Sunday, 23 May 2021

Seaside Special - Vintage seasides: North Norfolk

1959 was a notable year in Sheringham because British Railways closed almost the entire Norfolk network of the Midland & Great Northern railway system. The move sent shock waves throughout East Anglia and the railway community nationwide. It was merely a prelude to the savagery of Dr Beeching’s axe to be wielded in the early ‘60’s.

Sheringham, a town that had grown as a popular seaside resort on the back of its busy railway hub, became the lonely terminus for a solitary remaining branch line from Norwich. Everything north and west was closed. Even this tenuous transport connection to civilization was under threat. In 1968, the council had to step in with investment save the line from complete closure on the basis that the road infrastructure was so bad.

One could be forgiven for thinking that time has stood still. In many ways, Sheringham remains in 1959. On a visit in 2016, I was charmed to see that, despite those brutal rail closures, the original Sheringham station remains intact, well maintained and resolutely post-war. It is now the home to the Poppy Line preservation railway. Steam and diesel hauled trains are run for visitors and enthusiasts on seven miles of the old network along the coast and then inland to Holt. The red brick platform buildings retain their brightly painted wooden canopies and the signage is of classic mid-century typography and style.

Later, when researching a few facts about Sheringham, I hit upon a promotional film of the area in the East Anglian Film Archive. The movie was also shot in 1959 for Ransomes, the lawnmower company. They are based in Ipswich and had invented the world’s first lawn mower in 1832. The film takes the guise of a travelogue of the East Anglian coastline from Kings Lynn to Harwich in search of its famous lawnmowers. “This is East Anglia, with its long sea coast from which the breezes drift across a smiling countryside drousing under a summer sun…” Absolutely priceless commentary, delivered in plummy tones by a narrator from the right sort of school over a suitably evocative Vaughn Williams-inspired string accompaniment. Wonderful stuff.

At one point the camera swoops over the cliffs of Sheringham where the storyteller informs us that local people welcome visitors and enjoy a bit of fishing. “Especially sought are crabs and lobsters. Famous along these shores from here to Cromer.” There are bucolic shots of promenaders on the seafront and in the gardens. Crab boats are filmed bobbing in the waves offshore. I think I have something in my eye...

There are some unexpectedly humorous moments when the film attempts to weave thinly disguised promotion of the company’s lawnmowers in to the landscape narrative. A few miles along the coast, there is a sequence featuring the pier at Cromer and the nearby narrow streets, sweeping up to Lighthouse Hill with views back towards the town where the Church towers above the scene. The footage then cuts to a cliff top garden and we learn all about Ransomes top-of-the range beast called the ‘Mercury’ mower “which springs to life readily with a recoil starter and is a popular machine with its sixteen-inch cut and lightness and manoeuvrability”. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. The adverts or lawnmowers.

The town centre still evoked that 50’s feel. Whilst there were a few chain outlets and the ubiquitous Costa, many shops remained independent and individual, untroubled by 21st century chi-chi and chic. Frontages were often original late Victorian with deep bay windows set in decorative wooden frames either side of a recessed entrance porch. I passed a restaurant (“no cards accepted”) that had actual net curtains at the windows. And if bric-a-brac is your thing, this was the place, Acorn Antiques would fit right in. Bakeries (definitely not delis) and independent butchers were two-a-penny.

The air of preservation permeated the whole resort. The residents had recently fought a long and bitter battle to prevent Tesco’s setting up shop on the outskirts of the town centre. It finally opened in 2013. This mood has deep roots. Plundering again the Norfolk film archives, the manager of Sheringham’s Burlington Hotel, interviewed at the end of the 1950’s says, “…there will always be people who want a quiet holiday and Sheringham can offer it to them”. The film goes on to denounce new-fangled caravan parks “for which some people nurse an extravagant hatred” as carbuncles that blot out the very view they are seeking to enjoy. I wondered how long it would be before caravan parks wormed their way back into this tour. As it happened, the offending sites to the east of the town look to have outlived the fine old Burlington Hotel. As of winter 2016 it was closed up and the building faced an uncertain future.

