this close to so many quaint fishing harbours. She asked for bread with the platter rather than chips and veg. I suppose the barmaid’s response should have sounded a klaxon-like warning about what was on offer.

“Bread? Just bread? No butter either? No chips or anything to go with it?”

If Mrs A was disappointed that the platter arrived with a couple of slices of white Mother’s Pride on the side, rather than the crusty half-baguette she had imagined, it was nothing compared to the horror in her eyes as she gazed on the fine array of fresh seafood before her. All deep-fried. Every last just-landed prawn, mussel, fish bite and salmon slice.

The whole lot had been tipped in the deep fat pan and came lathered in a cloying, stodgy thick coat of batter. Mrs A was aghast at the sledgehammer treatment meted out to these jewels of the sea. I said she might at least enjoy the side salad, pointing to the solitary lemon wedge balanced on the rim of the dish. None of your poncy southern presentation in those parts. It might not have been fine dining, but no-one went home hungry…

Next week we venture over the Humber and into the badlands of Lincolnshire




Monday, 26 April 2021

Seaside Special - God’s Own Coastline (Part 1): North Yorkshire

Where better to start than Scarborough? If anywhere represents the physical manifestation of coastal beauty-and-the-beast, it is here. Where wealth meets poverty; rich history clashes with modern veneer and bald fact jostles with bold opinion. The town claims to be the birthplace of the holiday resort and thus provides some solid journey-beginning credentials. That it is also the place of my birth offers some personal grounding.

Scarborough sits at the edge of the spare, hauntingly bleak (that's a good thing) North York Moors and opens up to a cinematic view over a wide double-bay where the Norman Castle sitting precariously on the outcrop, divides the two coves. This vista has – seriously – been compared to the Bay of Naples. Locals call the place Scarbados. Gotta love the brass neck.

The town is the County’s largest resort, growing from a Spa that threw open its doors to a sulphurous world in the 1660’s. When Restoration-era health tourism was born. Scarborough never looked back. Boomtown Victorian highlights include the towering Grand Hotel on a prominent cliff-top location in the centre of South Bay. In 1867 it opened as one of the largest purpose-built hotels in the World. The good times rolled into the 20th century. Many fine, stout, double-fronted buildings date from the town’s Edwardian heyday. 

Before Coronavirus, the tourist industry was still buoyant well into the first quarter of the 21st century. Whilst the town is home to some 60,000 permanent souls, they are usually swamped by the number of visitors throughout the year and disproportionately so in Summer. The borough as a whole – which also includes Whitby and Filey – saw just under 6 million tourism day trips in 2014. Overnight trips were also flourishing. The GB Tourist Report for 2017 counted more than 5 million stays over the year, generating £326 million income. Big numbers. But this commercial on behalf of the local tourist industry is not all sunlit uplands. There’s a dose of all-too-common sea fret and chilly onshore breeze behind the scenes too.   

I’ve known Scarborough all my life, naturally. However, I rarely contribute to those impressive overnight stay numbers because the family home is only a few miles inland along the A170 in Pickering. The last exception was in 2008 when myself, the lovely Mrs A and our Daughters No 1 and No 2 sojourned in the resort because my Mum was undergoing chemotherapy. We couldn’t stopover with her and the family as we would normally have done.

On a pleasant early Summer sun-filled evening the resort seemed as popular as ever. The Front, skirting South Bay, witnessed the time honoured scenes that have kept this place in business for generations. Gaggles of lads and lasses with pink bodies were spilling out of every amusement arcade, cafe and chip shop. The expansive beach was still dotted with beach towels and wind breaks where families were packing up after a hot day, washing sandals in the calm sea and shaking out sand from dark crevices.

The sweep of South Bay remained magnificent. On that evening, when low golden sunshine reflected back an oily sea and picked out the castle; and where the eye was drawn to the stout, bright-whitewashed lighthouse beyond the harbour wall, it suggested a pretty scene largely unchanged throughout the town’s glory years. ‘Scarbados, he-he’, I grinned, taking in the scene through rose-tinted £5 Boots shades.

