The Weasel: Barred from the bars in a fragrant town

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The Independent Culture
Perversely, since our month in North Yorkshire was drawing to an end Mrs W popped down to London for a couple of days last week. The Weasel chauffeur service was commanded to meet her returning train at Scarborough station at 9.38pm on Friday, so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of hours beforehand having a little sniff around the town.

Sniff is the mot juste. Earlier in the week, the resort's manifold attractions were temporarily augmented by an elderly and extremely whiffy whale corpse that had landed on one of its beaches. Sadly, this unusual tourist attraction had been binned by the time of my perambulation. Never mind. There were plenty more treats to enjoy.

In particular, Scarborough boasts four antique funiculars that whiz you down the steep slope to the beach and (more important) back up again. Though a sign in my lift pointed out that the journey took 40 seconds at 200ft per minute, it omitted the possibly more relevant fact that one of these contraptions crashed last year when a cable snapped. Fortunately, however, my journey went without mishap.

After a stroll around the harbour and a peer at a gigantic full moon (more red Leicester than blue Stilton) lying a few feet above the horizon, I made my way to the station. The 9.38pm pulled in, but no Mrs W emerged. Rats, I thought, she must have missed her train down at King's Cross. The next connecting service from York was not due to arrive until 10.52pm.

Having run the gamut of Scarborough's open-air amusements, I crossed to the glamorous Stephen Joseph Theatre (artistic director: Sir Alan Ayckbourn) for a drink in the large and comfortable bar. Over the years, I've deluged its productions with an almost embarrassing torrent of praise, but I found my way barred by a security guard who inexplicably failed to recognise the Weasel. "Sorry, sir, our licence doesn't allow you to come in just for a drink."

"Well, in that case, pip-pip!" I retorted, and, like Bertie Wooster, I meant it to sting.

Every pub I came across was pulsating with a deafening disco beat, so I decided to try a hotel bar. On my way, I was able to observe the nocturnal mating rituals of Scarborough's jeunesse doree.

Strictly divided by gender, they trudge the streets in large gangs. The females are identically equipped with long straight hair, inconceivably high heels and indescribably tiny dresses. The males appear to borrow both their dress style and behaviour from the Gallagher brothers. Whenever the two sexes happen to meet, they bellow incomprehensibly across the street at one another. It beats me how they ever manage to procreate.

By the time I reached the Royal, the resort's grandest hotel and formerly owned by the family of the great Charles Laughton, I was licking my lips. There should be no problem, I assured myself, in getting a drink in a joint where I've spent a small fortune over the years. "Sorry, sir, are you staying here?" demanded a pin-striped night porter. "The hotel bar is only open to residents."

In desperation, I staggered across to the Grand Hotel, a massive Victorian pile owned by the Butlin's Group. "Can I see your room key?" growled a pug-ugly at the door.

Round about 10.45pm, Mrs W rolled into the station - by taxi. Train late out of King's Cross. Missed connection at York. Irate passengers jammed into taxis by GNER staff.

"At least, it's lovely weather," breezed my spouse. "What's Scarborough's night-life like?" Words failed me.

In the course of our intermittent visits up north, we have become devoted readers of Yorkshire Life, a glossy monthly largely devoted to the social activities of local fat cats and their expensively groomed offspring. The current issue contains a sycophantic five-page article and a laudatory review ("WOWEE!") both devoted to Devonshire Fell, a newly refurbished hotel at Burnsall in rural West Yorkshire. We learn that the guiding spirit of the project was a paragon called Lady Hartington ("keen eye for colour... adventurous spirit in interior design... subtle sense of humour"), who happens to be the daughter-in-law of the Duchess of Devonshire. The name is no coincidence - Her Grace owns the joint. As a result of Lady H's radical restoration, Devonshire Fell has become "one of the few places outside London where you will find fish-tanks in the loo cisterns, glass urinals and grass growing on a bistro roof with model sheep grazing quietly into the night". Of course, it goes without saying that everyone, but everyone, in London has a shoal of finny denizens occupying the lavvy cistern (personally, I keep a few octopuses in there as well) and a fake flock on the roof.

