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 clich├ęs. 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?”

Cheek.  

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.