Friday, August 5, 2011

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside (in a non-ironic way)

This is the coastal town
They forgot to close down...
Everyday is like Sunday
Everyday is silent and grey

Ah Morrissey. He may have become the sort of pantomime dame we all suspected he might, but in his pomp, the man turned a neat phrase. And I don't think anyone has depicted the hopeless drudgery of the British seaside town as adroitly as he did in Everyday Is Like Sunday. On holiday in the north of England with my family this week, trudging slowly over the wet sand of Scarborough beach, I was reminded of those long, rain-spattered vacations of my youth, where the days yawned ahead and the only thing to look forward to was the promise of some greasy fish and chips.

Except, these days, I have a deep fondness for British seaside towns. In a time when most of our island decamps to the warmer parts of Europe to burn themselves crisper than pork scratchings and down industrial quantities of booze, the neglected seaside town has a certain ironic, old school attraction: donkey rides on the beach, end of the pier amusement arcades, a howling gale instead of resplendent sun, greasy tea and bread and butter instead of sangria and seafood.

But there is much more to some of our seaside resorts than kitsch. Take my favourite for example, Whitby. For a tourist town, it's almost cussedly inaccessible. To get there you need to navigate the wilds of the North York Moors and then weave your way down precipitous narrow winding roads. Alex Garland, a la-di-dah Londoner who I bet has never ridden a donkey on a windswept strip of sodden sand, once wrote The Beach about a mystical paradise, fraught with peril and menace. He'd obviously never been to Whitby or he'd have known such a place already existed.

It was founded in 656, when the Abbey was first built. The Vikings destroyed that in the 9th century before another was built in the 11th century (the ruins of which still loom in menacing, Gothic splendour over the town.) The town never thrived as such - it was too remote and small for that - but it became a centre for shipbuilding and whaling, as well as a source of minerals and stones like jet and alum and all kinds of fossils. The HMS Endeavour was built here, and the man who sailed it to discover Australia and New Zealand, James Cook, worked on the colliers, shipping coal dug from the mines of Northumbria to London.

The unique atmosphere, the ruined abbey, the steep narrow streets, the way it is cut into the hillside, have inspired more than a few novelists. Bram Stoker set some of Dracula here, and is said to have written the scenes in a guest house, the rain drilling against the windows, the wind rattling the pane - could he have done that in Marbella? Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were frequent visitors, and in more modern times AS Byatt set Possession there. Perhaps influenced by the Dracula connection, every year for one weekend the town is swamped by 'Goths', the name given to a sub-culture of British youth (and not so youth) who like to dress in black and cultivate a pale-faced, kohl-eyed look, as well  as a famous folk week, and a 1960s weekend when every ageing rocker in the North slicks back their hair and invades the town. Goths, folkies and bryclreemed 60s casualties. On occasion, the locals are known to look back fondly on the Vikings.

Rain or shine, there are few better ways to spend a day than eating fish and chips, the sea in your nostrils, on the front, then walking up the stone steps, all 199 of them, up the East Cliff, to the ruined abbey and St Mary's Church, take in the views, then perhaps a boat ride and pint of beer at one of the many pubs. It is still a living, breathing town, which attracts all kinds of tourists, so is spared the twee, chocolate box feel that suffocates so many other places in the UK. Preferably do this in winter, when the waves batter the front, and the freezing wind cleanses the soul and mind.

Beware the Dracula museum though. A small yet utterly terrifying telling of the story through Whitby eyes. I took the kids in, and our dog, and the children didn't make it past the first animatronic exhibit. I soldiered on with the dog, but halfway through she started to bark and howl and wouldn't go any further, so had to carry her out, whimpering. She's still a bit jumpy now. Whitby has that effect.


Dan - Friday


  1. No lies there Dan

    You forgot to mention on weekends between April and September do not attempt to use the main roads into the East Coast, life really is too short.

    Im sure that the Euro destinations you mock, could be reached quicker than the hours it takes to do the 45 miles from here.

    You (adopted) Londoners are used to paying a premium for your fish and chips and beer, however us 'proper' Northerners will continue to flock to Magaluf, Salou and Benidorm.

    If only they had Wetherspoons then it would be paradise.

  2. What great photos. Sounds a heck of a lot more interesting than Disneyland.

    And--also in a completely non-ironic way--I'd love to take a donkey ride on a beach.

  3. You have inspired me to leave the sun, sand, and wild life for the chance of having my neck bitten by a real vampire...not the shoddy, amateurish tourist sort we get on holidays here in August.

    Thanks, Dan, for bringing me back to reality.

  4. I really liked the pictures and the post. I am a knitter, and I have a very special book about the history of ganseys, and the traditional patterns associated with each town. Now I know more about Whitby. Beautiful.

  5. Great article Dan! Great photos! What? No photos from the vampire museum? It would be great just to see you running out with a hysterical dog:) I challenge you to follow up with a vamp museum photo shoot!:)