Last week I took the opportunity to drive north to Yorkshire and pay a flying visit to Scarborough to spend time with a friend. In my 13 years of living in the UK, I have never ventured beyond Lincolnshire, despite having spent 6mths in Yorkshire back in my travelling days. So this was a return to a former ‘stomping ground’ of sorts along with a chance to further explore somewhere I had only fleetingly visited some 15 years ago.
I drove into Scarborough on a mizzling Spring Bank Holiday Monday morning at the beginning of school half term. As I passed the city signs, the mist rolled about me. By the time I reached the North Bay seafront to meet at the typical Victorian terraced hotel with views, the views were gone! Suddenly I had one of those sensations that often come upon me when travelling. I was entering a stereotype. Don’t get me wrong. This is a feeling that I have long loved. It is not meant to be pejorative, it is merely the sudden sense that you are in a place where everything seems remarkably like the stories you have heard. (I have a distinct memory of a train journey across mid-western America at the age of 16, with me leaning on my window sill saying to my parents, “ Oh my goodness! It looks just like America!!!…there are wheat fields and red barns!”.)
Everyone has a picture of a northern British seaside resort, a little like a Victorian postcard; a vision of plump families on a grey, windswept beach which stretches forever with a promenade of fun parlours behind them and donkeys to their left. Perhaps there will be seagulls stealing chips from grizzling children; somewhere there’s a pub full of folk drinking real ale and watching the football to avoid the weather. There’ll be fish and chips, there’ll be grand old hotels on the cliffs, there’ll be ice cream vans and buckets and spades and the weather is bound to be less than sunny.
After all, Brits never expect the sun to shine on a Bank Holiday!
This was the Scarborough that confronted me last week on arrival. So, we lapped it up!! We walked along the front and dipped in and out of pubs, sampling the local ales. We wasted a happy hour in a Penny Arcade shoving copper coins into a machine in the hope of winning a cheap plastic toy. We walked on the sands listening to the foghorns on the headland and gazing out through the mist at the place where the retreating tide would apparently meet the sea. We rode the Victorian funicular train. We even took off our shoes and braved the water… well, an inch or so of it! Overfed families were plonked on wet sand, doing their best to build castles and bury Uncle Bob up to his neck. Sad donkeys carried miserable tots along the beach. We played darts and ate fish & chips and went and sat in the bar of our hotel with guests who’d been coming every year for 20. It was glorious!
This is what makes travel so wonderful – getting to a place and seeing it in all its stereotypical glory. I love it. It sharpens your sense of place’s identity. It helps you to see what makes a location unique and characterful. The best thing to do is to dive headfirst into that stereotype and celebrate it because that probably then means that you are having a truly local experience.
But the thing to do is see that a stereotype can be broken too.
The next day dawned sunny and bright. The headland topped with its castle loomed above the arc of a beautiful bay lapped by dark waves and framed by sweeping gulls. Good coffee in the sunshine. A tan already warming my skin and a smile across the faces of many.
Stereotype ?…. gone.