When towns are on the up, there is a brief period when they inhabit what I would call the Goldilocks Zone. Stuff has changed for the better and there are suddenly very agreeable things to do, places to eat etc, but the area has not yet been comprehensively and irredeemably arseholified by arseholes. There is still a retention of the old: it hasn’t all been expunged. For Notting Hill, I guess that would be the early 1970s — after the race riots and before Cameron et al moved in. For lovely Saltburn-by-the-Sea, 12 miles from Middlesbrough, it may be just about now. Or perhaps it is already drifting beyond the pale. For recently we have welcomed micropubs, expensive restaurants, organic delis and indy greengrocers selling okra and galangal, shabby chic cocktail bars, a food festival. It was listed in the Sunday Times as one of the best towns to live in the UK. And I overheard two young men talking at the top of my street, looking balefully down the two rows of parked cars. ‘Four, five, six bloody Minis. This is becoming a town full of’ — he spat the word — ‘twats.’
It is still exquisite. From towering Huntcliff (541 feet), the start of the highest cliffs on the east of Britain, stretches ten miles of pristine, sandy beaches scoured by oystercatchers and sandpipers. The second best surfing beach in the country according to one report, and never crowded even in high summer. There is more space up here in the northeast. Better fish and chips than you would find in Cornwall, too, at the imaginatively named Seaview. A pier with one tiny amusement arcade. Ice-cream parlours selling the local speciality the ‘lemon top’: vanilla ice cream with a blob of sorbet, a hangover from the war when eggs and cream were in short supply. A model railway will take you half a mile along a wooded dell and river to Italian gardens and a tea house. An extraordinary water-balanced funicular railway takes you, for a quid, up to the town and a lattice of elegant Victoriana, carefully tended gardens (none of that paved-over-for-the-Audi rubbish here) and artsy-crafty shops and idiosyncratic restaurants, including a second world war-themed pie and mash shop, where you can browse the newspapers from 1941 and try on a gas mask.
I live in one of the ‘jewel’ streets — Diamond, Amber, Emerald etc — which, back in the day, were the haunt of radged druggies with no teeth. No longer. And yet you can still buy a beautiful five-bedroom Victorian terrace with a view of the sea for much less than £250,000. With the North York Moors a five-minute drive away, and the beach 40 seconds from your door.
I came here for a treat as a kid, from our home in Middlesbrough. The train journey then took you through a kind of hell — right through the middle of the blast furnaces for the vast steelworks between South Bank and Redcar, searing, billowing, orange flames and smoke. All gone now. Teesside’s terrible loss of jobs, and its new cleanliness, have become Saltburn’s gain.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free