The last of all resorts

OAPs return to Bridlington year after year, but can it attract a new generation?
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The Independent Culture
Welcome to Bridlington, traditional British seaside resort: sea, sand, a promenade, donkey rides and a sea-front theatre where Ken Dodd entertains the sunburnt weekenders up from Sheffield and Leeds.

Bridlington is not the Venice of the Yorkshire coast nor the pearl of the North Sea. It is just plain old red-brick Bridlington, a little frayed at the edges, although the guide books call it "East Yorkshire's most fashionable seaside resort".

Fashionable or not, Bridlington, population 32,000 and mentioned in a 1086 Domesday survey, is reeling from a series of attacks on the very cornerstone of its identity. First to land a blow was the Which? guide: "The annual exodus to the nearest kiss-me-quick resort has largely gone the way of one-piece bathing suits for men, afternoon tea-dances, and knotted hankies," it declared.

Then, in what is seen locally as a vile act of calumny, David Andrews, boss of the Yorkshire tourist board, waded in with a broadside aimed at former miners who had come to the town to open guesthouses. Some were perhaps not as warm and welcoming as they might be, he suggested. The tourist board hastily backtracked, but not before Radio Four and even a Sheffield newspaper joined the mudslinging.

But why have they got it in for Bridlington? Is it really a town of dreadful guesthouses, a grumpy landlord or shrewish landlady lurking grim-faced behind every "vacancies" sign? Is the full English breakfast being served at 8.30am each day with a scowl?

Not at the 15-room Royal Hotel, that's for sure. You'd have to look hard here to find a dissatisfied guest among the cheery pensioners coming and going between their rooms, the bar and the TV lounge. The Royal is run by 60-year-old Jack Bath, Barnsley-born and a miner for 26 years, and his wife Jean. He is definitely not the kind of man Mr Andrews had in mind.

Behind the red brick and the Edwardian bay windows, the Royal is decorated in what might be called Guest House International Style. Maroon patterned carpets compete with swirling anaglypta and salmon pink buttoned plush headboards, all dancing in the glow of the heavily tasselled overhead lights; there are knick-knacks everywhere.

Among Mr Bath's guests last weekend were Alec and Irene Bradbury, 85 and 73 respectively, who were spending a week at the Royal (bed and breakfast pounds 25 a night). They had hit upon one crucial reason for the town's popularity with the elderly. "We used to go to Scarborough, but it is too hilly and we cannot cope. We like Bridlington because it is level and they have lots of loos," said Mrs Bradbury, who lives with Alec, a retired signwriter, in Leeds. "The shops are lovely, people are friendly, and we like the seating areas by the sea, the sea air.

"The woman in the place we stayed in Scarborough would not even open the ruddy bar for us, and it was included in the price," she added. "But we have been thrilled with this place, we have been spoilt rotten. It is beautifully decorated, and that makes a difference. We have had lovely food, no instant mash - we know, because we have seen him mashing the potatoes."

And that seems to be Jack Bath's secret. He and Jean, 56, put in 18 hours a day, from making breakfasts for the oldies - many of whom return year after year - to closing the bar at midnight, long after the day's trips to John Bull's World of Rock and Sewerby Hall have been discussed and the weary have retired to their marshmallow-soft beds.

"It is easier than being down the pit," reflected Mr Bath as he cleared away the breakfast things and thought about the shopping. "Bridlington is a very nice place. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying there is fantastic nightlife, but it is very good for old people and families, the beaches are raked every day and kept clean and the bay is a real sun-trap. The town has suffered from lack of investment, and we have our problems - there are skateboards and push-bikes down on the prom - but you can walk home at night along the beach and nobody will bother you."

His face darkened as he thought about the tourist board bosses lording it in their York fiefdom, and the newspapers sniping. "People should come and look before they open their mouths. The Sheffield paper called it a dull, grey town, they said why would people want to come here when they can go abroad?"

Indeed. Bridlington's core constituency, the elderly, will not be there for ever, and young people no longer come for two- and four-week breaks, preferring Ibiza or Majorca. Not that the local authority isn't trying. It has attracted some pounds 50 million to the town, creating a swish new prom with some fashionable features and a smart harbour. And the tourist board is full of schemes to target day-trippers and "young audiences", talking about market segmentation and forward-looking strategies.

But turn away from the beach and the families picking sand out of their butties and the town centre looks a bit, well, the worse for wear. Many shops have a rather dismal aspect - Boyes department store offering cotton bikini briefs at 20p a pair, reduced from 39p.

The boozers, too, are unlikely to feature in good pub guides - strip- lit caverns with plasticky fittings or raucous bars with bouncers outside. And the restaurants - if you don't like fish and chips, you're in trouble. Those that stay open beyond 5pm are largely fish and chip restaurants cum carveries, with gutted chicken carcasses displayed under hot lights in the window. In JC's Family Diner, soft rock plays while you sit sweatily before a red plastic tablecloth, desserts slowly rotating in a big chiller cabinet in the corner. But the cod and chips are tasty as anything, the fish fresh and a bargain at pounds 4.25. You wouldn't get that in your fancy London restaurants.

And Bridlington does have its cuisine scene: there is Rags, for instance, inside a large red-brick, corrugated-roofed structure on the harbour. Faux leaded windows, rough plaster and framed photos of rowers create a clubby atmosphere to accompany the chicken piri piri, marina pizza or tomato and mozarella salad. And there is also Pavarotti's Pizza and Cork's wine bar.

Not that the tourists care. The pavements surge with elderly holiday- makers, a great grey-haired tide of humanity washing in and out of the cafes: the Ocean Wave, Marina Cafe, the Ship's Wheel, and the Copper Kettle, which like nearly every other establishment in town offers an OAP special: fish, chips and peas for pounds 2.99.

But the young like Bridlington too - although some wish the tourists had not started going on package holidays. "I love it here, especially when the weather is nice: the best place in the country," said Kirk Jemison, 29, manager at Corrigans, an American-styled bar on the seafront. "A lot of people hate the place, they go to London for two months and come back, they say: `how can you live here? There's nothing to do.' It does my head in.

"There used to be gangs of girls and boys would come here and stay in caravans, but now it is as cheap for them to go to Ibiza. It is certainly not as lively as it used to be."

But they keep coming back. Every guesthouse owner has a stable of loyal visitors, returning like migrating birds to the same place each year. They return to Marshall Avenue, for instance, close to the bus station, a modest Victorian street where every third house is a Glencoe or Balmoral hotel. At one guesthouse I stayed at, the couple are friendly, welcoming and chatty. However, the sparsely-decorated bedroom - a sink in one corner, a mattress propped behind a battered wardrobe - brings memories of student flats flooding back. In the bath, a couple of hairs, and on the sink - a hair-clogged woman's razor. But it is just pounds 14 a night, so how could you complain? It would be churlish.

An increasingly desperate search for a decent cup of tea in pleasant surroundings yielded a real Bridlington gem. Topham's cafe, 50 years old, all baby-blue formica and mirrored walls - a living slice of la dolce vita right here on the Yorkshire coast. You could almost imagine Audrey Hepburn curled up in a corner of one of the booths, an espresso in a white- gloved hand. Almost...