And then I remembered the tired hotel in which we were lodged, just off Falsgrave. Dowdy, dank and flaky, with a murky basement swimming pool completing our disappointment. The place had had a touch of grandeur once upon a time. It opened in 1889 as the Scarborough Hydropathic Establishment. Holidaymakers and townsfolk alike were able to enjoy Turkish, Russian, Electric, Vapour, Sitz, and every other kind of bath in Italianate luxury. How mortified the original proprietor and phrenologist Professor Wells would have been in 2008 to see unidentified bits of flotsam floating about in his prize waterworks.

The place was an obvious metaphor for the town itself that showed tell-tale signs of fraying at the edges. A scratching of Scarborough’s brash surface presented a challenge to those bald visitor numbers. Once my cheap, rosy sunglasses dropped away, the rubbish strewn beach and litter piled next to overstuffed bins was a painful sight. Only metres away from the shore and up the hill to the commercial district, there were too many run-down shops, empty guest houses and decaying hotels for comfort. Peeling paint, boarded-up windows, trash-strewn gardens. These symptoms are not unique to Scarborough, of course. They are well known and well reported in many traditional seaside resorts. 

Unemployment is above average in Scarborough borough. And the odds against escaping poverty are high. The State of the Nation report published a couple of years ago ranks all 324 local authorities in England in terms of the life chances of someone born into a disadvantaged background. Scarborough Borough ranks 295th worst out of those 324. Seaside towns dominate all the lower echelons of that social mobility list.

There’s still a lot to love though. Can't have the first post in the series as a bellyache. That night we walked up to the castle to enjoy views of the bay from an elevated position. On Castle Road, we passed St Mary’s Churchyard and reminded ourselves of the town’s literary heritage. Anne Bronte was buried there. The poet and author died in the town in 1849. The Bronte Society placed a granite plaque over the horizontal gravestone a few years ago. It referred to the original text which has now largely worn away under 150 years of scouring north-easterlies.  “The headstone contains one error”, announced the plaque, “Anne Bronte was aged 29 when she died.”

We dropped down to the main part of the town from the magnificent headland via North Marine Road, behind which is the home of Scarborough Cricket Club. Yorkshire still play several games a year there and I’ve had some thrilling days inside over the years. The ground is nearly always packed and raucous (possibly bordering on the hostile) for one-day games and has an above average (and less edgy) attendance for county games, a format which elsewhere is followed almost exclusively on the web.  

We continued our perambulation and eventually settled on a meal in an unfussy but friendly Thai restaurant not far from the cricket ground. On the way back to our architecturally meritorious but now tired and grubby hotel, we detoured through the humdrum backstreets and stopped at Dean Road.

Before us was the entrance block to the former St Mary’s Hospital. I was delivered to the world here in 1966. The hospital was built in 1859 as a workhouse. It was extended over many years and was eventually absorbed into the NHS during the mid 20th Century. The hospital closed in the 1990’s and was subsequently dismantled. All that remained was a splendid street-facing block with a Dutch style crow-step gable along the frontage. The site behind was the subject of consultation on a new housing development.

Fast forward to 2017 and the four of us were back in Scarborough to meet up with my Dad and Bruv, together with Uncle Roland for Sunday lunch at The Blacksmith’s Arms in Claughton. Mum had sadly lost her struggle with cancer not long after that short stay in the grubby former hydro. Catching up with the family had become suddenly more important. The Blacksmith’s Arms is a small pub in a quiet and unremarkable village found on the old Scarborough to Whitby road. Yet for reasons no one can really grasp, the Queen came to the village on her Diamond Jubilee tour in 2012. She had a drink in that pub. I hope she and had a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord. Splendid stuff. The roast wasn’t half bad either.

