Scarborough: The enduring appeal of the English seaside

By Bethan Bell
BBC News

  • Published

The Englishperson's lack of interest in the national seaside is so dire calls have been made for a special "tsar" to be appointed to deal with our apathy. But no matter how the issue is tackled, are we really going to flock to the grey, windswept expanses of gritty sand to frolic in icy brown ankle-deep water?

Perhaps a leaf can be taken from Scarborough's book - it's one of the few domestic beach resorts bucking the national trend and actually attracting holidaymakers and day trippers.

So what does it have to offer?

Scarborough is a place of two halves. The south has a funfair and arena - the Sun Court - for an orchestra to put on open-air concerts. The north is quieter in terms of attractions, but has a wilder, more rugged feel and is popular with surfers.

Clinging to the cliffs above the North Sea on England's east coast, the town was enormously popular in the 19th Century for those seeking spa cures.

Now, although the wide sweeping beaches are still beautiful and the harbour bustling and picturesque, any residual glamour has faded.

It's hard to imagine well-to-do Victorian ladies demurely taking the waters.

Beachfront shops sell confectionery in shapes which could be described by some as "saucy" and others as "smutty".

Some are so explicit they're covered in bubble wrap or only stocked on the top shelf.

BB guns are displayed alongside buckets and spades, and giant games arcades and a casino dominate the main road between the South and North Bay.

But alongside the more salacious elements, there are traditional activities.

Donkey rides are available - so long as you're aged 12 and under and weigh seven stone or less.

End-of-the-pier entertainments - such as The Billy Pearce Laughter Show - are "here all season", and dressed crab is sold from kiosks along the front.

It's a proper seaside resort.

First thing in the morning street-sweepers remove the traces of late-night revelry, making the town feel clean and new.

Dog-walkers briskly follow their charges, throwing tennis balls into the surf. The fishing fleet comes in and cafes and stalls bustle into life.

As soon as the sun falters from behind the clouds, the beach fills up with barely-clad children digging holes and squealing.

Some admire fish-heads left on the sands after a day's catch has been hauled in.

Parents in jeans and anoraks huddle behind wind-breaks. Teenage girls take the least opportunity to pose in bikinis, their male counterparts making the most of the view.

Older couples, wrapped up warmly, gingerly paddle.

There's an open-air theatre and a castle that overlooks the bay.

There are modern attractions too, such as the newly-opened water park, and a sea life centre. Flamingo Land is not far away. The Tour de Yorkshire cycle race sped through here, and a sea festival has been held.

But despite these newfangled introductions, there's an air of stepping back in time. The hotels are unfashionable yet most are fully booked for the summer season.

According to Visit Scarborough, the majority of tourists come for the day, although there has also been a rise in overnight stays - the average is between two and three nights.

Stag and hen parties drive up the numbers - and the popularity of anatomical confectionery.

The soon-to-be-wed emerge mid-morning, drinking coffee and heading for the funfair.

Sara Jones is a bride-to-be. She says she picked Scarborough for her pre-wedding celebration because "it's relatively cheap and fun".

"We're mainly here just to have a good time," she says. "Have a drink, go on the beach and go clubbing at night.

"I wasn't after anywhere to have a grown-up time, just a place to let our hair down".

The appreciation of Scarborough's lack of refinement is echoed by many other visitors.

At lunchtime Pat and Dave Gammon, both in their 70s, sit on the harbour wall eating chips. They say they enjoy the old-fashioned atmosphere of a traditional seaside holiday.

"We like walking along the promenade and the cliff gardens," says Mr Gammon.

"Yesterday we went to watch the orchestra play and had a coffee. Then later fish and chips or whatever - although I was accosted by a seagull which stole my crabstick," he adds, somewhat ruefully, while his wife rolls her eyes.

"He's being going on about that crabstick all day," she good-humouredly grumbles.

Although the vast majority of adult holidaying visitors are Britons, some overseas tourists also make their way here.

Carla and Luise are two friends in their 30s from Austria, who are staying in York.

