The Yorkshire Belle might be a relic of the Great British seaside holiday, but Stephen McClarence discovers how its future has been safeguarded thanks to a rise in nature tourism.
Brandishing binoculars as we sail, rather choppily, across Bridlington Bay, Ian Batty looks back over his birdwatching holiday on the Yorkshire coast. What birds, I wonder, has he been watching over the past few days? “Lots of razorbills,” he says. “Lots of guillemots. Lots of gannets. Lots of kittiwakes.” Any puffins? “No, not very many puffins.”
Oh dear. Puffins, the plump Mr Punches of the bird world, have unlikely star quality. As they flitter over the waves on wings that look too small for them, they’re big draws on trips on the Yorkshire Belle, the Bridlington pleasure cruiser that celebrates its 70th anniversary on Monday.
“We never advertise ‘Seabird Cruises’; we call them ‘Puffin Cruises’, because they’re what people like to see – probably because the birds look so comical,” says skipper Peter Richardson, the boat’s owner. “But people sometimes get off saying ‘I wish I’d seen a puffin.’ And we’ve seen hundreds of them!”
Peter is standing behind the wheel of the Belle, the last of the Bridlington pleasure cruisers, surrounded by dials, a brass compass and a lot of varnished nautical wood. “No hydraulics; this is hand-raulics; it’s hand-driven,” he says.
The Yorkshire Belle is a nostalgic survivor of the British seaside holiday’s heyday, when Brid was full to bursting with half the West Riding. The beach was as packed with sandcastle-builders and deckchair-dozers as nearby Bempton Cliffs are now packed with summer birds – an astonishing 250,000 of them wheeling and soaring, shrieking and squawking.
The beach is rather less packed on this breezy May morning, in the lull between the Full Yorkshire and the milky coffee. Early in the season, three brave souls are paddling, and two hardy families have spread out blankets and unscrewed their Thermos flasks. Otherwise the sands are as deserted as, well, a desert.
“Come on in, boys and girls,” hollers a voice from an almost empty amusement arcade. “We’ll even let you in with knobbly knees!” It’s a poignant echo of the great days when, as Peter says: “At this time of year, it would be really busy with pensioners – senior citizens – coachload after coachload being dropped off.”
We’re coursing along at 9.7 knots. “We used to get a lot of bucket-and-spade holidaymakers on our cruises, but these days more and more people want to see seabirds,” he says. “‘Nature tourism’, as everyone calls it, has become very popular over the last six or seven years.”
These bird cruises lure enthusiasts from all over the world, and have lured Ian Batty from Hoylandswaine, near Penistone, and his friend Alan Plumtree from Eckington, near Sheffield. They had originally signed up for a three-hour cruise to take them past Flamborough Head to Bempton, the RSPB reserve that’s the UK’s biggest mainland seabird colony.
The great thing about the Bempton cruises is that you see the birds, clinging to every ledge and crevice, from a completely different angle from the viewing platforms 400ft up. From below, you grasp just how tightly they’re stacked up the sheer cliff face, sticking to it like fridge magnets.
The cruises – some run in partnership with the RSPB – edge you so close to the cliff that you can almost pluck the birds off the lower ledges, like cans off a supermarket shelf. Faced with a wall of cameras and binoculars, most stay stoically indifferent.
Sadly the sea is too choppy for a Bempton cruise today, so we’re just out for an hour with a running commentary from Peter as we sail east, parallel to Flamborough’s chalk cliffs.
Some of the three-dozen or so passengers (the boat can carry almost 200) have retreated to the undercover lounge, or the cosy downstairs bar and buffet. Its walls are lined with 1960s photographs of Brid pleasure boats moored at the pier, flags flying, real regatta stuff. The queues of passengers stretch back. And here’s the Yorkshire Belle in 1955 when a trip to Hornsea cost two shillings (10p), and an on-board accordionist might be leading sing-songs.
“There used to be six boats here,” says Peter. “But when foreign holidays came on in the Sixties, they went into decline.”
He and his then business partner Roy Simpson bought the Belle in 1982. “We were determined to make sure she stayed here,” he says. “It’s important that there’s a boat like this in Bridlington to show people the most stunning piece of coastline in the British Isles, in my opinion.”
Sharing the wheel with his son Sam (“I’ve grown up with this boat”), Peter averages 500 cruises a year. Which makes getting on for 18,000 cruises all told. Don’t they get a bit monotonous? “It’s different every time you come out,” he says and adds that the Belle has two eight-cylinder Gardner diesel engines, which I duly make a note of.
Built in Beverley, the boat hosts disco cruises and (a new one on me) “ashes cruises” – special charters to scatter people’s ashes at sea.
Most of the time, though, it takes living holidaymakers, some of them the most regular of regulars.
“There’s one man and his wife who spend a week’s holiday in Bridlington every year and come on every trip every day – and some days in August we can do four or five. We take about 25,000 people a year; when we first got the boat it was double that.”
The Belle is clearly still a big draw for Brid. “People come to stay here specially for the cruises,” says Gillian Blanchard, owner of the Three Gables guest house, the strikingly handsome Victorian villa where I’m staying, “Particularly when the Bempton tours are on and they want to see the puffins.”
Puffins – no escape. Back on deck, are Ian and Alan the sort of birdwatchers who hire helicopters if a rare bird is spotted in a remote corner of Britain?
“No. Crazy, crazy, not my style,” says Ian. “I can get as much fun from watching a blackbird struggle to get a worm out of the ground as from seeing a rare bird.
“We’ve seen a nice short-eared owl this week – and a bridled guillemot at Bempton.” He shows me his picture of it on his camera.
“It looks as though it’s wearing a pair of white spectacles, doesn’t it? Look, there are six gannets on the horizon...” Sadly none of them does the gannet’s party piece – plunging perpendicularly into the water like an Exocet.
Late in the afternoon, I take a bus out to Flamborough, with its caves and coves and its chalets with bird baths in their gardens. I walk the cliffs I’ve seen on the cruise. Birds are bobbing in the sea and lacerating the air with their cries, and the gannets are out in force.
That evening, I have dinner at Rags restaurant, which overlooks Bridlington harbour. Turnstones, among the most entertaining of birds, are bustling round outside the window next to me, lifting shells and seaweed in search of food. They’re just three feet away. Who needs puffins?
JUST GIVE THEM A BELLE
Yorkshire Belle cruises: 07774 193404 (daytime only), yorkshire-belle.co.uk
Bempton Cliffs: 01262 422200, rspb.org.uk/bemptoncliffs
Three Gables guest house: 01262 673826, threegablesbridlington.co.uk
Rags restaurant: 01262 400355, ragshotel.co.uk
For more information go to visithullandeastyorkshire.com