Later, we carried on north and visited Ravenscar, where one of the finest views on the north east coast unfurls from the Raven Hall hotel. This opening chapter is such a challenge to write because I’ve known the coastal bits of the County for so long and could fill the entire internet with two-bob landscape clichés. Maybe I will anyway. But Ravenscar’s vista over the dark cliffs that tumble into the striking striations of Robin Hood’s Bay, with isolated farms, tiny hamlets and fishing villages clinging to the rock like leeches, would still stand out. 

The Raven Hall Hotel is a regular fixture on any Atkinson coastal outing. This classy joint was once envisaged as the centrepiece of a new Edwardian resort set high on the cliff top. A consortium headed by London businessman Charles Edmund Newton Robinson had bought the land for £10,000 in 1895 and parcelled it up to be sold off. He had built up Salcombe, in Devon, into a successful resort and planned to do the same here. Glossy catalogues of the sales lots still exist replete with fancy marketing language and line drawings of fine villas and tidy houses. 

There was already a small, rambling village on the site of the proposed new settlement called ‘Peak’. It was given its new, more dramatic name of Ravenscar in a brazen PR stunt worthy of any 21st century branding agency. The village was already served by trains on the Scarborough to Whitby line and a station had opened ten years earlier. New roads were laid out, drains installed, and a brick works built for the house construction.

But nobody came.

The problem, at least partly, was that very same marketing. Eye-catching brochures full of sweeping views and handsome residences had failed to mention that the sea was to be found only after navigating a vertiginous 600-foot cliff face where it would be frothing and agitating over stone and rock. The cliff top’s rugged beauty is second to none, and its thrilling exposure is merely emphasised by the wind that howls off the North Sea even on pleasant days. Not to mention the sea fret that can sit up there whilst Scarborough enjoys a bit of sunshine. This was not the serene beachside resort that suave Edwardian tourists were enjoying up the coast. 

Over by the remains of the station platform, we picked out the pattern of streets that would have formed the nucleus of the town. On a gravel track that might have been Marine Boulevard, the kerbstones could be seen beneath patches of thin grass.

Despite being sold on a lie, it seems that many institutional investors were prepared to part with their readies in search of profits on cliff-top plots. However, a stand-off emerged between the investors and the developers about whether houses or infrastructure should come first. This proved fatal to jittery investors who had become worried about their rather exposed assets. The developers went in to receivership in 1909. The remaining land was subsequently sold off.

Much later, the station closed. And now there were only a few houses, a tea shop, and that hotel with that view. The failed development merely adds to the remarkable atmosphere of the place.

I need to offer a word or two about Whitby, too. When I was growing up in these parts, Scarborough was the shiny, eye-catching tourist bauble and Whitby, like it’s jet, was the pretty but forgotten and unfashionable gemstone. Roles have been reversing for a few years now. Regeneration money has underpinned some tasteful renovation around Whitby’s harbour and old town. A resurgence in gothic tastes has done the rest. Visitor numbers have exploded, powering a transformation in the fortunes of the town (if not of the fishing fleet). Whilst, as we have seen, Scarborough shows signs of going the other way.

The place often features in top ten lists of English seaside towns. I can see why. Coastal walks, cobbled paths, the dramatic ruined abbey on the headland and a legacy built around fish and chips and Dracula. 

The heritage railway from Pickering has recently had an extension up to Whitby, picking up the infrequently traversed (but spectacular) Network Rail line from the junction at Grosmont, which is part of the Whitby to Battersby branch line.

The North York Moors Railway runs a steam-hauled Pullman dining service throughout the season. As a birthday treat one recent Summer, we booked my Dad and Bruv in for dinner. Like all good gifts, they need sharing. So myself, Mrs A and Daughters No 1 and 2 selflessly accompanied them. 

The Pullman Service is increasingly popular and there was a real sense of occasion about the event. We had all done our best to scrub up well for our step back into the Golden Age of Steam (and all that). Diners began assembling on the platform, taking snaps of each other in their glad-rags. We did the same.

Stood in the time-capsule station at Grosmont, the deliberate impression is that nothing has changed since 1959. Clapperboard ticket office, mahogany and cream dining cars, flouncy hanging baskets, gas-fired platform lamps. Oh and a gaggle of lairy birds already smashed up on cheap prosecco… Apart from this high spirited bunch of 40-something party lasses, the passengers were couples on romantic dates, foursome friends or small family groups like ours, spanning the generations.

