Stephen McClarence takes a stroll beside the seaside into an exhibition celebrating the era when Scarborough was the queen of all resorts.
On the train to Scarborough, the woman sitting next to me is phoning a friend. “Yeh, just back, great holiday, had a lovely time with them,” she says. “They’ve just bought a place a couple of hours from Atlantis.”
Atlantis? The legendary island in the middle of the Atlantic? Today’s holiday expectations are a lot higher than they were in the days when visitors to Scarborough got excited about the roller-skating rink on the South Bay and the water flume in Peasholm Park.
Those wistfully remembered times are recalled in Last Stop Scarborough, an exhibition at the town’s Art Gallery which opens today. It draws on the gallery’s fine collection of 200 posters, half a century of them, from 1910 to the 1960s, some issued by railway companies, others by the resort’s own Corporation.
These were people with a vested interest in putting a spin on Scarborough, generally reckoned the world’s first seaside resort. So for many years, they projected it as a place of glamour and sophistication, the Queen of the Yorkshire Riviera.
It was all grand private yachts, as big as Britannia, of speed boats and water-skiing and couples straight out of Noel Coward drawing on cool cigarettes as they gazed languidly past the Spa. It was, the posters suggested, Brideshead-on-Sea. And why not? The Rothschilds came here to fish.
“Every visitor to Scarborough who is familiar with the Riviera resorts remarks on the very Continental atmosphere of the Spa,” trumpeted the 1934 holiday brochure. “And it is indeed true that only at Monte Carlo can one find anything approaching the splendour of its setting.” Quite how many visitors to Scarborough were familiar with the Riviera was, of course, open to question.
“Scarborough sold itself to young glamorous people who couldn’t afford Monte Carlo but wanted the closest they could get to it,” says Karen Snowden, Scarborough Museums Trust’s head of collections. “It was appealing to the Bright Young Things – or the would-be Bright Young Things.
“It could be a girl who worked in a posh shop in Leeds and had learned not to drop her aitches. Or if you were a bank clerk from Halifax and you had a best suit that could get past the hall porter, you could go to the American Bar in the Royal and live it up, or to the Grand or the Crown for tea and feel you were mixing with the glamorous. For an hour you’d feel very important.”
As late as the 1960s, posters showed a blazer-wearing Roger Moore-lookalike with a suave tan, blue eyes and perfect teeth, smiling knowingly as he followed a glamorous blonde up from the beach. There was a distinct hint of classy hanky-panky.
Sometimes, though, fuelled by the need to reinvent the resort for changing times (even before cheap foreign holidays with guaranteed sunshine), the posters cultivated a more homely family image: sandcastles and deckchairs, Punch and Judy, the precursor of today’s “family fun”.
It was the home of “The Tonic Holiday”, with fit young parents and their unfailingly cute children leaping with the sheer joy of paddling in the North Sea. “Sun and Air beyond Compare!” All that, and voyages on the Hispaniola, the one-third sized pirate ship, to hunt for doubloons on Treasure Island, relocated to the middle of the Mere.
There was plenty to do. One poster listed the entertainments on offer in 1932. June saw the Battle of Flowers, featuring the Coronation of the Queen of Roses and the Pageant of Fair Women through the Ages. July brought a Motor Rally (“Special class for cars under 10hp”). Sheep dog trials were held in August, and the Cricket Festival in September (“Mr HDG Leveson-Gower’s XI v The Indians”).
And all summer the Open-Air Theatre staged twice-weekly performances of Merrie England (and, by golly, was Scarborough merrie!) with a chorus of 250 and seating for 6,000. The theatre also hoiked itself upmarket with open-air performances of Wagner’s heroic opera Tannhauser (“Mondays and Thursdays; if wet, Tuesdays and Fridays”: what if it was also wet on both Tuesday and Friday?).
It was a tribute to the importance of classical music at Scarborough in the days when Sir Alick Maclean, “the lightning conductor”, took his Spa Orchestra through choice lighter classics, through Light Cavalry and Bells Across the Meadow and selections from Chu Chin Chow.
