It’s the winter of 2013. It’s already dark when the phone rings. The elderly voice on the other end belongs to Jim Brown. We’ve never met, but he’s calling in response to a small appeal I placed in his local paper. I’m looking for memories about the Butlin’s holiday camp at Filey for a new book about Britain’s lost seaside heritage.
There’s nothing left of the place today. It closed in 1983 and where the Gaiety Theatre and Hawaiian-themed Beachcomber Bar – complete with volcano which erupted on the hour – once stood is now a very modern holiday development. The Bay has luxury accommodation, saunas and steam rooms. It doesn’t do knobbly knees competitions, although some swear they occasionally hear the odd strain of Goodnight Campers carried on the sea breeze.
Filey was not the first of Billy Butlin’s holiday empire, but it was the jewel in the crown and Jim, now in his 80s, was typical of those early guests. It was 1947 when he first visited Butlin’s, having just returned to Hull from the Far East where he had been serving with the Royal Corps of Signals. Keen to meet up with friends, and by way of celebration, they booked a week at the East Coast’s brand new attraction.
“Funnily enough the accommodation and canteen weren’t too dissimilar to what we’d had in the Army, so we felt quite at home,” remembered Jim, who also admitted their military training was useful in making the most of the camp’s basic amenities. “We’d been split into two chalets at either end of a long row. However, we soon realised that the central heating pipe ran the entire length of the accommodation. Two of us had been wireless operators so we used to tap out messages in Morse code. It was nothing top secret, more like ‘We’ll be ready in 10 minutes’ or ‘See you at the bar’. Another of our party was a trained electrician and wherever he went he always carried a screwdriver. It came in particularly useful that week as after being rudely awakened by a recording of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, My oh my what a wonderful day” on the first morning he swiftly dismantled the Tannoy system.”
Over the course of 18 months I had countless similar conversations and not just about Filey, but about Hornsea Pottery, Scarborough’s Futurist theatre, Brighton’s West Pier, Cleethorpes’ Winter Gardens – 19 resorts in all, each with a different story to tell about those boom and bust years.
In Hastings there was Richard Pitcairn Knowles whose grandfather opened the town’s first health hydro. It worked on the premise that dangerous toxins could be expelled from the body by lying under warm blankets, eating a vegetarian diet and regular nude sunbathing and could boast occultist Aleister Crowley among its guests. The story of Morecambe and its aptly named Super Swimming Stadium is told in part by Dinah May. She ended up becoming PA to the late film director Michael Winner, but took her first step into show business walking along a Morecambe poolside after being crowned Miss Great Britain. Then there was Dame Vera Lynn who looked back on the summers she spent topping the bill at Blackpool’s Palace Theatre, which was lavish and architecturally impressive, but also a financial white elephant.
It was the railways that transformed the British seaside, putting a week’s holiday in reach of ordinary families, and it is these memories that form the spine of the book. Most of those who got in touch, like Jim, began apologetically. They were sure, they said, their story would be too incidental to be worth recording. They were wrong. It is those small details that really illustrate why we hold the British seaside so dear.
Not long after speaking to Jim, I received a letter from Yvonne Vickers about the night in 1958 that she met her husband-to-be in Redcar pier pavilion.
“I remember every detail of that night,” she wrote. “I was wearing lots of net petticoats rinsed in sugar water to make them so stiff they would stand out to the end of the evening, stiletto heels and of course Roman pink lipstick. There was a silver ball in the middle of the ceiling that cast pretty patterns across the room. To me it always seemed the most romantic place in the world. I was 17 and as soon as John asked me to dance, that was it, I knew we were destined to be married.”
Each story was different, but they all had something in common. The seaside Yvonne and Jim talk about is one that no longer exists. The beaches, variety theatres and piers they talk of, packed with families in their Sunday best, are the ones also being celebrated by Scarborough Art Gallery’s Seaside Snaps exhibition which will trigger nostalgic memories for anyone who has every huddled inside a windbreak.
One of the last people I spoke to for the book was Mandy Arcari. Her grandfather had arrived in Scotland from Italy following the First World War, opening an ice cream parlour in the resort of Portobello just a few miles from Edinburgh. According to the family, he was also the first person to ever break a Flake in half and press it into an ice cream cone. The 99 was born and the fleet of Arcari ice cream vans, playing the theme tune to Dr Zhivago, provided a soundtrack to many a Scottish summer.
The family still make ice cream, but the shop set up by Stephen Arcari and later run by Mandy’s father Rudy is now a hairdresser’s.
“Dad died last year but even after he became ill he was still putting in 14-hour shifts. We asked him if he wanted to stop working, but he just turned to us and said: ‘Why would I want to do that? This is my life’.”
• Beside the Sea – Britain’s Lost Seaside Heritage by Sarah Freeman is published by Aurum priced £25. Seaside Snaps, Scarborough Art Gallery, runs to June 21. www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com