We found Robin, our vintage restaurant car, and were welcomed aboard. I told my girls how I used to work aboard this service once a week in my post ‘O’ level Summer. Bruv remembered how I always missed Moonlighting, the best TV programme of the week. The girls were a little sceptical.

“You were doing all that waiting and serving?”

 Legitimate concern etching their features. 

“Ah, no. I was confined to veg peeling, washing up and floor mopping”.

They looked relieved.

“And what exactly are ‘O’ Levels anyway, Dad?”


The excursion was blessed with great weather despite showers earlier in the day. Dad pointed out the house where he lived, close by the track, for about 12 years (now up for sale); the steep, rough bank where he kept goats (a family legend has it that he tried to milk a billy, but he’s always denied it); and the tunnel where the family sheltered from air-dropped Nazi 2,000-pounders in 1941.

Over the starters, the engine heaved and spat up the Grosmont incline and then passed the beauty spot of Darnholme. Over the soup, we trundled through Fen Bog where the tracks were originally bedded-in by George Stephenson onto timber and sheep fleeces. During the main course, we snaked gently through Newton Dale, which renders completely redundant any trip to the Grand Canyon. Head to the Moors instead. That night the low sun angled down the slopes and illuminated clumps of bog myrtle and cotton grass, early bell heather and bilberry. I’m filling up just at the memory.

At Pickering, we watched the engine being watered, stoked and then coupled on to the other end, ready for the climb back up to its Esk Valley departure point. Bruv said we had time to nip to the kebab shop for a doner each before the dessert course. Tempting.

Whilst stretching our legs, we nearly tripped over the wreckage of the 40-somethings’ party spilling out of the viewing car at the back. Two tottering, high-heeled blondes were supporting a third hanging limply between them. They were making for the loos, presumably for a vom, just to make room for more. Quality stuff. An authentic Golden Age of Steam experience.

Dessert and coffee were served impeccably by the stewards as the light leached out of our moorland backdrop. Sublime.

Next up, the East Yorkshire coastline. 



Seaside Special: Excursions to the coast (Introduction)

 What's it all about?

 “…A country tended to seep to its coast; it was concentrated there, 

deposited against its beaches like the tide-wrack from the sea. 

People naturally gravitated to the coast - and they wore fewer clothes there.” 

Paul Theroux

Joanna Lumley played it for laughs and layered-up warmth; Neil Oliver and Nicholas Crane majored on geology, history and umbrellas; and Paul Theroux did it with irascibility and irritation. I’m going to have a bash too: round Britain’s coastline in bite-size blogs and snaps, cherry-picking the best bits and ignoring the rest.

The blogs that follow have been gathered over many years and are stitched together here in a time-shift ramble. The title for the collection is shamelessly nicked from the cheesy light entertainment variety show that ran for five years in the 70’s, broadcast each week in the season from a big top pitched in the car parks and recreation fields of holiday resorts around the country. Seaside Specials were also specially commissioned trains that ran excursions to the coast for works, pub, club and family outings. Both manifestations of the phrase seem reasonably appropriate here. 

What I like about our 6,000 miles of coast is that it’s finite. Once you get there, that’s the end of the line. The land finishes and the sea begins. At a conceptual level at least. Actually on the ground, what you find more often than not, is that the edges of our Great British Isles are often undefined. Estuaries, mudflats and wide tidal ranges tend to muddy the waters, quite literally. And then there’s the constant shape-shifting and change: erosion, deposition, reclamation, development, abandonment… Murky, isn’t it?

The coastline is intriguing. No, really. I like the sense of marginal Britain revealing aspects of history, geography, society and economy with every step. Even if that does sound more like a flowery prospectus for a dodgy Humanities degree than a plan for a series of blog posts. 

