THE GUIDEBOOKS tell you that Scarborough's heyday fell somewhere between the Regency hob-nobbing that made it a Brighton with dropped aitches, and the fin de siecle arty prissiness of Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell and their set, playing all-night strip baccarat in their grand town-centre mansion, Wood End.

That is nonsense. Scarborough never really began to live until the summer of 1964, when the Beatles played the Futurist Theatre and no one in the audience, least of all me, heard anything but the screaming.

For 10 years after, the town was the British rock world's private resort. Paul McCartney gave a concert with Wings here. On the seafront John Lennon, always happy to indulge an autograph hunter, obliged a schoolgirl, who grew up to be the wine- bar waitress serving us recently on a chilly Saturday. 'Always my luck,' she moaned. 'I was really into Slade at the time.'

On the tiny stage of the seminal Penthouse club, a little upstairs room almost opposite the genteel town hall, Bowie, Clapton and a string of assorted other nascent megastars performed in various stages of chemical and sartorial distress.

In the process room of the Scarborough Evening News and Mercury, an apprentice engraver named Alan Palmer suddenly announced he was giving up his job to become a full-time singer. Alf, the supervisor, is reported to have told one and all, 'Beat music? Silly bugger. He's chucked away a good career, even with all that hair on top.'

Alan duly changed his first name to Robert, went solo after a couple of years, and you can still hear that Yorkshire twang if you can slow down the Armani suit between Switzerland and the Bahamas.

The list of Scarborough's rock credentials could go on for ever. Let me cite one more example. Little Richard for years refused to allow anyone to write his authorised biography. He conceded defeat only when confronted by two men who showed they knew more about him and his music than he did himself: a rock-obsessed Scarborough chiropodist, Chas White, and Barry Hampshire, a sax player who runs one of the town's little hotels when not gigging his R&B Amp's Tramps outfit around Yorkshire and putting the finishing touches to the screenplay that has come out of the Richard biography.

Scarborough is a place of bizarre multiple personalities. In the fashionable coffee shops, North Riding grandes dames hold forth about Alan Ayckbourn's latest local theatre premiere. The garish seafront that wrecks one of the two broad bays is home to a style of working-class seaside tourism - bingo, donkeys and beer - that belongs to another era.

In the bar of the Stage Door, the nearest you can get to the old Penthouse (closed since 1979), a time-warped, studiously scruffy clientele sits listening to sounds that have been hanging in the air here for more than 20 years. The town drips with music.

At a handful of selected nightspots, you can hear anything from Jelly Roll Morton Sextet arrangements to some rather professional, ambitious rock - live, and often for pennies. Scarborough grows old, but it finds it hard to grow up.

Happily, for those needing to shake off the effects of the previous night, the place is spanned by walks of an astonishing variety across a hotchpotch of natural splendour, Regency and Victorian elegance, and 20th- century tat. You can track along the shore-line for miles, hack through narrow old-town lanes that still follow a medieval pattern, or explore cliffside gardens for hours.

The town sprawls across two wide and handsome bays, divided by the headland, with its ruined castle, which serves as the Scarborough trademark. From the south, the centre is overlooked by the hill of Oliver's Mount - scene of an annual motorbike race meeting beloved of greasers everywhere - whose name comes from the old wives' tale that Cromwell shelled the stoutly Royalist castle from the hill. In fact, he did so from much closer quarters in the old town, above the harbour.

The South Bay is the site of medieval Scarborough, and today the most developed part of town. On the once-grand esplanade of South Cliff, hefty Victorian terraces stand guard, some as hotels, posh and not so posh, others as bed-and-breakfasts or private homes. On the shore-line is the Spa Royal Hall, once home to Max Jaffa and interminable party and TUC conferences, now a fairly spruce entertainment centre.

The cliff bridge, opened in 1827, crosses the ravine that runs into South Bay. From the ravine to the harbour runs the main tourist drag of amusement arcades, pubs and chippies. On top of the cliff lies the Crescent, where Scarborough tried to imitate Bath in a sweep of Georgian- style buildings.

The Sitwell family home, Wood End, built in 1835, is now a museum of natural history. A couple of rooms reflect the Sitwells as writers, though what they would have made of the decades-old shiny lino on the floor and the rather faded ambience one can scarcely imagine. Next door is the town's art gallery, with several works by Atkinson Grimshaw, who vividly recorded Victorian Scarborough and lived for a time in Castle-by-the-Sea, in the old town.

A little way down the ravine is the Rotunda, an early 19th-century round museum originally dedicated to geology. An odd little mechanism used to let visitors twirl themselves around the circular interior, viewing a depiction of the geology of the Yorkshire coastline from the Humber to the Tees painted around the walls. The mechanism no longer works, but the room is just as fascinating.

Two books on the town's heritage trails, published by Scarborough Council, are essentials for exploring the area. They are littered with information that has, I suspect, escaped people who have lived in the town for years. The sub-headings also manage to combine the past with the unfortunate present at times, 'Charles Dickens at the Assembly Rooms (Pizza Hut)' being a good example.

Generations of town councillors bear responsibility for long years of municipal vandalism. To be directed to the site of the gorgeous old Pavilion Hotel, now occupied by a ghastly modern supermarket, does little for one's temper. The Pavilion was run for years by Tom Laughton, brother of Charles, who was born in Scarborough and began his acting career in the town at the old Arcadia, on the site of the present Futurist Theatre.

On the seafront, one of the

few remaining medieval buildings, the Richard III house where the king was reputed to have stayed, is now languishing, empty, after a period as a restaurant and then a museum of horrors. Oh dear . . .

