The end of the line

After a day at the races with Dad and Bruv, I waved them off and then picked up a TransPennine Express to my next destination. Cleethorpes: the end of the line.

There’s no doubt that I have a compulsive fascination with seaside towns out of season. 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’s not quite what I got in Cleethorpes. After exiting the open-platform, unstaffed station at about 8.30pm, all the shops, cafes and arcades were shuttered up and bolted down. Padlocks rattling in the stiff westerly. This played to my expectations of run-down bleakness. 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 in penguin suits and party dresses.

However, on Saturday morning, the town was alive. As I promenaded 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. By the time I came back the other way, there was a clutch of children enjoying donkey rides on the beach in front of the pavilion.

The 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 and the tardis-like qualities of the venue began to reveal themselves.

Off the cosy snug (well what other adjective could you possibly use?) there was a dozen or so drinkers and bar-snackers in the lounge. Upstairs was a more formal restaurant a million miles away from a traditional pub dining room. Two airy rooms with picture windows made the most of the view down the coastline. The décor was modern and recent, such that I could almost smell the gloss top coat; and the furniture and fittings were all comfortable and yet minimalist, giving a sleek environment I had not expected.

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, 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. I had a mild comedy moment as I exerted a fraction too much pressure and skittered in to the room as the door gave way, looking back over my shoulder in case my Stan Laurel moment had been observed by other guests . If there had been a camera I would have looked straight down the lens, Oliver Hardy-like, tipped my bowler hat and scowled.

Earlier there had been the usual palaver trying to fill the kettle for a cup of tea: it wouldn’t fit under the bathroom tap (they never do) and I had to fill it by decanting water into and then out of the toothbrush glass via the kettle spout (having mercifully realised that using the shower head would have been an unsatisfactory solution); and then finding that the cord was too short to safely reach any of the sockets. I risked a scalding hazard with the kettle perched precariously on the desk plugged into a four-gang extension socket levered up on my rucksack after having disconnected the telly. When I made it to bed, I found a wall socket by the door, hidden behind the duvet. I really must get on to TripAdvisor about this stuff.

Stepping out from the hotel right onto the seafront next morning was a joy. The coastline was absolutely lovely. I knew it was 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 into the foreshore. The brackish aspect has led to excellent bird and wild life amongst the mudflats and sandbanks. It has 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.

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 kitesurfing zone on the adjacent beach, though the gale blowing up the Humber had quite reasonably discouraged activity. The donkey riders are 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.

I stopped by a sign describing the history of the Humber forts. I scanned the estuary and yes, there they were. Two squat, circular concrete constructions in the river that I had not noticed until then. Haile Sand Fort just off Cleethorpes was the smaller of the two. This 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 decommissioned in 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 they currently served as navigation aids through the tricky Humber tidal clearances.

Up by the pier, the seafront takes on a more traditional guise. The shuttered shops and arcades I’d noticed 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 know how to get in their good books) “What can you buy for a quid these days?” said the vendor. Indeed.   

Cleethorpes is a bit of an enigma. The seafront, as previously noted, is lovely. 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, is pleasant enough. The walk down the prom and into the dunes and parks is very different in a refreshing and soul-filling way. Scarborough has this contrast as well, but on a much more startling scale.

I ventured into the Pier Pavilion, spied from the promenade last night. I 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 the old smart 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. The café is named after a statue of ‘The Boy With The Leaking Boot’. It was presented to the town in 1918 by a Swedish immigrant to Cleethorpes who had built up a successful shipping business. It 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 seems to be an unlucky statue of late. It was stolen and replaced in 2002 and then again in 2008. Then it was vandalised in October 2011. Then again in 2012, two youths were recorded on CCTV as they frolicked naked in the pond and destroyed the fountain. 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 Leaking 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.

That sense of enigma about the seafront extends to the rest of the town as well. I had earlier walked up Seaview Street, with my hotel on its corner, and wandered 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 carry the whiff of limited ambition. Unpreposessing would be generous. Given the 19th century investment in the town as a health resort, there is a surprising absence of important buildings, fine architecture or imposing hotels. Neither does the town have medieval shambles or Georgian crescents to add historical oomph. Any signs of the settlement’s earlier life as fishing village were not visible. It is 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 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. It 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 metal legends Saxon.

Back on the train home, I saw some of the industrial booty missing from Cleethorpes, just five minutes up the coast. The railway line snakes north-west and inland around the docks at Grimsby. Despite there being some signs of the previous wealth that the fishing industry created in the town, it has seen far better days. Formerly handsome Victorian fish processing sheds at the docks were beyond repair with caved in slated roofs and crumbling red brick walls. In front of them, rusting cranes and broken conveyor chutes that 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.


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