But surely the major attraction for well-heeled Yorkies - at least, the chaps - will be those crystalline pissoirs. Yorkshire Life includes a photograph of this racy metropolitan innovation. The excitement of the spectacle evidently unsettled the syntax of whoever wrote the picture caption: "For him: There's glass urinals in the gents". Having spent the last five years in an unceasing search for new bathroom fittings, I instantly recognised the circular bowl moulded in translucent green glass. It is called the Arco Baleno and costs pounds 940 plus VAT. Perhaps I should add that, in London at least, it is normally used for washing one's hands.

The final excursion of our month in Yorkshire was to a gorgeous, rambling cottage in the village of Coxwold. Shandy Hall was the home of Laurence Sterne, author of the 18th-century comic classic Tristram Shandy. Yes, you know it, of course. But, come on, fess up, have you in fact read it?

One problem with this picaresque masterpiece is that it is too rambling and experimental to be adapted for the screen. How do you film a completely blank page? I therefore presumed that the only people nosing round Shandy Hall, a private home that opens its doors to the public for four hours a week, would be the Weasel family. Wrong. Because it was was participating in the National Gardens Scheme last Sunday, the place was packed.

An endless snake of visitors shuffled round the book-lined rooms. Enthusiastic guides pointed out diverse items of Sterniana. I liked a (successful) begging note from the author to David Garrick: "I found that I have set out with pounds 20 less than a prudent man ought." But things turned a bit sticky when our attention was directed to paintings depicting various scenes from the book. "Here's Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman," a jolly woman announced. "And that's Captain Shandy and Corporal Trim at the siege of Namur." We all smiled appreciatively, but it was noticeable that everyone kept mum.

"Years since I read it, of course," I twittered to one of the guardians of the house. "I must make some amends when I get home."

"Yes," she replied. "Lots of people say that."

I'm afraid my copy of the great literary meander has remained unopened. But Mrs W has been romping through A Sentimental Journey, Sterne's brief account of a visit to Paris. Gratifyingly, she announced: "He's like you." I blushed modestly as she read out a droll sample: "I had left London with so much precipitation, that it never entered my mind that we were at war with France."

"You really think there's a similarity?" I asked.

"Yes," Mrs W chortled. "He forgot his passport - just as you did last year."

Driving back to south-east London on a Bank Holiday is always a bit of a gamble. Last Monday, everything went hunky-dory until we approached Stansted on the M11. Then up popped a 50mph warning sign. Needless to say, it was ignored by the returning convoy. Same thing when a 30mph warning appeared. However, a ragged line of brake lights, glowing red all the way to a distant horizon, did the job OK. We slowed to a dawdle, a crawl, a limp; then petrifaction set in. The Weasel family passed the time in its usual way. We clucked and tutted. We consumed everything that was remotely edible. We played our version of I-Spy For Idiots.

"I spy with my little eye something beginning with C."

"Cars."

"Right. Your turn."

After an hour and a quarter, the traffic picked up as suddenly as it stopped. The blue sweep of a police beacon at the side of the road was the sole indication of any mishap.

Since the AA had warned that the M25 was likely to be packed, we sped onward to north-east London. At the termination of the M11, there came a surprise. On previous occasions, our journey towards the Blackwall Tunnel and Greenwich had involved a tedious grind through a series of suburbs: Wanstead, Leyton, Stratford. This time, however, we found ourselves on a silky-smooth dual carriageway. We zipped through a gleaming, hi-tech tunnel. The odd thing was that the Weaselmobile was the only car on the road. Not another thing for five miles.

I later rang the Highways Agency to find out about this strip of traffic- free hyper-space. It turned out to be the "A12 Hackney to M11 Link Road", costing pounds 220m. The latest section had opened only the previous day. No, the spokesman assured me, the pounds 220m had not been spent merely to ensure the Weasel family reached home in a trice: "Just try it during the week." It'll probably never happen again, but, just for once, we had come up with a winning number in the traffic tombola.

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