It has been a year of cancellations and postponed bookings; plans put on hold for the duration. I yearn to return to Japan, crave the tranquil peace of my favourite Greek village, and I’m still dreaming of the Himalayan foothills and the clear depths of Lake Baikal. Yet the place I long for the most is my hometown of Scarborough. I have always taken my annual Christmas visit for granted; a time to reflect on the year, to re-calibrate, to reconnect with the rhythms of the sea.
Some people are travelling regardless, but this December I will be staying at home, and although my wanderlust for the wider world is undiminished, the first place I want to return to next year is the Yorkshire coast. More than ever before, this feels like the right time for us all to renew and confirm our relationships with the landscapes and towns that shaped us.
When we arrive in Scarborough for Christmas 2019, the sea is grey and needy, clawing back seaweed, shells and pebbles with every receding wave. We walk along the beach, her wrinkles smoothed by the tide, her slate wiped clean, her rubbish swept away, as though nothing has ever happened here before – no paw prints or sandcastles, no lovehearts drawn with driftwood at the water’s edge. Out on the horizon, the hue of sea and sky change constantly, as though viewed through a turning wheel of filters.
I feel at home again, ready to see the old year out and the new year in, drawn back by an undiminished longing for my hometown, warts and all.
‘The sea, the SEA!’
I turn, to see a small tow-haired boy shrieking with delight at the edge of the beach. No more than five years old, lathe-thin in his baggy tracksuit, he zigzags down the empty sand towards the lapping waves.
As I watch him, I am three years old again, sporting a basin haircut, my father carrying me along the foreshore, melting ice cream dripping onto his sleeve. It’s a scene I often replay in my head, yet it’s always in black and white, and I know I can’t truly remember it; I’ve recreated it straight from the family photo album.
As always, we stop for bacon butties at the kiosk cafe. Hunched in our parkas and hats, we eat on the outdoor terrace, sipping tea the colour of cinder toffee, hugging the thick builders’ mugs to warm our hands. White spume crashes over the sea defences, and surfers ride the curls of steel which break further from the shore. We watch them as they wait patiently for the perfect wave, their heads bobbing like baby seals.
Around the headland we are seduced by the fuzzy warmth of the amusement arcades. A cardboard cup of two-pence pieces is enough to secure a neon-bright frog bracelet from the tuppeny falls, a small triumph that makes me disproportionately happy.
We wander further along the foreshore, forgoing ‘mug o’ soup’, cockles, and freshly fried donuts, turning up through the cobbled streets of the old town towards our rented cottage, even managing to resist the lure of a fireside pint of Timothy Taylor’s in the Leeds Arms. Without exchanging a word we both know why we are hurrying back. Every afternoon at dusk, we climb the narrow stairs to the third floor, where we crouch at a window under the eaves and watch the changing ruby sky. The buildings across the bay appear on fire; their windows reflecting the brilliance of the setting sun.
And I don’t want to miss the seagull. Every day he spends hours waiting patiently on the kitchen roof of the house below ours, tilting his head towards every sound. There are others that come and go, but we learn to recognise this particular gull, and nickname him JR for Jonathan Livingstone. He is waiting for the elderly man in a faded fisherman’s gansey who appears on the dot of nine and again at dusk. Twice a day, on cue, he tosses a bucket of food scraps onto the low roof, and a flock of gulls swoop, lowering their webbed landing gear as they descend to the slates; the cleverer ones snatching the food in mid-air.
Their plaintive cries are simultaneously human and feline, and I remember how they tricked me as a child, calling me to my bedroom window, believing there was a baby hurt or a kitten crying below. And though I now live inland, separated from my beloved sea, a handful of gulls have followed me here, wheeling over the fields on the edge of town, their plaintive song ensuring I don’t forget my roots. Whenever I hear their cries, I long for Scarborough – in fact I can’t wait to go back.