Scarborough: postcards from the edge: Once golden sands and donkey rides were the big attraction. Now visitors come to watch the town's only four-star hotel fall into the sea. Sandra Barwick reports

A PINK washbasin with a mirror above reflected back blue sky. A white net curtain stirred above a void. 'Nice curtains]' said a woman, watching avidly. 'I could do with some of them]'

Below the curtain, splintered wood and brick spilled down towards the sea: the wreck of the Holbeck Hall Hotel. All week small knots of the town's locals and visitors watched on the cliffs at either side of the new ravine. It is a sight worth seeing: change and decay in motion, the wheel of Time speeded up, a little bit of Apocalypse-on-Sea. 'I did a lot of the joinery work on that,' said Malcolm Sharp. 'I know it as well as my own house. And now all that work is halfway down a cliff.'

The knots of visitors gazed, and saw boards swinging over space, bricks falling. They opened their newspapers all week and saw that Scarborough is in possession not only of a new tourist attraction but a national metaphor for decline. Great cracks widened across the facade of the Conservative government. The sea crept towards the spreading bulk of red mud that had once been Holbeck Hall's rose gardens.

Andy Stott, unemployed mechanical engineer and a Scarborough resident for 26 of his 30 years, stood on the rocks beside the spill, clutching his Canon camera. 'It just sums up Scarborough, doesn't it?' he said. 'See,' his arm swept towards the bay, 'the South Bay pool. The open air theatre. Those cliff paths' - he gestured upwards - 'had been cracking up for years. Falling apart, Scarborough is.'

He seemed cheered up, if anything.

This week, in the sun, Scarborough looked like an Impressionist painting, Edwardian and Victorian splendour set off by gold, uncrowded sands, with the old harbour and the rocks of the castle rising above. With its Georgian backstreets and seaside architecture it is a heritage resort: a York by the sea. With imagination and enterprise, and good marketing, it could become part of the Oxford-York-Edinburgh American tourist trail. The vision that Barry and Joan Turner, Holbeck Hall's owners, had was of prestige custom.

'It's extremely elegant. And it is set in the most beautiful land of the North Yorkshire National Park,' said Mrs Turner. She and her husband came to Scarborough for their honeymoon, and bought a bungalow at Filey for long weekends. 'We didn't want to go home. So we bought a self-catering business in 1968.'

They are now the premier hotel-owning family in Scarborough. Their properties include the Clifton in the North Bay, and the Wrea Head, a splendid Victorian building with something of the same rich, restful atmosphere as Holbeck Hall used to have, a few miles north of the town. But the pride of their group is gone: Holbeck Hall, the only four-star hotel in town. 'Our hearts were in it,' said Mrs Turner. 'I knew everything in it. Even the curtains you can see swinging from the gable: I chose them. I've lost my dream.'

Like Mrs Turner's dream, the the cliffs of Scarborough are crumbling. They have been for several hundred years, rock by rock, small slip by small slip, like hundreds of miles of coast around Britain. The South Bay pool, once a beautiful curve of blue, is now fenced off with Danger signs, the brickwork of its changing rooms in places green with damp. Its construction began in 1914, to protect another section of subsiding cliff face from being eaten away by Scarborough's harsh winter seas.

It is unclear what had made Holbeck Hall - built in 1883 by George Alderson-Smith, a steam trawler owner - go with such dramatic speed, complete with the 300ft grounds between it and the cliff edge. The present guess of council engineers is that the wet spring, after a series of dry, fissure-creating summers, saturated the ground with water until it slid out from under the hotel.

'Perfectly natural process,' said Andrew Blackler, a geomorphologist from Reading University, as he stood on the beach in shorts and T- shirt, snapping at the slide to illustrate a tutorial he was due to give. 'The loading pressure of the house and the swimming pool wouldn't help. And look at the way the water has been pouring from those drains in the sea wall over there.'

Andy Stott nodded. A path ran down from the garden, he said. It was always wet.

Down on the sea front, near the harbour, was Scarborough's newest attraction, the Millennium, a recreation of history, complete with tableaux and actors. A visitor had written in the comments book the ultimate compliment: 'Better viewing than the landslide.'

Within, Scarborough's 18th-century spa had been reproduced. A young woman leant on the side of it, dressed in blue and white baggy drawers. 'I'm a bathing belle,' said Stella Millishamp politely. 'I'm usually a Viking.'

The landslip, she said, was not without precedent. In 1737, an acre of pasture land and several cows suddenly fell off the cliffs, completely burying the spa spring. Did anyone then blame Sir Robert Walpole?

Outside the cheerfully brash lines of seafront shops and cafes, ladies of respectable age with careful perms under straw hats sat in flowered dresses. A man passed with a handkerchief knotted on his head. On the radio, John Smith was blaming John Major for the tongue of mud and sand lying in sight across the bay. The man with the non-Midas touch is in charge. No wonder we live in a country where the Grand National does not start and hotels fall into the sea.

The Conservative tabloids were comparing the Prime Minister to a donkey. Eight of his scarlet-coated peers stood on the sands, waiting for children at 40p a ride. Maureen Smith stood with them: her family, she said, had been taking children for donkey rides in this spot for 150 years. For most of those years Holbeck Hall had been part of the backdrop.

