Have just waved off DH, Daughter and Dog who are heading south now while I take the train cross-country towards Blackpool – top dog of seaside resorts. If Blackpool is King of them all, Scarborough must take the title of the Queen. Its natural and built assets are second to none – two beautiful sweeping bays with green cliffs sinking (in some cases literally) down to the sea with 15 acres of ruined castle the head-point where they meet. Our hotel, the Castle-by-the-Sea, has a fantastic location high above both bays and is truly dog-friendly, with sliding doors out to a secure roof garden. John and Janet Cresswell took on a dilapidated challenge and are turning it round. At the moment it is one of Scarborough’s best-kept secrets.
The South Bay is the developed stretch with all the usual amusements – a 1950s style milkshake bar, a small fun fair, donkeys on the beach, a harbour formed with three stone-built arms. One of these is the West Pier with its jumble of fishing buildings from the sublime heritage oozing potential to the downright scruffy awaiting its inevitable fate. The place is bustling with all kinds of boats, including the pirate ship whose captain lures our little ‘sea-dog’ and offers half-price if you swim back. The smell of fresh fish is overwhelming but DH is disappointed that he can’t buy a live lobster to swelter its way to London in the boot of the car. Only a few of these go to Scarborough’s restaurants, the rest are packed off to France or boiled to last another day. At the curve of the bay is the grandest of Grand Hotels – at one time the largest brick building in the world, built on the ‘calendar principle’ (4 towers, 12 floors, 356 chimneys, and no doubt 7 bars). I visited back in 2003 to check out potential accommodation for a BURA conference but was put off by adverts for full roast dinner at £2.95 and beer at 50p a pint. The owner is working hard on refurbishment – perhaps he needs to give over one ‘season’ to a ’boutique’ hotel to create a more mixed market without losing the coach trippers.
Beyond the Grand a bridge crosses the valley to the South Cliff area where the 5-star Crown Spa hotel watches over Scarborough’s ‘community centre’, the gorgeous golden sandstone Spa complex currently undergoing a £6m renovation. I am privileged to have a full hard-hat tour and I will certainly be back next summer to see the results.
The North Bay is a different beast. Apart from the Sands, a new development of luxury holiday apartments, this is a quieter place with only scattered cafes and the most colourful set of beach huts I’ve seen so far. Behind is the lovely Peasholme Park, the miniature railway and the Open Air Theatre – another Victorian seaside splurge that lay derelict for decades but was opened by the Queen this year with the help of Dame Kiri te Kanawa and Jose Carreras. Seating 6,500, it is the largest ‘amphitheatre’ in northern Europe, with a sophisticated stage set on a small island, separated from the audience by a small canal perfect for Cleopatra’s barge or water-launched fireworks.
I have been so well looked-after here that I must say a special thank you to Hilary Jones, Brian Bennett, Doug Kendall and Nick Taylor of Scarborough Borough Council. I don’t think I’ve ever met a set of council officers so passionate about and dedicated to their town. Their intimate knowledge of the place is matched by their ability to initiate and see through large-scale, high-quality improvements. Of course, a combination of geography and deprivation has allowed them to tap into significant funding from Europe, Yorkshire Forward, and Lottery sources, but these are real experts. Doug told me he managed to pull some funds from the Home Office to terror-proof the windows of the Spa Complex Sun Court – usefully protecting them against weather and waves as well as the unlikely event of an attack. The council owns and controls most of the key assets – the Spa, the Harbour, the Open Air Theatre, and the set of ashlar sandstone gems at the Crescent – the Rotunda (refurbished museum), the Art Gallery, and Woodend.
The latter, summer home of the Sitwells, is one of the most impressive managed workspaces I’ve ever seen. Cleverly converted, dynamically managed by Andrew Clay (ex of the Round Foundry), almost completely full, it is home to over 40 small creative businesses employing over 100 people. The Woodend Trust will make a surplus this year, 50% of which will go to the council in a ring-fenced fund for future maintenance liabilities. In this set only Londesborough Lodge remains undone – it’s on the market through informal tender until December. There are other assets awaiting their attention, including the Futurist and the swathe of land above it to the nasty, run-down council offices tacked onto the back of the lovely town hall. While the Audit Commission found that many local authorities spent the capital receipts of the last decade on shiny new council offices, no-one could accuse this council of spending money on themselves. Perhaps that’s why they’ve managed to lever £40-50 million of private sector investment into the town. Overall I’d say the town deserves its accolades as most enterprising town in Britain and Europe.
A little story from Woodend reminds us not to generalise. Throughout the development trust movement there is hostility towards Business Link which is experienced as distant, unhelpful and ill-informed about social and community enterprise. Yet here in Woodend the two guys who ran it were embedded and incredibly useful, linking up small grants for start-ups, brokering easy-in offices and studios, and playing a crucial networking role. Given their marching orders from on high as part of the abolition of the RDA, they will be much missed and the service will no doubt need wastefully reinventing.
Even the train journey is a pleasure, through the undulating greens of North Yorkshire, stopping at Seamer, Malton & York before pulling into Leeds – which my old boss at BURA, the late Jon Ladd, used to call the Dirty Old Town but of course is actually one of the brightest lights in the regenerated northern cities. A quick change here and on to Bradford where Gideon Seymour of FABRIC will show me progress on the Bradford Urban Garden – a meanwhile project bringing swathes of Westfield’s wasted town centre site into community use – cheaply, quickly, and with panache [but all at risk this weekend when the venomous English Defence League appear in Bradford – more in the next post…]