‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Scarborough- More than Just the Beach and the Front. History, Culture and Punch and Judy!

Scarborough has a firm place in my heart as the town has made me welcome at various stages of my life. As the largest of the Yorkshire resorts it was one of the first places I remember visiting with my parents. My first memory is of going by train on a day visit and that must have been before we had our first car so I must have only been about three. We travelled in a train with compartments and a corridor that ran along one side, much like those in Agatha Christie novels and films. I remember the station in Scarborough town being quite a walk downhill to actually get to the tourist parts of the town, which meant a long slog back up the hill at the end of the day. All further visits were by car and with luck we managed to park on the front or at least a short stroll from the front.

North Sea – Always good for a paddle, but oh, so cold!

Scarborough has a long history and it consists of two bays. One of the bays is quite posh and has a more genteel range of activities, whereas the other is full of arcades, clubs, ice-cream sellers and funfairs and other attractions. The oldest part of the town is around the harbour and looking down on it are the ruins of the castle. The castle was originally from the 11th Century, but the site’s history goes back to the Iron Age and there are Roman and the Viking remains. The castle is built high on the promontory and had strategic and defensive value, however it was taken by siege several times during the English Civil War. I remember visiting with my parents on holidays and have taken my eldest son when visiting.

The town relied upon fishing until the development of tourism, which is still its most important source of employment. Acidic water running off the cliffs, south of the town in the late 1600s, led to the development of the spa and a book by Dr R. Wittie started the attraction of visitors in search of the medicinal properties of the water. Mid 19th Century saw the arrival of the railway and tourism took off from this point and there was a development of hotels and facilities to meet the needs of day trippers and holiday makers.

Of course, all of this was already established when I first visited in the late 1950s. Scarborough offered what the smaller resorts didn’t and that was activities other than just the beach front and things to do when the weather was inclement. Some of my first memories are of Peasholm Park. The park is 14 hectares in size and has an oriental theme with a pagoda. I have two quite distinct memories of the park. The first was going on the illuminated walk on the island at night. Entrance, I seem to remember, was over a small bridge with a winding walk through illuminated Disney characters, and I loved it. The second was the sea battle that took place on the lake, and apparently still does. Model boats re-enacted the Battle of the River Plate. The boats and battle go back further and were originally, pre 1929, all man-powered and  because of this it was known as the smallest navy in the world. There was a German U-boat as part of the battle. After the Second World War it became the Battle of the River Plate. More recently radio control has meant less human power was required but, some vessels are man-powered still. When I was a child it was fantastic. The ships were quite entrancing and the cannons fired and smoke billowed out and there was the smell of the gunpowder, or whatever they used. I also remember a commentary that explained what was going on. My father was always keen to watch. He had been in the submarine, HMS Scotsman, during the war and so I suppose it had particular relevance. There used to be large crowds and I hope it is still thriving.

Scarborough bay and castle on the hill.

The other major place we visited, and was probably the best visit, was The Mere. The natural lake was much bigger originally, but due to the construction of the railway and other factors it is now 16 hectares, less than half the original size. The Mere is part of the Oliver’s Mount Country Park. The Mere has a large cafe, but that wasn’t what attracted me. The Mere was also home to the Hispaniola Pirate Ship. The Hispaniola took groups of children and parents out onto the lake and to an island. We were told that treasure was to be found if we searched hard enough. We had to forage in the sand, looking for golden coins. True to the word of the pirates that manned the galleon, there were coins. When I was a child there were not many and my brothers and I never found any, but years later when I took my first son, he found one, but I suspect it was deemed good business to hide more to attract visitors back. I believe that the Mere has suffered some neglect and the Hispaniola no longer sets sail. If so, that is a shame as it was a wonderful experience for an imaginative child and I am sure there are many who look back to sailing on her with fond affection. I also remember seeing my first water skiing on the Mere. There was some event we came across one evening and I was enthralled by the speed and the skill of the skiers. There was a ramp and I was amazed as a young girl whizzed across the water, leapt off the ramp and did a loop and landed. At the end of her run, she headed towards the shore, released the rope handle and sailed across the water to the sandy shore and stepped onto the bank with amazing grace.  I don’t think she could have been more than eighteen, but she certainly impressed me.

Alun on the Hispaniola 1984
The Open-Air theatre.

Of course Scarborough was a seaside resort and there was always the lure of the sand and the water. One thing that I remember well was the Punch and Judy shows. I have no knowledge whether they still exist, but I suspect the story of Mr Punch killing his wife and baby, feeding them through the meat mincer and turning them into sausages, to be caught by the policeman, hanged only to return as a ghost, wouldn’t meet current standards. The politically correct would see all sorts of dangers in feeding such experiences to young, impressionable minds, but I and, thousands of children, loved them. The red and white miniature theatres would attract a host of seated children and parents standing at the back. The strange Kazoo-type voice of the puppet master would tell the tale from Mr Punch, whilst he narrated the story.