Sometimes these narratives are more about the journey to the coast, often by train (shades of Michael Portillo in toned down clothing, or Julie Walters without the easy charm), as much as the arriving. Before Covid-19 changed work patterns (possibly forever), I felt like I’d been a commuter for too long. Too much commuting has cumulative impacts akin to sleep deprivation. The agitation, irritation and short-tempers grow over time and gnaw away at you. Just another cancelled peak hour service, one more armpit in your face on an overcrowded tube. Travel for pleasure doesn’t feel like that at all. The refreshing liberation of an excursion without the pressure of time or demands of a work day.

This series is full of the old guff that people give voice to on trains, waiting for buses, in car parks, on hikes. I love the inherent, unintentional humour or crankiness in the small talk and snatched conversations that colour the journeys.

A lot of the material comes from trips with the family and with friends, too. The blogs are not all about my solitary battles with public transport to get to obscure parts of the coastline. Although it has often felt like that. 

The intention had initially been to curate a stream of personal reflections, experiences and encounters that would weave in and out of pithy observations about confrontations with the reality of problems facing much of coastal Britain. Well, you might be able to trace a smidgeon of such grandiose verbosity in amongst this lot. What has emerged is a closer to a disjointed, anecdote-laden collection of detours, repetitions and randomness. In some parts, the narrative is spread over many years and it does not always represent the current circumstances on the coast. 

Recurring themes crop up everywhere. Right across the piece, subjects such as the fading grandeur of the traditional resort, the devastating impact of industrial decline, the stifling lack of diversity in many settlements and some spectacularly dismal physical developments crop up again and again. The flip side is much more encouraging: the presence of re-invention, beauty, inspiration and bloody good fish ‘n’ chips all around this precious and diverse coastline.

 As I write this intro, one aspect of the material is patchy. The bearing-down of Coronavirus on the destinations only shows itself in the most recent trips. This is still being felt. The circular tour is not yet complete even as I begin to post those from the starting point. So I’ve still got some travelling to do. By the time I’m finished, there may be more to say about Covid-19, balanced against material that has been collected previously and already written up.

Perhaps also a word about coverage. Or the irregularity of it. The project can’t possibly aim to cover, for instance, the same acreage of proper travel writers and TV presenters like Theroux or Lumley. There are gaps and overlaps, attraction and avoidance, depth and thinness. This is all fine. I only have to justify this to myself. 

As I begin to stick these words up on the blog site, any keen-eyed observers may recognise that one or two segments have appeared in a different form on earlier posts. This is very much in-keeping with the theme and format of a constantly evolving story. This feels like an on-going mission.

On we go, then. Clockwise around the coast in time-shift style.  Starting in Yorkshire. Of course.



Thursday, 11 March 2021

Cheltenham Festival: 20 years of pleasure and pain

I am ridiculously excited for this year’s Cheltenham Festival. The lockdowns merely emphasise the absence of other distractions.

I’ve updated stats summarising my punting performance at every Festival since my debut in 2000. I’ve shared this with Bacchy, my original Festival partner in crime; and decided to stick it up on this blog as well. Warts and all.

Looking at the thing in its entirety, the cliché ‘roller-coaster’ springs to mind. There shouldn’t be this much red in the sheet. That said, across the decades (!) it seems I've contrived to scrape an average nestling in the black and an overall Return On Investment (ROI) of 14%.

The few sentences of narrative against each Festival are to provide a bit of context because as old age creeps in, I’m beginning to muddle up the various years. As I wrote them, some of the memories and moments made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, possibly more so with the passage of time.

I’m always surprised how little I end up staking. The amount of wedge I win or lose is of course important. I’m always desperate to at least break even. But not really motivated by escalating my stakes and potential profits. That comes second to the sheer thrill of beating the bookies, finding one at a big price, knowing I’m on the right one, working it out, admiring a class horse; and on the flip side the agony of near misses, bad staking, bad judgement, cluelessness… And people to share it all with. Yeah, it’s the passion, not the money.

2021 will be 21 years of pleasure and pain. And recurring blind optimism.