Despite the liberal sprinkling of family-run grocers and food shops, none were open after 6pm. So it was with reluctance that I ended up using a branch of the supermarket chain the townfolk had spent so long fighting. We were a party of seven family and friends hoping to find some relaxation in the Christmas/New Year dead zone. However, we had arrived late and without many provisions. Off I went to the Tesco Local. And again a few minutes later for stuff I’d forgotten on the first visit. And then again for stuff that everyone else had forgotten. I kept getting served by the same cashier. We’d gone past the joviality of ‘see you in a few minutes, ha!’ and had actually become Facebook friends.

A quick glance through the visitor book would tell you that our cottage was ‘unique’. It was a long, thin former fish-smoking barn that had been the subject of an eccentric conversion with mezzanine floors at either end for the bedrooms above an open ground floor space comprising kitchen, dining room and lounge.

The walls had been left unfinished in a whole-pebble facing, very much in the vernacular style. Less traditional were the odd bottles, pots and vases cemented into the fabric of the walls as small pieces of architectural mirth.

Space was at a premium with seven of us moving about on the ground floor. Circulation was made even more tricky by the presence against the wall of a restored 1950’s Wurlitzer jukebox. That decade again. It was a beauty and even the teenagers enjoyed the physicality of the 7-inch singles being pulled from the rack and spun around the stylus. For about two minutes anyway.

The coastline either side of Sheringham offered a similar sort of pleasant, wholesome and unadulterated experience. Striking out west, cliffs rose from the outskirts near the aforementioned Burlington Hotel and the path politely followed the boundary of a golf course. Swirling fog blew in off the sea when we walked this stretch one morning and I had to wait until clear skies at dusk to enjoy the rewarding view back over the town from the hill top Coastguard station towards Beeston Hill on the far side of Sheringham. The town rested in a bowl between these landmarks. A string of promenade lights glowing gently in the gathering gloom seemed to link the two. Incredible to think that this north facing coast on which I gazed has no landmass between it and the Arctic.

Earlier we had walked in the fog for a couple of miles and turned inland at the point where the path flattened out towards Cley-Next-The Sea and Blakeney.

Years before the Sheringham trip we had stayed on this low, wide, windswept coast of marsh and bog for a wedding. Our mate Bob got married in Cley windmill and we stayed over in a curious b&b decorated with objects that meant to give the impression of shabby-chic antique finds, but were actually just junk: a battered brass bestead, ripped fishing nets, chipped willow pattern vases. I was having a wash in the lopsided Victorian sink under the window and realised I couldn’t turn off the 1920’s style mixer tap. The cross-head handle was jammed open and the metal was expanding with every drop of scalding water. I twisted with gritted-teeth determination, but the grinding of bearings just worried me the whole faucet would come away in a geyser of hot water. And then the sink, precariously bolted to the wall, would fall off and crash through the uneven floorboards. I had a vision of catastrophic doom. It doesn’t take much.

Anyway, Mrs A went downstairs to find our host. She turned off the tap with humiliating ease and mentioned in passing that we shouldn’t use the sink. It was really just for decoration. I made a note not to use the fishing nets or the vases either.

Our girls were not coming to the wedding, but had made the journey to Norfolk because our friends with kids the same age happened to be staying in a cottage over towards Blakeney, just a couple of miles up the road. A perfect opportunity for them to sleep over whilst solving a potential babysitting dilemma for us. Both Cley (I quickly learned to pronounce it ‘kly’ to avoid any further humiliation at the hands of the locals) and Blakeney were attractive, old fashioned seaside villages of flint facings and red pantiles, packing serious ice-cream parlours, tea rooms and gift shops. They were both one-step removed from the actual sea by a wide expanse of salt marsh and sea lavender, punctuated by briny channels and backed by a network of dykes and drains.  

The children's author, Kevin Crossley-Holland lived hereabouts and describes the landscape as being seventh-eighths sky – a landscape of horizontals in which verticals, including human beings, often look arresting.