Every morning of the summer season the orchestra played – and, gloriously, it still does. Fragrant wisps of melody waft up from the Spa as I cross a dainty wrought-iron bridge and head for the Art Gallery for a preview of the exhibition. It’s a sea-fret of a day, a bit chilly, with the seagulls screeching like fire alarms and the coast fading into pale grey mist. Karen Snowden is here to lead me up to the attic storerooms, put on white gloves, and sift carefully through the precious posters.
Many show the classic “Riviera” view: the great sweeping curve of the South Bay from the Spa, past the Grand Hotel looking majestically like a German spa hotel that has been cast adrift and washed up in Yorkshire. The beach by the Spa rarely looks packed, projecting the exclusivity of this end of town, the selectness.
Jumbled picturesquely in the background is the more rough-and-tumble world of the harbour and the red-roofed Old Town and the castle on its headland. “With its long wall it was like a king’s crown on the blunt sandstone head,” wrote the novelist VS Pritchett in a 1934 essay on Scarborough which I’ve been reading on the train.
It’s a racy sort of essay, starting with the assertion that the seaside resort – any seaside resort, not just Scarborough – is “the courtesan among towns”. With no fear of the risque Pritchett reckons: “Gifted with a fine figure and the matchless complexion of the sea it exchanges the respectability of industry and commerce for the ‘Come-up-and-see-me-sometime’ life of sea view, bed and breakfast... That whore, the sea!... the atmosphere of romp...” I say, steady on, VS, get a grip.
More level-headedly, the exhibition also promises box cameras, stereoscopic viewers, seaside souvenirs, a mock-up of a beach bungalow, vintage bathing costumes and a fibre-glass cast of a tunny fish caught off the Yorkshire coast. “It was a whopper,” says Karen. “Seven foot long by four feet wide. It weighed in at one pound heavier than the heaviest tunny caught at that time.”
She recalls how the trains rolled in from Malton and Pickering packed with young people “coming to dance the night away and get the first train home”. The trains arrived here in 1845. They brought in the masses, despite local objections.
“Scarborough has no wish for a greater influx of vagrants and those who have no money to spend,” the pamphleteer George Knowles had thundered in 1840. “Scarborough is riding daily in the estimation of the public as a fashionable watering place, on account of its natural beauty and tranquillity, and in a few years more, the novelty of not having a railroad will be its greatest recommendation.”
A century later, it had effectively made Scarborough a resort of two halves , a place with a North Bay-South Bay divide. It was, wrote VS Pritchett, a place “cunningly devised by nature to perpetuate... the caste system”, so “‘the improper classes’ can have the run of the magnificent modern North Bay, or – if they are very improper – of the foreshore and the harbour without being bored by the South Cliff and the Spa.
“While, distantly brilliant under their sunshades in the South Cliff gardens, the more sedate or more gallant visitors sauntered, on the foreshore, the cloth-capped men of the Leeds char-a-banc (which had passed us on the road) were regarding the ocean, red-necked with satisfaction.”
Karen Snowden packs up the posters and outside the art gallery, the sea fret has dissolved and the sun is finally shining. I meander back to the station by a route that takes me through all Scarborough’s social strata. From the Esplanade, where couples read their middle-market newspapers and occasionally glance up to check the sea is still there; down in the cliff lift and along the prom past knickerbocker glories and £500 jackpots and “world-famous fish and chips”.
An elderly couple have brought their own picnic chairs and a little table from which the man occasionally lifts a pair of binoculars to scan the horizon beyond the gamely plodding donkeys and the Hispaniola, still here, now forging its way across the bay.
People are asleep on tartan blankets, fully clothed, and the Harbour Bar is still gloriously a rhapsody in yellow Formica, and children stack the towers on their sandcastles. It’s a lovely, timeless scene on a sunny afternoon, and it’s a long way from Atlantis.
Last Stop Scarborough is at Scarborough Art Gallery until January 5.01723 374753, www.scarboroughartgallery.org.uk. Open Tuesday to Sunday and bank holidays, 10am to 5pm. Adult admission £2.