Day tripper: coasting along North Yorkshire

Sometimes you just have to choose a day trip based on the weather. Recently, we found a patch of bright skies amongst the clouds, centred on the North Yorkshire coast. It was a fair distance, but nowhere near as long as our more ambitious single-day journeys, to Scottish islands

My parents first took me to North Yorkshire when I was five, and it became a regular summer trip. We’d base ourselves in Scarborough, where we’d have one day at the beach; I’d maybe have one day in Kinderland (now defunct); my father would have his day on the steam trains at Pickering; and my mother would opt for sites of historical interest like Riveaulx Abbey.

Whitby: your one-stop shop for Captain Cook, Dracula, and fish’n’chip shops…

Our first stop was supposed to be Whitby, but we ended up having our picnic breakfast in an Asda car park in Newcastle while we changed the satnav settings to never ever take us towards a toll road ever again (in this case, we narrowly avoided the Tyne Tunnel which I always imagined as being like the 60’s science fiction show Time Tunnel).

Tell me you voted for Brexit without saying you voted for Brexit…

Arriving in Whitby is a bit like travelling back in time as it is. It really became popular as a tourist destination in the 19th century, at the height of British global dominance. The town had already given the world the explorer and cartographer James Cook, and the abbey was a setting in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The grand hotels, the marina, the steam trains arriving at the station, and the winding streets and endless rooftops must have barely changed since then. There’s a sense of time having frozen, and people making return visits because it’s always been like this, just as it was in their own childhoods.

Given that, it’s not surprising that this region (Scarborough and Whitby) has usually leant towards the Conservatives (barring an electoral flirtation with Labour in the Tony Blair era), and is very… well, Brexity (pro-Tory and pro-Brexit sentiments are hardly ever encountered in public in Scotland, so it was a bit weird to encounter it so openly).

It’s good they left the windows open on a warm day.

There’s a decent coastal walk south along the clifftops to Robin Hood’s Bay and if you don’t fancy walking back, you can get the bus (ticket prices are in the affordable range of stolen kidneys or firstborn children).

If you fancy eating in Whitby, you have plenty of choice: chip shops; fish’n’chip shops; cafes selling chipped potatoes and the catch of the day; and restaurants offering piscine delights and handcut pommes de terre fried in oil and served with salt; or else you could dine with likeminded souls who share an interest in televised sports at the local Wetherspoons (whose owner has reaped his own Brexit dividend).

We were more than happy to find Sherlocks Coffee Shop instead, which is quirky, charming, well-decorated, and a great place to escape the crowds and have lunch.

Scarborough’s north bay is where to go for fresh sea air and good views.

My main aim in visiting Scarborough was to see the naval display at Peasholm Park. Unfortunately, in tune with the region’s cultural conservatism, the organisers have no official website, and the unofficial ones (like the touristy one) gave the wrong time for the show: I was expecting it to start at 3pm, but it wasn’t due until 6pm (I didn’t learn this until I asked about tickets). Rather than miss out, we opted to stick around and spend more time seeing how Scarborough was faring these days.

The sprawling children’s park of Kinderland was now overgrown with greenery encroaching on bare concrete, safely screened from view behind a wooden wall. The hotels along the north bay clifftops looked tired (but evidently still in business, for the most part). Stone shelters with benches for the sea views had been stripped of their roofs and seating, giving them a post-apocalyptic feeling.

Even in the 1970s it couldn’t have been this bad, surely? Or has it been declining ever since then?

Scarborough has seen better days…

This wasn’t decline in the romantic way you might view Venice – this was decay and abandonment. Should hotel owners keep things as they are for nostalgia and their dwindling supply of elderly guests, or should they risk spending money modernising for new guests who might not want to visit?

As far as I could tell, visitors fell into two groups: the elderly, apparently hoping to recapture the seaside holidays of their youth; and families looking for an affordable seaside break (we saw three generations of one family at a nearby table in a cafe we went to). Personally, I wasn’t consciously seeking to recapture anything – this was a day trip chosen by the weather, and I was simply curious to see how the place matched my memories.

Scarborough’s south bay is where you go for the smell of chip fat and vinegar, and the din of casinos.

