Sunday 4 January 2015

Saltburn - a Victorian town rejuvenated

Saltburn is a small North Yorkshire town perched on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. Developed during Victorian times as a seaside resort, it still attracted visitors when I was a child in the 1960's and I have memories of being taken there to walk on the beach, eat ice cream and go for a ride on the miniature railway in the Valley Gardens at the bottom of the cliff. I also seem to remember biting cold winds coming off the sea, but perhaps this was in the winter.  

That was all a long time ago but I have more detailed memories of spending time in Saltburn during my late teens in the 1970's. Saltburn had a strong Methodist tradition which at least anecdotally was responsible for the dearth of pubs in the town. Locals either descended the cliff to the Ship Inn right beside the sea, or coped by drinking in the bars of the several hotels that still operated then. The two most popular were the Zetland which overlooked the sea on the cliff top and the Queens, just a few streets away in the main square. The Zetland was my favourite and the place I joined several other underage drinkers on a regular basis from the age of 16. The smooth running of the bars and the hotel was overseen by a large beaded character in a black frock coat who bore more than a passing resemblance to an ageing Orson Welles. So, of course he was referred to as Orson, not Welles, but cart. Work it out for yourself. 

An hour in the Zetland was a Friday and Saturday night pre-cursor to walking part way down the cliffside to Philmore, a nightclub also popular with underage drinkers. From 9 until 2 it was possible to dance to slightly out of date disco music, a smattering of surprisingly left-field tracks and from time to time see live acts that included the Real Thing, Billie Ocean and Jesse Green. Not bad for a tiny provincial town. There was also a coach service at closing time to take revellers home for a small fee. 

Philmore was not always a nightclub. Built in 1884 and designed by one Alfred Waterhouse of London it started life as the Assembly Rooms and I remember being taken there to see a pantomime - Aladdin - at the age of seven or eight. During the interval, three ladies sang operetta songs. The adults seemed to like it but the kids smirked  at the soprano style singing. In the 1990's the building was extensively damaged in a fire, rebuilt and is now a hotel.

After a gap of many years, I have recently been spending more time in the north-east of England and a Saturday morning visit to Saltburn has become part of my routine when in that part of the world. I have been very pleasantly surprised at what I have found. Whilst my own home town, Redcar, has lost many of its independent shops (in fact many of its shops) and cafes, Saltburn seems to be thriving with several cafes, restaurants and an interesting selection of independent traders - avoiding to a large extent the takeover of the charity shop/ pound shop that has swept across many neighbouring towns. The main attractions are clustered around the railway station which is fitting since the town's growth was stimulated by the arrival of the train in August 1861. 

The station itself is host to a couple of galleries, one of which The Saltburn Framing Company sells contemporary art work with a vintage twist - divers, classic cars, etc and of course frames pictures. The image at the top of this post is a reproduction of a piece purchased there. Until recently there was also an excellent independent health food shop which gave off spiced and medicated smells each time the door opened. There is also a farmer's market here on the second Saturday of every month where you can buy great breads, cheeses, meat, cakes, jams, pickles and a range of other home made food items. I enjoyed the piece of flour-less orange cake I bought from the Spanish food stall!

Around the corner on Milton Street, there are several good quality food stores, cafes and one of my favourites - Lloyd-Scott and Beatty Confectionary. Housed in a small shop with a restored Victorian facade, this den of delights is filled with the sweets of yesteryear - sherbet dabs, flying saucers, gobstoppers, old fashioned sweets sold from glass jars, chocolates in vintage packaging and much more. Its one of my regular stops when in Saltburn. Real Meals is my other Milton Street favourite. A family run business, Real Meals is not only a great cafe but also an excellent delicatessen with a surprising range of products. I often eat here on Saturday lunchtime. There are some great soups and  I also like the Greek pasta with sun dried tomatoes and cheese.  You can get Fentiman's drinks here - I can't resist the dandelion and burdock - something I haven't tasted since being a child. And on the subject of drinks, if you get the chance to visit try the Grumpy Mule coffee too - thanks to my nephew for introducing me to it! The cafe's website incudes some recipes if you want to try things out for yourself.

Back in the square, there is a great little independent book shop - the Book Corner. It may be small, but the stock is well chosen with an interesting balance of well-known authors, more edgy material, local interest publications and a good selection of children's titles. The shop offers an ordering service and also has occasional author appearances and book signings. Opening an independent book shop is always a brave move and the obvious success of the Book Store is one of the most encouraging things about a rejuvenating Saltburn.  

After browsing the bookstore, I usually cross the square to Windsor Road and make a pilgrimage to Chocolini's to sample the locally produced ice cream and to buy "continental" style chocolates made in the shop's small factory unit. This is a real treat and even if you don't eat chocolate, its fascinating to look at the different items which include chocolate shoes, dolphins and even dinosaurs!

For a small town Saltburn has some great shops and cafes, but the main attraction has always been the beach. To get there from the town, you can either walk down the very steep and very twisty Saltburn Bank or in the "season" you can take the famous lift. The first lift was built in 1870 and could carry 20 people down to the pier but this was condemned as unsafe in 1883 and replaced by a funicular or "inclined tramway" which seats 10-12 people and operates between March and October. There is a small fee to use the lift which is powered by a combination of water and gravity. The two cars have beautiful stained glass windows which were restored in 1979 having been removed in the 1950's.

Once at the bottom of the cliff, there is a clean open beach where its not unusual to see surfers on their way to the waves, people on horseback and dogs of all sizes being exercised. The pier is much loved and won the national Piers Society best pier award in 2009. It is well maintained but one of my favourite features is the beautiful mould growing on some of the wooden structure with its different patterns and shades.

Saltburn is a very different place from the town I have memories of and although the grand old hotels have gone, converted into luxury flats or care homes for the most part, it is a more lively, vibrant place than it has been for decades. Of course, it has the advantage of some of the most beautiful coastline in the north-east with those stunning views across the bay, but the combination of niche retail and quality eating places give it that bit of edge. You can read more about old Saltburn on this very detailed website.

A former Saltburn hotel, now flats.
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  1. Nice read and well done. This mix of community, business and support from authorities is what we need in Redcar too. Would be great to be inspired to recreate heritage and to find some imagination and funding to bring more to this area.

    1. Thanks Fred. I agree. I grew up in Redcar and have fond memories of the town. I agree with you regarding the need for imagination and funding and the use of heritage to bring the town back to some of its former glory. The high street is especially in need of drastic help - too many pound shops and charity shops. Best wishes.