Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 6: Scarborough

[Originally posted on]

I was crestfallen to find no parsley, no sage, no rosemary or thyme in this
seaside town, on the opposite side of England from Blackpool (in more ways than

However, I picked my crest up and soldiered on. This was just a day trip; I
know we didn't do York justice, or Scarborough, but I'm a ramblin' man. Actually
I think it was Nancy's idea to come here; I was plumping for Whitby, but it was
too far on the train.

Scarborough has a perfectly pleasant market street running down the center, as
do so many English cities. Is Scarborough a city? The word doesn't have any
official meaning in the United States, but here it does. Town, city, it doesn't
matter; they still have a High Street, with a Debenhams and a Bhs and a M & S
(who mysteriously seem to have dropped the arks and the pencer from their name),
instead of the huge gaping maw of Wal-Mart in 100,000 square feet out on the

I stopped in a quite good bookstore in the pedestrian center and loaded up my
day bag with heavy books. It's important to get this done early in the day, in
preparation for a long day trudging up and down cliffs. I was able to pick up
several interesting volumes of photographs of the coal mines of Yorkshire, which
will help with my wife's chronic insomnia.

We then headed towards the sea. The center of Scarborough is at the top of a
high cliff over the sea. The prospect at the top is stunning: the broad ocean,
the curving beach, the boats bobbing in the adorable inner harbor, the pretty
buildings along the promenade, the beautiful manicured gardens leading down the
face of the cliff, and the looming, preposterous hulk of the Grand Hotel,
perhaps the Victorian era's most impressive decorated cake, sitting at the top.

There's some sort of tram running down that the guidebook recommends, but we
walked down through the gardens, at each step getting closer to the seaside
action, which just got prettier as we went. What a chocolate box! Scarborough is
Great Britain's oldest seaside resort. 250 years ago, the gentry came here not
to swim in the water but to drink it. Supposed to be good for the digestion or
something. I've swallowed enough mouthfuls by accident in other oceans to know I
didn't want to here, but the beach was very tempting.

The tourist shops and restaurants along the front aren't necessarily better
quality than Blackpool's; it must be the people. We didn't see the trackies or
the "ten pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack" that you get on the other
coast. Don't get me wrong; I loved Blackpool. But Scarborough is just nicer.

We went straight to the chrome and formica glory that is Alonzi's Harbour Bar.
It was closed. They have an unfortunate newish sign that might have been
designed with a computer, but inside it's the original 1950s apotheosis of the
milk bar. We couldn't sit inside, but we were happy to discover that the
streetside window was open.

I had a vanilla cone. I'm not ashamed to admit it; I love vanilla ice cream. Someday if you are very unlucky you will get to hear my drunken rant on the way computer and telephony people (and sex radicals) use the word "vanilla" to mean "plain", "boring", "featureless". Vanilla isn't plain; it's a flavor, the best and most penetrating flavor (aside from chili peppers, which you probably don't want in your ice cream).

But I have to say this: your soft ice cream (as opposed to the hard stuff) in England is different. It's much less sweet. It tastes like, um, how can I put this without giving offense? It tastes like our whipped cream. A bit...buttery.
I'm sure there are lots of English people who have traveled in the US and had the reciprocal shock at our version. It's not bad; I grew to like it. It's just different.

We ate fish and chips (before the ice cream; we're not total philistines) upstairs at The Fish Pan. I can't verify whether it was fried in drippings in the traditional Yorkshire way, but it was delicious. And the view was spectacular. Apparently The Fish Pan is former Top of the Pops presenter Jimmy Savile's favorite --

Hang on. Jimmy Savile is a KNIGHT? Not just an OBE -- JIMMY SAVILE is a KNIGHT?

I will never fully understand the British.

Scarborough's harbor is so picturesque, and out in front is that British icon, the cluster of pensioners frowning in various attitudes in their nylon jackets on the concrete benches, reading the paper, going nowhere in particular. Don't think I'm making fun; I just like seeing them there, like pigeons, enjoying the last of the summer sun.

We walked around the headland to the North Bay. Scarborough is a funny kind of peninsula, carved out between two bays, with little besides a narrow road and a promenade between the castle ruins atop the knob in the middle and the sea. The views to the north are spectacular.

At North Bay we found a road leading up the cliffside, and walked up it past that other British icon, the pensioners sitting reading the paper in their car, parked on the side of the road by the sea. Brits sure like their newspapers; I might too, if mine featured the same pulchritudinous photography.

At the top of the hill, we walked a few of Scarborough's back streets, full of peeling Victorian terrace houses in various states of repair. Gentrification hasn't struck here yet, but there are enough building vans and ladders around to suggest that it's about to.

We passed by St. Mary's Church, site of Anne Brontë's grave. Anne, writing under the name "Acton Bell", was the prettiest but least-celebrated of the Brontë sisters. Not being a Romantic, I was not moved to slash at my wrists and perish under the light of the full moon; but if you were a Goth you couldn't find a better place for it, with the leaning tombstones and the sweeping view down to the harbor.

At Scarborough Castle we decided to spend the money and be tourists for a change. First stop, the gift shop, where I loaded up on toy catapults and cartoon Viking figurines for the cow-orkers back home. Just as I was settling in for a good two or three hour souvenir hunt, Nancy dragged me away and towards the ruins.

If you're considering a visit to Scarborough Castle, your best bet is to consult a guidebook, not me. I can say that they are very old, very ruined, and very beautifully situated up on the high bluff. The ancient stones and acres of green grass seem to disappear into the sea at the edge. The original castle keep is perhaps a bit too well preserved -- the spotlessly clean stones seem to have been stripped of their story, transferred to the readerboards. The wall is quite interesting, and the well is very, very deep -- I admit it, I dropped a coin, and heard it ruffle some vegetation a couple of seconds later, and plonk in water a couple of seconds after that. I hope that offense doesn't interfere with my visa next time I visit. We also enjoyed the tea shop.

While we were finishing our tea, the wind was rising and the sun was getting low. We had a train to catch. We hustled through the town, past the old deco theater and some rough-looking pubs, and made it, barely, and rode back to York.

[The first draft of this was better, dang it! Bizarrely, while it doesn't show up when viewing the thread, a brief portion of it does when you click "reply to this thread".]

Next: Liverpool

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