As an aside, we also used to watch countless scalpings during the Cowboy films and I don’t ever remember any news of children growing up and scalping anyone, despite our re-enacting scalping as we played cowboys and Indians. Maybe children are less susceptible than they are given credit for and they can separate fantasy from reality.

Another familiar activity that is still current in practice is the donkey rides. Donkey rides make up my only experience of riding, apart from a camel ride here in Australia, and everywhere on the coast a group of twenty or so donkeys would wait patiently whilst young children would be lifted onto the saddles, and then were led, often by children, on a short walk along the beach and back. There would be a supervising adult who would collect the money and keep an eye out that everything was as it should be. The beasts were a motley set, a bit bedraggled and shaggy, but seemingly happy to stand on the sand, eat from nose bags. They certainly didn’t look distressed and I was told some were rescue donkeys, but I don’t know. What I do know is that nowadays there aren’t many other reasons to have donkeys in the UK. Some would be kept as pets, but not many. I believe they are long lived and I know of the donkey sanctuary, Hope Pastures, on the Ring Road in Leeds. It has been in existence for as long as I can remember.

Scarborough boasts an open-air theatre. It was built in Northstead Manor Gardens in 1932, closed in 1986, but reopened in 2010. I remember going to watch some show, but I can’t remember what, but they did a lot of musical shows. The theatre has a stage with a rectangular lake in front and then seating on a steep natural amphitheatre. The theatre was only open for the season, three months during summer.

One other attraction at Scarborough that we went to, I only remember going once, was the open air swimming pool. I believe it is now derelict. We were staying in a hotel nearby and we went on a lovely sunny, warm day and yet I can still remember the iciness of the water. My older brother and I had two little wooden yachts with cloth sales and strings that you could adjust to trim the sails. We had a great time, but later in our visit I was taken by my dad into the pool proper and this must have been before my Harehills County Primary swimming session incident. There were steps down into the water and only being young, maybe four or just five, I was not very tall. The chill was bad enough and I lowered myself to the waist whilst my dad stood in the water making sure I was alright. The impact of the cold hitting my midriff was horrendous. I was shocked and nothing in the world was getting me deeper in, or at least that’s what I thought. My father had other plans and he was not one to suffer weak, wimpish behaviour. He grabbed hold of me and, despite my limpet-like clinging to the hand rail, he prised me off and in I went. I screamed and cried, but it was like water off a duck’s back to my dad, but unfortunately I wasn’t a duck and in I went. The agony did subside as my body adjusted to the temperature, but I was not happy. I didn’t stay in more than a minute or two and my mother at least sympathised with me, when I ran back and my dad and older brother returned. Andrew thought it was quite funny, but my dad wasn’t laughing when my mother explained the error of his ways. I will say something about my mum, she was very defensive of her boys if anyone challenged us or our behaviour, but she could direct her ire to us if she thought we were at fault, when she got us alone. I would never dream of telling her if I got into trouble at school as she would always have supported the teachers and we would have got punished worse by her.

The Open-Air swimming pool.

We had some great times at Scarborough and I will return in the future with some of those tales. I, and some of my friends, had adventures when we were teenagers and we visited, and I will recount some of those, or at least the ones that are suitable.

Scarborough has something for everyone. It has a long and interesting history. It was shelled during the Second World War, Anne Bronte is buried there, and it has starred in TV programmes. It has been home to Alan Ayckbourne’s theatre company, where almost all of his seventy plays had their premieres, before making their way to the West End and national and international theatres. Its 61000 inhabitants produce a vibrant town where they are invaded by large numbers of tourists during the summer months.

A more recent song and video shot using a drone at a disused powerstation south of Perth, WA.

10 Replies to “‘Cup of Tea Tales’ – Scarborough- More than Just the Beach and the Front. History, Culture and Punch and Judy!”

  1. I think you meant genteel rather than gentile, David, but otherwise spot on. A very enjoyable read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Scarborough was never the place for us. I seem to remember going once as a child and it would have been about 1960/61 and we were not allowed on the beach because of the Mods and Rockers fighting. So it was usually Brid or Blackpool

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another great tale David. We retired to Scarborough, from Roundhay, via a few other Yorkshire locations just over seven years ago and can confirm that the Peasholm naval battles are as popular as ever, now with added air bombardment. Although, Covid has prevented any shows this year. Just one minor correction, the Alpamare water park is located just north of Northstead manor gardens, the open air pool is now a bleak blank canvas where a development of apartments, restaurants & multiplex cinema was due to be built some three or four years ago. Looks like this has gone the way of many a development due for Scarborough so I will not be holding my breath!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Tony. I am glad you enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure where the open air pool was and tried to track it down. I will make the edit. Keep safe and I hope things get back to normal fairly soon.


  4. We had happy holidays in Scarborough. It was always my mother’s favourite seaside town. In her later years she was happy sitting in a bench by the beach and watching the world go by.
    Thank you for again bringing back forgotten memories .

    Liked by 1 person

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