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”.
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.