From this sad little spectacle, you can climb up into the old town, through winding streets and alleys with ancient names - Paradise, The Bolts, Long Greece Steps. St Mary's Church attracts hordes because of its connection with the Brontes. Anne, the youngest sister, is buried in the churchyard. She died in the town in 1849, vainly trying to recover from tuberculosis. The grave is still marked by flowers, and gaggles of West Riding matrons waddle up to it daily to shake their heads and agree: 'Aye, that Wuthering Heights were a grand fillum.'

The serious walkers can carry on to the castle, or make their way around the headland by the curious spot called Hairy Bob's Cave. The North Bay stretches out before you, cleaner, more virgin than the South. Peasholm Park, with its lake and Japanese garden, lies at the end of the drive. You can hire a boat and row around the lake.

Some days during the summer there is a naval warfare display in which model boats perform a noisy rerun of a Second World War battle. At other times an organist - no longer the famed Reginald Dixon, I regret - rises out of the ground and plays tunes on an instrument that makes your fillings jangle.

The trek back runs past the Scarborough Cricket Ground, where Yorkshire play regularly, unfortunately. The annual cricket festival is not the same since Trueman and Boycott left the game, but this is still the Lord's of the east coast.

It's a two-hour trudge around the North Bay and back into town. If you're new to the place, you sense that you have scratched the surface of something that bears closer examination. If you're a fatigued old hack retreading old ground, you marvel at the longevity of it all. Scarborough has lost something during the past 20 years - but where hasn't?

Gone are the hordes of momentarily famous TUC delegates swarming across the cliff bridge on their way to the spa. I remember Vic Feather waddling over the ravine on a golden summer's day, a posse of yapping hacks in ragged tow, television camera crews tripping over themselves to give chase amid a serpent's nest of cables and internecine squabbling. Below the bridge, lank-haired youths rode flatulent Lambrettas along the tinselled sea-front, anoraks flapping in the breeze.

Ah, the Seventies. Today Vic is framing a composite motion in heaven and the TUC is even more sober and boring than the journos sent to cover it. But look on the bright side. On the edge of town stands a bright, shiny sign for a Lambretta dealer. Herds of surly donkeys still bring the traffic to a halt outside Jaconelli's ice cream parlour. With a modicum of musical talent you can turn a reasonable penny playing the blues to the cognoscenti one night and 'Una Paloma Blanca' to the woozy punters in the Newcastle Packet the next.

The Seventies revival? In some places, squire, this was the decade that never died.

Information Scarborough Tourist Information Centre: 0723 373333.

Fairs and Festivals in 1993 Historic and Classic Car Festival, Oliver's Mount, 22-23 May. Scarborough Fayre (drama, arts, crafts, film and other events), 12-27 June. Scarborough Cricket Festival, 30 August to 13 September. Scarborough Yacht Regatta, 28-30 August. Gambart Baines Challenge Cup (Crown Green bowls), 31 May, then Thursdays until 30 August, final 11 September. Scarborough Open Golf Week, 5-11 September. Gold Cup International motor cycling meeting, Oliver's Mount, 11-12 September. Scarborough Angling Festival, 18-26 September.

Sights and entertainment The Wood End and Rotunda museums and the Art Gallery are open daily, Tuesday to Sunday until the end of September, admission free. The castle is run by English Heritage which charges pounds 1.70 for adult admission; it isn't worth it. All of Alan Ayckbourn's plays open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round (0723 370541/378863) before their West End run, though this summer will see no premiere; instead, The Norman Conquests trilogy, which first saw the light of production in Scarborough in 1973, will play alongside Feed by Tom Elliott. Lunchtime and late- night shows also run at the venue - check when you arrive.

Pubs and music venues For rock and real ale try the Jolly Roger, Eastborough, the Newcastle Packet, Sandside, and the Stage Door, Aberdeen Walk. The Hole in the Wall, Vernon Street, is a lovely real-ale pub with a menu straight out of Camden Lock, circa 1975. The Leeds Arms, St Mary Street, in the old town, is a quirky little local with heavenly draught Bass. There is regular jazz at the Central Hotel, see accommodation. The Scarborough Evening News prints a comprehensive gig guide to the area every Thursday.

Accommodation: The posh hotel is the Forte Crown (0723 373491) on the Esplanade, but it is expensive, from around pounds 40 per person B&B. In or near the Crescent are the Central Hotel (0723 365766), with good jazz and reasonable rooms from pounds 55.50 for two, the Crescent (0723 360929), very attractive and modern inside, from pounds 60 for two in low season, and the Palm Court (0723 368161), from pounds 32 per person, with a swimming pool and easy parking, but some poor rooms - avoid any that end in a letter, such as 22a or 22b, which are well below par. Barry Hampshire's bed- and-breakfast hotel is the Flower in Hand, overlooking the harbour, from pounds 16 per person (0723 371471).

Eating out Fish and chips can be wonderful if you find the right place. Try Dilts, Princess Street (eat in or take away), or Small Fry, North Street. The other Yorkshire speciality is a huge Yorkshire pudding with various fillings, from curry to steak and kidney: try Gridleys, in the Crescent Hotel, see above.

This is Yorkshire, so most pubs serve food at lunchtime only. Restaurants are limited. The poshest in town is the Italian Lanterna in Queen Street (0723 363616, around pounds 50 for two).

Also worth a look: Angelo's, Eastborough (Italian, with a happy hour from 6pm to 7pm, 0723 379086); Jade Garden, Falsgrave Road (upmarket Chinese, 0723 369099); Hong Kong, York Place (cheaper Chinese, 0723 365083); Spencers, York Place (fancy international food with a very good and cheap bistro on the first floor, 0723 379548); Nuts, Victoria Road (vegetarian, 0723 360054).

(Photographs and map omitted)