In the late afternoon they plod up the steps from the beach to the town, looking weary. They're heading back to their car.

Carla says Scarborough "is fun. It is not nice, but it is fun", while Luise says she preferred Whitby, which is just along the coast.

In the early evening, school-age children, many local, roam the seafront and arcades before gathering in McDonald's.

Zoe, who lives in Scarborough, says "it's an all right place to be, I suppose. Kind of boring. I like it when it's proper summer and people are around all night.

"In the winter I pretty much know everyone around here. But in the summer we get the exchange school kids and that. That's more interesting, when they're about."

The people she mentions are usually on a trip to learn the language at the Scarborough International School of English. One of them, Giulia, says she likes the town because "it's alive".

A fair proportion of people staying at one of the hotels are couples with young children. Jason Philips and Jodie White have a three-year-old daughter, Scarlett, and another on the way.

Ms White is too far advanced in her pregnancy to fly and Scarlett gets bored on long journeys, the couple say.

They decided on Scarborough because they wanted to visit somewhere "with a holiday feeling".

What's Scarlett's favourite thing about the trip?

Mr Philips laughs resignedly: "She likes pressing the buttons of the lift in the hotel and loves the tram down to the beach. We've been up and down on it three times now.

"In the end we told her it was closed."

Near the harbour, where their three dogs are sniffing at the stacked-up lobster pots, Sue and Michael Chandler, from Leicestershire, are having sundowners. They've been visiting Scarborough annually for 20 years and believe its star is rising.

"It's getting really busy again," Mr Chandler says. "It's not as busy as after the financial crash in 2008, mind you.

"I'm expecting it to pick right up after the whole Brexit business.

"Not that we came because of that, we just like it here. We like being able to bring the dogs. I think they like the way it smells."

The couple, along with Mitzi, Bruno and Pie, saunter off to their B&B.

As the day draws to a close, the character of Scarborough begins to change.

The die-hards on the beach pack up their flasks and wind-breaks, the young children and their adults wend their ways back to the hotels - sandy, sticky hands clutching helium balloons and soft toys won by granddad at the grabber machine.

The music from the games arcades increases in volume, as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston howl at the world.

The pavement is coloured with pulsating red lights - now a runway for people dressed up for a night on the town.

Jade, 18, is one of a pack of young women who've emerged from a budget hotel. She's on holiday with three of her friends - their mums wouldn't let them go abroad and Scarborough was a compromise.

It's the first time any of the girls have been away without adults. All four are wearing enormous grins, tiny shorts, high heels, and vest tops. It's drizzling but they don't seem to have noticed.

"We're having an awesome time," Jade says. "We're here for a week, just hanging about. We met some lads at the fair earlier, probably going to meet up again later, like.

"It's a bit of fun, nothing serious. We're here just to have a laugh. We're all staying in the same room, it's crazy but we're having the best time ever."

Jade's friend Millie says the four of them plan to go abroad next year "for a bit of sun".

"And hot foreign boys," Jade adds, while the others giggle and agree.

Would they ever come back to Scarborough?

"Yeah - let's come back for our 40th birthdays," Millie laughingly suggests, as if 40 was an age far too distant to comprehend.

The group totters off to town.

Later, in the early hours of the morning, Jack and Tom stagger back along the main street of the town, looking slightly worse for wear.

They've had a good time, they say, and "lots of beer".

Then, over the next half hour, the town goes quiet once more - until the street-sweepers, dog-walkers and cafes begin their daily cycle, ready to do it all again.

Perhaps Ms White has it in a nutshell.

Scarborough, unashamedly old-fashioned and unsophisticated, is a place where you feel like you're on holiday.

There's sand, sea, donkeys, fish and chips, arcades, candyfloss and a funfair.

Everyone, regardless of age or interests, appears out to have a good time. It seems everyone is with someone - it's rare to spot people alone, unless they're queuing for ice-creams or waiting for their family to clamber off the Ferris wheel.

Maybe that determination to enjoy life is the reason Scarborough remains so popular.

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