Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Beside the seaside

Yorkshire. Day two. Or to be pedantic, day two and a half. And having breakfasted, we set off from the hotel with a firm plan of action.

This time, we boarded a train to York and beyond, skirting the North York Moors and finally pulling to a halt in Scarborough.

‘Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside …’

For all the sun – and it was a lovely day – there was a blustery wind coming off the North Sea. I had my leather jacket with me for the trip as a whole, but it was rolled in a bag for this trip. This was neither the time nor place to be swanning around in leather.

But a t-shirt with very short sleeves was taking things too far the other way and my arms were covered in goosebumps by the time we were halfway down the town’s main Clone Town shopping street.

An Edinburgh Wool Mill offered rapid relief in the form of a sea green sweatshirt – and then it was off again, cutting away from the crowds down a side street of far greater charm.

This brought us out near the top of the cliffs, near the Grand Hotel, with a funicular railway and the absolutely delightful Parlour Tearooms next door.

We took seats outside and ordered tea and cakes: in my case, a slab of tea loaf, moist with plump fruit and slicked with a generous portion of butter. Who says Yorkshire folk are stingy? We could gaze at the sea or over toward the remains of the vast castle that top the hill on the opposite side of the bay. Perfect.

The café itself harks back to years long gone, with a touch of humour in a painted window sign that proclaims “dogs and sprogs welcome”.

Wending down to the seafront, you hit a different world. All the gaudy sights and sounds of the seaside; amusement arcades, shops selling loads of kitsch (to which I am addicted) and, in Scarborough’s case, countless eateries offering fish and chips.

There was even a shop offering huge sticks of fudge – some with very peculiar flavourings. Not least amongst these was a Marmite fudge – and no, I didn't try some!

It’s rather tragic that, although Scarborough is still a working harbour, not one of those restaurants or cafes serves fish that has come inland there. There’s not enough stock in this part of the North Sea; the big catch for local fishermen is lobster, with something like 20,000 pots in the area.

Not that wandering around the small harbour itself wasn’t fascinating, particularly as it was a day when the camera barely shifted from around my neck, allowing me the chance, on one occasion, to rip off a shot of a gull as it flew out of a skip.

Looking inside after the bird had gone, there were masses of left-overs from fish that had rapidly been filleted. And the thought that struck home was the amount of waste – well, obviously not as far as the gull was concerned.

We ate at a café on the harbour itself. Run by a couple, we were warned that our lunch would take 10 minutes, as it would be cooked for us. That is absolutely fine by me.

And it was the best fish and chips I’ve had in many a year, since an afternoon a long time ago in Hull, although the cook explained that he gets his fish from the Faroe Islands – unfrozen. Wherever it came from, it tasted very good.

The batter was a dream: wafer thin and covered in a filigree of light crispiness that made me remember exactly why, as children, we rated scraps – the bits of batter left in the fryer, which could be bought by the bag for a penny – as such a treat.

The chips were not piled high, but they were hand cut and properly cooked. The mushy peas were fine and there were even slabs of bread on the side. Forget the slice of lemon that came with it – a modern affectation – all you needed was salt and perhaps the barest hint of malt vinegar on your chips.

It was a meal to relish.

Ambling further, I took the chance to photograph more gulls, who stayed put in their determination not to risk losing a spot near where a boat was expected to dock or where leftovers materialise from the sheds.

With time on our hands, we made a rapid decision to join a boat going for a trip out to sea, and found ourselves in the middle of another bit of history.

The Regal Lady was built in 1930 by Fellows & Company of Great Yarmouth for the Yarmouth & Gorleston Steamboat Company.

Originally called the Oulton Belle, she was a double-ended steamer that became one of the ‘Little Ships’ at the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, before being requisitioned by the Navy until 1946.

In 1954, she was brought to Scarborough and given her current name.

We sat out at the front as the boat chugged gently past the little lighthouse before hitting the first real swell.

A few minutes later, fellow passengers had fled inside as waves splashed over the prow. “Shall we go in?” asked The Other Half. On the basis that my hands were by that time attached very tightly to the boat itself and my stomach was debating whether having eaten beforehand was a wise move, I had no inclination to risk shifting my body, and besides, as I told him, I’d wanted something that would blow the cobwebs away.

Eventually, with the cobwebs fully departed, I edged inside, managing to crash an elbow into the thick plastic window of one of the doors. Fortunately, nobody noticed the rather large cracks.

Inside was quite surreal, like stepping into a 1970s pub, with customers perched on small upholstered barrels and shipping maps turned into tables, listening to ’60s pop hits and supping pints.

There was something rather Alan Plater about it: indeed, it could almost have been straight out of his wonderful Beiderbecke series.

We didn’t imbibe. And my stomach coped. Which couldn’t be said for everyone. A man nearby had a face that was bleached of colour even before his wife attempted to put his coat around his shoulders comfortingly.

Then he stood, lurched forward a little, put his hand to his mouth and vomited all over the place.

This was not apparently an unusual situation. One of the crew pottered nonchalantly out with a bucket and mop. The wife took the same coat into the tiny toilet, and was still attempting to scrub it clean when we docked again.

We ambled some more, wending our way up the steep streets until we were back in Clone Town and near the station once again. And then it was back to Leeds aboard a ridiculously small Pennine Express train, with a couple of outbreaks of bad temper as people discovered that, for whatever reason, seat reservations had not been prepared in the carriages.

Things happen – technical problems, shortage of staff etc – but the company really should announce to passengers that there’s been a problem, thus helping to avoid fractious outbursts as people accuse others of sitting in ‘their’ seat.

Being near the sea can never be a bad thing for me. And the day had moments of utter bliss – not least that tea loaf, the fish and chips and the gulls, from their skirling cries to their reluctance to flee the moment I pointed the camera at them.

By the time we were back in Leeds, the only thing to consider was dinner – and for that, we headed to the nearby Brasserie Blanc.

Given a big lunch – every last crumb of which had been enjoyed – the general feeling was that this meal would involve no starter. But that was a flawed plan, since it ignored the many enticements of the menu.

In the end, I opted for an asparagus risotto (lovely textures and tastes, with the asparagus itself served in three different ways: as a sauce, stalks slivered into the risotto itself and a couple of spears topping the dish), followed by a second ‘starter’ – superb Cornish smoked mackerel with cucumber and horseradish: perfectly-sized portions just bursting with taste.

And to finish, a dish of rhubarb and custard, topped with smashed cinder toffee – a delicacy that I’d forgotten about until we’d spotted some in York and then bought two bags in Scarborough in a fit of delighted nostalgia.

There’s a recipe in the Yorkshire Relish book I’d found in York that involves cinder toffee – indeed, it even gives instructions for how to make it.

Regional food is a thing to cherish.

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