From a grassy vantage in Scarborough’s South Bay, I enjoy a grand view of the town and its splendid setting. White capped waves roll in from the North Sea, to an expansive beach below the old town hugging the slopes of Castle Hill – an imposing, headland capped by the ruins of a Medieval castle.
Scarborough is credited with inventing seaside tourism, firstly for the supposed health benefits of spa water, and later for the beaches and other “diversions”. Yet there are no visitors in sight today, which is hardly surprising as it’s winter, a season when Yorkshire folk say the winds can be so lazy they blow straight through you.
Even though this is my hometown, winter may seem a strange, even crazy time for a holiday on the coast of northeast England. But I’m beside an information board saying Scarborough was popular with the great 19th century artist J.M.W. Turner, who was renowned for portraying the “moods of Nature”, and I realise it’s scenes like this that drew him here. With no crowds of summer tourists, this is a fine time for appreciating the wilder side of Scarborough and its surroundings. To some in the south of England, “Yorkshire” may conjure scenes of grimy industrial towns, yet the county is blessed with a great outdoors that helped nurture a crop of cyclists, rowers and triathletes whose 2012 Olympic tally beat countries like Jamaica and South Africa.
Unlike Hong Kong [where this article was published], even on the coldest days there’s warmth indoors, especially in our base, the beachfront Sandcastles Apartments. Plus, with luck, we might wake up one morning to experience a winter wonderland.
First, though, the weather is typical of an English winter: just far enough above freezing that there’s not a snowflake in sight. Tame ducks and geese throng an ornamental lake, eagerly feasting on bread thrown their way. Nearby squirrels also love handouts; “So cute!” my wife exclaims as one sits on its haunches devouring seeds, bushy tail held high.
Scarborough the resort is quiet but not dormant. Seafront amusement arcades beckon with their slot machines and video games. The Harbour Bar sells its award-winning ice cream, which it’s quirky fun to eat on a frigid day.
There’s also hot fare, of course – like the perennial seaside favourite, fish n chips, from places including the Tunny Club. This bills itself as a “Historic fish bar”, and inside we learn that in the 1930s and 1940s the building hosted celebrities and millionaire businessmen who made Scarborough a hub for big game fishing, catching bluefin tuna weighing up to 521 pounds (236kg).
We find more reminders of history in Whitby, a coastal town to the north. A statue of Captain James Cook gazes out across the picturesque harbour where he learned to become a seaman, and which he left to lead three epic voyages of global exploration. Whitby also featured in fiction and legend: Count Dracula landed here, and climbed steps towards Whitby Abbey, where in the 7th century Saint Hilda successfully prayed for snakes to turn to stone.
“St Hilda’s Snakes” are actually ammonites, fossils of extinct marine creatures with spiral shells. They abound in rocks around Whitby. Nearby are sites renowned for dinosaur footprints; we search one day, but find only giant icicles like white spears, hanging from rocks formed in tropical swamps.
The North Yorkshire Moors
Inland of Whitby lie the North Yorkshire Moors, with rolling hills carpeted with grass and heather, solitary farmhouses, and villages tucked into deep valleys. A preserved steam railway winds through the main valley, and we visit one of the stations. No trains are running today, but we stroll to an engine shed, where an engineer lets us climb onto a steam train’s footplate – then lovingly explains how it works, and what various dials and levers are for. This railway line featured in a Harry Potter film, which introduced the character Hagrid on a station platform, with computer wizards adding Hogwarts Castle in the background.
Days later, we encounter the steam engine that pulled the Hogwarts Express, in York’s National Railway Museum. This wonderful museum features over 100 locomotives ranging from a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket to other legendary steam trains like Mallard and Flying Scotsman – which both pulled services passing through York, and the only Bullet Train on exhibit outside Japan.
Though York is a city, it has the feel of a large town. Tall buildings are scarce, while historic relics abound. We walk sections of the wall that largely encircles the city centre, most of which was built in the 12th to 14th centuries, and tour a museum where highlights include Roman artefacts. The greatest building here is York Minster, a gothic style cathedral with towers up to 60 metres high. Construction began in 1220, and it was declared completed in 1472 – that’s 241 years longer than it took to build the 484-metre ICC!
The weather patterns shift, and newspaper headlines warn of Arctic conditions. Freezing winds blow flurries of snow. I wake one dawn to find a transformed world: fresh snow covers the ground, whitens trees, blankets the beach above the tideline. The snow clouds have moved on, leaving clear blue skies, and a sparkling, scintillating morning.
Brilliantly coloured beach huts gleam amidst the white. The sun rises over Castle Hill. But this is no time for just admiring the views!
We’ve bought a plastic toboggan – my excuse being that it’s for my young son to try – and we’re soon sledging down nearby slopes, bouncing and bumping and laughing as we tumble off at speed. The countryside, too, has become a winter playground, where we crunch through snow on woodland paths, and hurtle down steep paths on a toboggan that soon cracks from collisions with mounds and molehills.
Burton Agnes Hall – and signs of spring
South of Scarborough, we visit Burton Agnes Hall, which recalls the manor house of television series Downton Abbey. It’s mid-February, and we’ve come partly to see the snowdrops that may carpet the woodland floor. Alongside a path through the grounds are snow-free patches with clumps of these tough, small plants, their white flowers only just ready to open.
Spring is arriving! Snow is thawing as we leave Scarborough, though it will be weeks yet before the summer crowds arrive, to throng areas where we’ve revelled in winter wildness.