What makes the Yorkshire coast so popular?

Colourful Scarborough Photo by Tony Bartholomew

Colourful Scarborough Photo by Tony Bartholomew - Credit: ©Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Med

We do like to be beside the seaside but is there really a good reason for thronging to the Yorkshire coast, asks Tony Greenway.

Live lobsters just caught off Staithes

Live lobsters just caught off Staithes - Credit: Archant

Ah, the Yorkshire coast, so pleasingly dramatic, so ruggedly beautiful, so justifiably celebrated. And so incredibly far from where I live. At this time of year, I look out of my window onto what will eventually become the road to Scarborough, see miles of traffic snaking into the distance, and think smugly: ‘Thank God I’m not going there.’ Because – and stay with me on this – isn’t a trip to the Yorkshire seaside just the teeniest, tiniest bit horrendous? Mind you, judging by the hundreds of pairs of brake lights currently illuminating the A64, it is plainly not stopping us. Well, rather it’s not stopping you.

I do like the Yorkshire coast when I go, which is out of season; Scarborough, Brid, Staithes, Filey, Whitby and particularly Robin Hood’s Bay, with its narrow, cobbled streets and dinky houses tumbling down to the sea. It’s so insanely picturesque and untouched by time that you half expect to find the Famous Five messing about in the rock pools. But over the summer, the A64 heading east becomes a car park. The traffic on it is going nowhere. So, consequently, I opt to stay at home and go nowhere.

I used to go to the coast in a heartbeat. When our daughters were small, we went to Scarborough a lot because they liked the sand and the sea, and because we needed to get them, and us, away from our rectangular child-minder: aka, CBeebies. But not now they’re older.

For me, to get in the car this weekend and drive from York to Scarborough I’d need a pretty good reason other than saucy Donald McGill postcards, the promise of a trip to that new £14million water park on the North Bay (which opens this month to criticism that the ticket prices are too high) and a paddle in the sea. I’d also need valium. For a start, when you do finally arrive, parking is a nightmare and the amusements, seafront, beach and touristy shops on the South Bay are crowded beyond belief, and tempers are hot. Plus, there might be jellyfish. Not to mention the seagulls stealing your chips (a recent headline from the local paper: ‘Aggressive gull attacks tot in pastry snatch’).

Scarborough beach

Scarborough beach - Credit: Archant

And yet there is, admittedly, something about the British seaside – and particularly the Yorkshire coast – that is utterly magical. It’s also rather hard to define. Its appeal isn’t tangible, not for me at any rate. It’s not about sunbathing in a deckchair (fat chance), snacking on candy floss (proper candy floss spun on a stick, mind, none of that stuff in plastic bags) or gawping at end-of-the-pier entertainment.

No, when I go to the seaside, it’s to recapture a feeling. An excited tingle I got when I was a kid in the back of the car and saw the sea for the first time through a gap in the houses or over the brow of a hill. It’s a nostalgia trip.

Esther Graham from the Scarborough Museums Trust points out that the British seaside’s popularity as a destination can be traced back to the days of 17th and 18th century health tourism for the wealthy. Later, the development of the railways meant that working people from the big cities had access to affordable transport that got them to the coast quickly. As a result, a culture sprung up that, Esther says, is now in danger of being lost.

That’s why the Scarborough Museums Trust – which has a large collection of seaside-related items – is spearheading a new project called the Seaside Heritage Network, a national network of organisations and individuals that aims to promote, champion and research the value of seaside heritage and culture. ‘The seaside is quite often seen as frivolous and fun,’ says Esther. ‘But, actually, it has made a big impact on culture and transport. It is a unique phenomenon.’

Esther Graham, Seaside Heritage Network project manager, at Scarborough’s North Bay. Photo by Tony

Esther Graham, Seaside Heritage Network project manager, at Scarborough’s North Bay. Photo by Tony Bartholomew - Credit: ©Tony Bartholomew/Turnstone Med

The Yorkshire seaside has its own special character or characters, she believes, because each location along the county’s coast has a different sense of place. Take for example Filey with its sedate pace, (which, says Esther, can be traced back to the closure of Butlin’s in the 1980s); Scarborough, which is greener, busier and more traditional or Whitby with its rugged landscape and ‘alternative’ feel. How alternative? Well, it has a Bram Stoker International Film Festival and a Goth Festival – a couple of things you won’t find in, say, Runswick Bay. Scarborough is famous for being a creative place (hello Sir Alan Ayckbourn) but, clearly, Whitby is, too. Just look at that recent idea to create a ‘pop up’ fake graveyard for selfie-taking Goths, so that they don’t disrespect the real thing at St Mary’s Church. That takes a special kind of genius.

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For Stuart Baines, a lawyer who lives in Scarborough, the variety of our coastal landscapes is the real draw. ‘From Filey and beyond there are massive long beaches for families to play on,’ he says. ‘As you go further north from Scarborough, it’s totally different scenery – very craggy.’

Stuart agrees that Scarborough is crowded in summer but he reasons that tourists are the town’s lifeblood. ‘Without them it would fizzle away,’ he says. And, anyway, he’s keen to give me another good reason to come to the coast more often. Forget the whelk stalls and the arcades, the Yorkshire seaside is one of the best places in the UK to spot marine life, including porpoises and dolphins.

In fact, Stuart, who is also assistant regional co-ordinator for the Sea Watch Foundation, formed a Facebook group called Scarborough Porpoise after regularly spotting mammals in the sea from Marine Drive in Scarborough, which runs around the castle headland. ‘For some reason, it’s a great place to see porpoises,’ says Stuart. ‘You do see them off Flamborough Head and Filey Brigg, generally in ones or twos. But on Marine Drive you can see 10 or more. The beauty is that Marine Drive has a wide footpath, or you can just park your car, get out and there they are.’ (Apparently, some people get worried that these shapes in the water might be sharks. But you need to ignore those people.) Stuart also says bottle-nosed dolphins can be spied off Marine Drive, roughly between March and August and there’s the chance to see minke whales off Whitby, and mentions the whale watching trips available from Whitby harbourside.

If there’s a compelling reason for schlepping all the way to the coast in July – a greater porpoise, if you like (don’t all write in at once) – then spotting minke whales and bottle-nosed dolphins would be mine. Esther Graham, though, has the best explanation for why so many of us are lured to the Yorkshire seaside. ‘It’s the edge of the island,’ she says. ‘There’s something esoteric about it. It’s you and the sea which is probably why a “cheeky” culture sprung up around the seaside, because it feeds into a sense of escapism and distancing yourself from the humdrum. You go to the edge to get away from everything.’

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