South bay is hell on earth is where everyone goes to play on the beaches or retreat to the amusement arcades. Posters everywhere warn against leaving food waste and rubbish out, because the seagulls have grown increasingly aggressive and will noisily mug you for your food, shit on you, and fly off again.

The steep streets leading down are filled with more chip shops, shops selling beach toys (including a joke shop I seem to recall from the 1980s, whose wares in the window display were now sun-bleached with age), and other services – judging by the opening hours, it’s not worth these businesses operating a full working week.

If you’ve had too many chips you can head back from the beach in true Victorian style…

We made our way back up next to the Victorian funicular (which at least allows people with mobility issues an easy route). I had the odd feeling that Scarborough was the Victorian precursor to concrete hotel blocks lining Mediterranean beaches in the late 20th century. Both have no doubt been severely hit by the pandemic, but Scarborough seems also to have been struck by austerity in the wake of the 2007-08 financial crash, and now by Brexit (presumably many businesses are unable to recruit staff and that’s another reason they operated limited hours, or simply shut down entirely).

Was there anything in Scarborough that I could simply enjoy without reservation?

Hell, yes: Peasholm Park.

Peasholm Park is the best bit of Scarborough.

Peasholm Park has been around since Edwardian times and is lush with greenery surrounding a boating lake; and in the middle of the lake is an island with a Japanese-themed garden. Trails wind through the trees. It’s perfectly shaded from the afternoon sun. It’s all very relaxing (and publicly owned). As mentioned earlier, it’s not really been modernised: tickets for the naval display are bought at the gate before the show begins, in cash only…

British Pride takes a hit. So does the enemy raider ‘Frankland”…

I first saw the naval display when I was five. It was the summer just after the Falklands war had finished, so patriotic sentiment was pretty high. What I remembered was gigantic model boats on the boating pond, steered by people sitting unseen inside them, launching fireworks at each other. Model planes flew overhead on wires as the water and the island exploded.

The boats were all Royal Navy vessels from World War II (specifically three cruisers from the battle of the River Plate, which served as the template for the show, plus the aircraft carrier Ark Royal). The enemy ship was supposed to be just a generic baddie raiding a merchant convoy, but I could swear to you that the narrator of the show in 1982 named it the Belgrano (inviting loud boos from the audience); the newest HMS Ark Royal had been launched just a year before. I vividly recall the narrator telling everyone to “give a cheer for our brave boys of the RAF!” as the model planes flew overhead amid exploding water and a capsizing enemy.

“Everybody give a cheer for our brave boys of the RAF!!!”

I was oddly satisfied that the script hasn’t changed a bit: the same ships with the same names (the enemy raider is actually the Frankland, a suitably generic not-quite-French, not-quite-German name that hints at some kind of hostile European military power on the other side of the North Sea).

The battle still follows the vague theme of the Graf Spee attacking British shipping, only to be stopped by three Royal navy cruisers and cornered before being sunk outside a port. Here, it’s not given the chance to scuttle itself though: three times a week, the audience is still invited to “cheer for our brave boys of the RAF!” as the model planes and fireworks deliver the coup de grâce. The Royal Navy opens fire on the enemy base on the island, and the Union Flag is run up to declare victory once again. All within half an hour, too.

It’s a pantomime that’s been going on for a century (it began in the 1920s as a recreation of the WWI battle of Jutland). And, as with most pantomimes, children are encouraged to jump up and down, pointing and shouting themselves hoarse whenever the baddie appears behind the narrator’s booth (“Where? Is it on my left? Maybe it’s on the other side? I don’t see it. Where could it be, boys and girls?” “It’s behind you!!!“).

At Peasholm Park, the Royal Navy always wins, and Britannia still rules the waves.

It was a fun way to end the day. I don’t know if the naval display will ever inspire patriotic feelings in crowds like I saw when I was a child – both the Falklands War and WWII are decades ago, from another century, and battles like that will inevitably become as remote as battleships in the age of sail.

*

Will Scarborough ever recover, I wonder? Perhaps the conservatism here partly explains why Brexit won so decisively – perhaps there was a desire to turn away from Europe and encourage people to holiday within the UK, to take their seaside holidays at home rather than abroad, just as they did at the height of Britain’s power?

Alas, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

For me, I have no need to recreate childhood holidays, and one last day trip was enough.

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