'It was a place I always knew,' she said. 'I was there just before Christmas for a dinner: it was part of Scarborough, Christmas at Holbeck Hall. I can't believe it,' and she looked across to the dark stain on the cliffs. A fortnight past she had had a day with only three customers, she said. The weather had been bad for the month before, full of rain. 'But on a day like this Scarborough is the most beautiful place in the world.'

And from the Holbeck Hall it had looked it. The hotel had the best view in town, of the whole bay, sprinkled with lights at night.

Abigail Hegan, two years old, set off on the back of Beauty the donkey along the uncrowded sands, her small face twisting with excitement. Her 10-year-old sister, Sarah, and their parents, Karen and Dominic Hegan, stood watching. From Northampton, they are the kind of family Scarborough used to attract in their thousands up to the early Sixties. Now, of course, they spend their holidays abroad.

'We tend to go to France,' said Karen. 'There's the weather, one. And then, two, you go self-catering. That's easier with a family. In a guest house you're always on edge, hoping the children won't touch this and that.'

They were only in Scarborough because they had friends close by: they wouldn't have thought of booking a holiday there, they said, fearing a resort composed of narrow beaches filled with people eating chip butties. Having seen the town for the first time they were pleasantly surprised. 'It's marvellous when you look at it - the weather and the scenery,' said Karen. 'It's quite unspoilt, and the beaches aren't busy. It's like going back in time.'

They might, they said, come back to Yorkshire. But if they did, they would probably take a cottage in peaceful countryside nearby and only make some trips into the resort. It is not just cheap holidays abroad that have crumbled away Scarborough's traditional customers. The car has transformed the late 20th-century pattern of holiday-making at home.

Irene Phillips, president of Scarborough's Hotels Association, thinks the town has been less badly affected than some of its southern rivals. 'Last year we were only about 10 per cent down in earnings from what we expected,' she said. And that counts as a good result? 'Oh, yes.'

Up above the beach the Grand Hotel still stands, a great confection of brick and cast iron and domes: one of the largest hotels in Europe when it was built in the 1860s, with 250 bedrooms to meet the demand the railway had created. 'Any movement today?' said one old man to another on the hotel's steps, as a stream of pensioners on a cheap-rate package emerged. 'No, likely it's stopped,' he said, and turned into a hallway, once proud with palms and plush, that was now holding slot machines.

The grandeur has fled from the Grand: these days it is owned by Butlin's, and rooms can be had from pounds 20 a night. Like the rest of Scarborough, its fabric is antique, in need of constant, expensive repair to keep out wind and water. In the end the locals were glad that someone was prepared to take the large old lady on, and keep her busy throughout the year. With the demise of Holbeck Hall Scarborough has moved one more involuntary step away from attracting the top spending trade.

Senior citizens have taken up the places in many of Scarborough's hotels and guest houses. The tourist office advertises bargain breaks for pensioners through the year - including during the main summer school holiday weeks. It offers reduced admission to putting greens and band concerts in Peasholm Park, and to morning concerts in the Spa Suncourt, a Victorian fantasy, all glass and gay deckchairs. On Marine Parade the beautiful green and white Parlour Tearooms offer Yorkshire pudding with beef and onion gravy for pounds 2.80, the taste of times past to go with memories of half a century and more happy years spent on Scarborough's beaches.

But are the customers who should be Scarborough's future being wooed and won now? By the Corner Cafe on the quiet North Bay a group of local boys were chatting with surf boards on their shoulders. What was there for them to do, I asked. 'Surfing,' said Peter Wood, 13.

And what if it rained? 'Arcades. Nothing,' he said.

'They do too much for the elderly - bowling greens and stuff like that. Not for youngsters,' said Chris Hopkins, 16.

Scarborough does, of course, boast an indoor pool, a sea-life centre, museums, shops. But that still leaves yawning gaps for those weeks when the weather is bad and children are chafing for amusement. There was once an underground Gala Land, but it was long since turned into a car park. Laurie Palliser, taxi driver, lamented its passing. 'They pulled the Floral Hall down, too,' he said. 'There was ivy on the roof. People got upset at the earwigs dropping down on them.'

Back by Holbeck Hall, knots of people still stood watching Scarborough's latest attraction. The souvenir hunters had begun to try to break into the grounds in darkness. 'Someone was in here on crutches the other night,' said a guard. 'They'll be breaking in in their wheelchairs when the word gets around.' Holbeck Hall's demise has become part of Scarborough's legend. There are snaps in every family album: the special edition of the Scarborough Evening News has been carefully wrapped up and kept.

'Every night I go and have a little look,' said Joan Turner. 'I wish it would go. It's like an old lady trying to cling on.'

Andrew Blackler packed up his camera. The best thing, he said, was not to try to stem erosion, but to let change happen, little by little. Tom Cape, a fourth generation Scarborough man, watched the ruin from the other side. His great-grandfather had a job on the Victorian railways when they made the resort great; now Tom works on what it is hoped will attract visitors again: the heritage industry, Scarborough's crumbling charm.

'Aye,' he said, philosophically. He looked at his hands, scarred by contact with industrial detergents. 'I used to have nice hands. It's age, isn't it - like that ruin there. It all comes from Mother Nature, and it all goes back to nature in the end.'

Tom works on maintenance at the Millennium now, where they are planning a new display: the fall of the Holbeck Hall Hotel.

(Photographs omitted)

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