Blakeney was once a commercial port until the estuary began to silt up leaving behind this environment of sand hills and mud banks. The day after the wedding reception, we set out to explore the paths that followed a network of creeks and channels twisting and turning their way between sea and land. I was grateful for a stiff breeze which helped to clear the head after too many real ales the previous evening. Though a few more knots would have been required to blow away the memory of some unfortunate Dad-dancing episodes.

Snapping back to the Sheringham trip, our walk cut back through a gentle, expansive estate created by Humphrey Repton. We strolled along paths that bordered lawns in front of the country house to which the rolling acres belonged: Sheringham Park, after the town. Two of the teenagers in our party had joined us on the walk. Quite a turn up. They liked Sheringham. To a point. Derision was spurted when the inevitable question, ‘Could you live here?’ surfaced. “Everyone’s old!” they chorused. Indeed, the local populace was very much of the blue rinse genre, clinging on to their memory of little England and thinking that a Brexit vote would bring it back.

More than 40% of the 7,700 souls residing in this pretty town are aged over 60, compared to 23% for England as a whole. The median age of residents there is 51. The national figure is a positively juvenile 39. The age profile of the rest of North Norfolk is not that dissimilar and given the analysis behind the EU referendum, it comes as no surprise to learn that almost 60% of north Norfolk folk voted for Brexit. Odd that these voters would want to turn back time, given that Sheringham has barely ever left the 50’s.

The next day broke clear and sharp. We explored the coastline west of the town as far as Cromer. The tide was out – literally miles out – and we walked across the beach beyond the groynes in a straight line towards Cromer pier, beacon-like on the horizon where the ice blue sky met the shimmering wet sand and shingle.

Offshore wind farms seemed to hover over the water in the haze. There were noises of dissent about these developments from local conservationists (and they have a rich history – Blakeney Point just around the corner became the country’s first costal nature reserve in 1912) who are concerned that the horizon is becoming industrialised. Indeed they are colonising off-shore waters at an incredible rate. I find them fascinating and not unattractive.

Cromer immediately felt more lively and cosmopolitan. Knots of people on the pier, queues outside the myriad crab shops, actual young people in the amusement arcades. Heck, even a bloke out with his Ransomes mower on the cliff lawns. OK, that last bit is a lie.  

South of Cromer, the cliffs rise and fall and the coastline reverts to quiet, windswept and expansive mode. Overstrand and Mundesley are both sleepy enclaves straggling along bays and hills. Fleetingly, I could imagine myself a few years’ hence, sitting on the terrace at the front of one of the many bungalows lining those quiet lanes, nursing a cold beer and watching the tide roll away. I say fleetingly. Because I would be alone. Mrs A would have left me high and dry having refused to live in anything resembling a bungalow, or indeed anywhere that dormitory.  

Fortified by burgers and beer in a swish joint overlooking Cromer Pier, we walked back to Sheringham inland to avoid the incoming tide. This involved weaving through and around a series of cliff top caravan parks. I thought I heard the distant forewarnings of a certain hotel manager from an earlier age floating on the breeze...

Almost back home, there was a final thigh-stinging climb up the surprisingly steep Beeston Hill. We were rewarded with a fine view of the sun slipping behind the hills where they met the sea on the far side of the town; and where we had stood almost exactly 24 hours earlier. The crest of Beeston Hill is the site of a former WWII secret listening station. Known as a Y stations, they formed a chain of posts that intercepted Axis Power transmissions and beamed them back to Bletchley Park, or Station X, for decoding. 

This is just one of the many little wrinkles and curiosities that make the North Norfolk coast so fascinating. We added another when we left. The place appeared to be the epicentre of a very local microclimatic aberration. Sheringham was again bathed in crisp winter sunshine. Just as it had been the day before. As soon as we drove over the cliffs and inland, we entered the cloying fog that had clothed the rest of Eastern England for the duration of our stay. It was somehow evocative of those hackneyed tv movies where a car would turn off a busy road onto a tiny country lane and enter a thick mist. When they emerge from the shroud into a settlement at the other side, they would find themselves in an ancient place where time has stood still. We had just done the opposite.  

Next stop on the tour is a lockdown-emergent visit to south Norfolk




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. 

Flamborough

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