With the summer holidays under way, Stephen McClarence boards the Yorkshire Coast Line and wallows in a little nostalgia for the Great British seaside.
Even with the Jolly Jacks in full guffaw further back in the carriage, there’s a magical moment as the train pulls out of Bridlington. Suddenly, over the rooftops, over the hotels and B&Bs, a glorious panorama of Flamborough Head opens out, sheer and white above the shimmering sea. It’s one highlight of many on the Yorkshire Coast Line, one of the North’s great unsung railway journeys.
Fifty or so years ago, the line, from Hull to Scarborough, heaved with holidaymakers weighed down with children and suitcases bulging with buckets and spades. Full of anticipation, they surged through Hull station, heading for busy Brid, for the sheer all-embracing splendour of Scarborough, or the quieter, more select pleasures of Filey.
Since those halcyon days, of course, cheap foreign package holidays with a better guarantee of sunshine have lured the multitudes away from the East Coast. As an elderly chap, bound for a week in Scarborough with his wife, tells me on the train: “We’ve seen Abroad (spoken with an emphatic capital ‘A’), so we thought we ought to see Here (also emphatic) and we thought we’d come on the train.”
This is music – ideally played by the Scarborough Spa Orchestra – to the ears of the Yorkshire Coast Community Rail Partnership, which promotes the 55-mile long line, operated by Northern and sometimes called the Yorkshire Wolds Coast Line.
“We want to tell people about the benefits of using the train rather than a car,” says Gill Simpson, the partnership’s community rail officer. “It’s easier and more restful. But some people will always be closed off to the idea of trains. They drive everywhere. They’d drive into their kitchens if they could.”
We meet in the lounge of Hull’s Royal Hotel, immortalised half a century ago, in its days as the Royal Station Hotel, by Philip Larkin, whose statue twirls a poetic pirouette on the platform outside. He wrote of the “silence laid like carpet” on Friday nights, when “all the salesmen have gone back to Leeds”.
These City-of-Culture days, Hull station bustles with hipster arts admin folk hurrying to and from London with their ever-busy iPads. They might find it more relaxing to head up the Yorkshire Coast Line.
“It has such diversity,” says Gill. “You can come here to Hull for the culture and go to the resorts for the traditional seaside, and there’s all the countryside between.”
The 35-member partnership’s aim, as its name suggests, is to involve the line’s communities through talks, special events (Santa Specials are very popular), station improvements, a helpful website and, occasionally, more basic stuff, like explaining timetables. “We take timetables for granted, but there are people who can’t read them,” says Gill.
I’ve come to Hull on the connecting line from Sheffield and Doncaster, again immortalised by Larkin, in The Whitsun Weddings. There’s no escaping the man here; even his grave isn’t far from the station at Cottingham.
The approach to Hull never fails to thrill as the great broad river gradually spreads out on the right and the Humber Bridge soars elegantly ahead – a signal that you’re arriving in Furthest Yorkshire, in Ultima ’Umber.
Gill Simpson’s enthusiasm for the Hull-Scarborough line is echoed by one of its regular conductors, the affable Joe Tarafdar. “It’s a very nice run,” he says. “Full of scenic views, especially round Hutton Cranswick and Arram.” Arram? “In the middle of nowhere; we don’t always stop there. If the driver says ‘No Arram’, you know where you’re going. Or not going.”
So do the scenic views put passengers in a good mood? “On my trains, yes. We don’t do bad moods on my trains.”
Clearly not. I share part of the journey (which takes about 90 minutes: there’s no rush) with four men who must belong to some sort of Jolly Jack Appreciation Society – dedicated to mimicking the creepy “laughing sailor” dummies once echoing through amusement arcades.
“A bit chilly today,” says one of them, as they gear up for a day by the sea, and the other three roar with raucous laughter and slap their thighs and roll around on their seats fit to bust.
I distract myself with the partnership’s excellent Heritage Rail Trail (on its website). When the section of line between Hull and Bridlington officially opened in 1846, it says, a special train with three engines hauled 66 carriages. We’re making do with two today.
Soon Beverley Minster looms on the left, towering over the town and surrounding countryside. Shoppers get off, along with a pair of hikers who study the framed timetables: the partnership has devised a series of “railway rambles” from stations, many of which are built in attractive burnished brick.
We speed through Arram (No Arram!) and the line veers east at Driffield, its station bright with boxes of flowers. “Are your keys in your inside pocket?” one Jolly Jack asks another. Oh, what hilarity! Has there ever been such a joke? Inside pocket! Priceless! I move to the other carriage.
Under huge skies, the passing landscape is lovely. Not grand and wild, not Settle-Carlisle, but with long Woldsy views over low, broad fields and copses where David Hockney may be lurking, planning his next exhibition.
Distant pinnacles spear the sky – the Priory at Bridlington, where the train has a scheduled 12-minute station stop. Just time to sprint across the bridge for a cup of tea from the superb buffet, its walls covered with rail memorabilia.
Off again, past estates of holiday homes, to Bempton, whose station suggests a modest country house. A couple of birders get off for the pleasant walk to the bird-stacked cliffs.
And now the skies seem even bigger. The sun filters through the clouds and dapples the fields with light and the atmosphere is ever more lullingly relaxed and full of holiday promise.
And memories of holidays long gone as we pass the place near Filey where a tiny branch line once headed off to Butlins holiday camp, with its 240 rollicking acres of knobbly knees contests.
The camp closed in 1983 and the Redcoats hung up their blazers. There was a short-lived attempt to revive it a few years later as a “leisure complex” with an Opening Extravaganza Week featuring Bucks Fizz and a Miss Wet Tee-Shirt competition. Ernie Wise performed at the opening ceremony. Small as life and twice as cheerful, he launched a singalong of Bring Me Sunshine.
I’m jolted out of nostalgia on the approach to Scarborough by that moment of ultimate holiday happiness – the first distant glimpse of Oliver’s Mount over on the right. The seagulls shriek and, at the station, I have a good look at a tiled Edwardian North Eastern Railway map, its coastline suffused with very pretty blue.
A spider’s web of lines criss-crosses the East Riding. The line we’ve just travelled once also had stops at Lockington, Lowthorpe, Burton Agnes, Carnaby, Flamborough, Speeton and Cayton.
Those stations have closed, but so have whole lines. From Driffield to Malton via Wetwang, Sledmere, Fimber and Wharram. From Beverley to Market Weighton via Cherry Burton and Kiplingcotes. Hull to Hornsea via Swine, Skirlaugh and Sigglesthorpe, which sounds like a Dickensian firm of disagreeable solicitors.
I’m ready for a weekend here, at the very least, but I’ve got just 42 minutes before the train heads back to Hull and home. I hurry down to Valley Bridge to take in the view of the castle sprawling along its distant headland.
The sun is shining, and the Spa beckons on the right and the Harbour Bar on the left. But Hull is hollering for me to get back. I board the train just in time. With no Jolly Jacks for company, I’m asleep by Brid.
Yorkshire Coast Community Rail Partnership: www.yccrp.co.uk; Northern (0800 200 6060, northernrailway.co.uk) offers Yorkshire Coast Day Ranger tickets for £20.50 (£10.25 for children), including Arriva bus journeys between Scarborough, Robin Hood’s Bay & Whitby.