Scarborough is a town I have known for 30 years and in that time it has experienced both enormous change and continuity. As a town, that is one of its enduring strengths – its ability to take on new identities and to embrace new trends while also keeping old and well established traditions going. As a town it is a survivor.
It can be all things to all people embracing the very best of high culture while delighting in its kiss me quick reputation; keen on developing new IT and creative industries while continuing to develop its fishing, engineering and food manufacturing industries; it faces towards the sea but also inland.
With only 50,000 people, Scarborough continually surprises and delights in its ability to punch above its weight, in terms of the diversity of what it does and how it presents itself to the world.
Scarborough Geography: ebb and flow
Scarborough’s geography directly impacts on its identity. This interplay between the natural and social has been fascinating to observe, as through history Scarborough’s fortunes have ebbed and flowed as geography has placed Scarborough at the centre or the periphery of events and activities.
The rocky promontory which separates North and South bay forms a natural strong hold, taken advantage of by the Romans, the Vikings and in the 12th century by Henry 11 as the site of a royal borough.
The stunning medieval castle is a lasting monument to this final settlement and to the strategic power that Scarborough’s geography has offered throughout its history. Scarborough’s wider geography, half way up the coast of the Britain’s eastern sea board, facing out into the North Sea has also been very significant in its development, forming a vital link in Roman sea defences against Saxon invaders, a key part of the Viking trading empire in the 10th and 11th centuries and a significant player in the Northern European Hanseatic league’s trading system.
Indeed Scarborough Fair’s opening line
"are you going to Scarborough Fair" would have been a widely heard refrain for over 500 years, as its annual 45 day presence saw Scarborough become a trading hub for dried and fresh fish, wool and a huge variety of other products for merchants and customers from all over Europe.
In the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries the discovery of mineral water and the proximity of Scarborough to the industrial heartlands of South and West Yorkshire and the North East made the town a mecca for holiday makers of all classes, seeking to benefit from the fresh air and golden sands offered by Scarborough’s location.
Today, Scarborough’s relatively remote location, forty miles from any other significantly sized town and on the edge of a National Park provide an opportunity to attract a new type of tourist looking for both excellent facilities and services and peace and quiet in what is densely populated island.
Yet Scarborough’s geography has also been its downfall. The fluid geographies and migration of fish shoals has seen Scarborough’s reputation as one of the east coast’s premier fishing ports diminish considerably, while the impact of jet travel has seen Scarborough’s reputation as a premier holiday resort threatened by the emergence of cheap short haul holidays in the Mediterranean in the 1960s and 1970s, and more recently by the increasing affordability of access to long haul destinations such as the Far East, Africa and the Caribbean.
Scarborough: connections and interconnections
Scarborough’s identity has been affected by its geography, and equally its geography has impacted upon the people who have left their mark upon and moulded the town up until the present day. Romans, Saxons, Vikings have all come and made their mark.
People have migrated from the North York Moors that surround the town, attracted by the opportunity the tourist and fishing industries offered and to an extent still do. Equally people have left Scarborough to work on the abundant farms that surround the town.
The fish that was so very much a part of Scarborough’s prosperity also brought migrants in the form of Scottish and Geordie fishing ‘lasses’ in the 19th and early 20th century who followed the Herring shoals up and down the East Coast. Tourists have sometimes become residents, attracted by what they have seen while on holiday.
The short-term migration of thousands of visitors every summer has also impacted on the way the town has developed. While many of the town’s facilities – its beautiful beaches, excellent parks and lively nightlife have appeal to residents as well, much of its permanent infrastructure has been designed for people who are transient residents.
These migrants still come in large numbers, but more often now for short breaks and day trips rather than the traditional fortnight or seven day ‘mill weeks’ seen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scarborough is also thinking about connections in different ways now, trying to negate its isolation by embracing high technology, emphasising its relatively cheap labour costs and excellent IT infrastructure to become a hub for digital and creative industries, something that is already bearing fruit in terms of local employment.
According to Scarborough Council, 19% of the town’s employment is now generated by creative industries employing people as designers, writers, artists, film-makers, web-developers and other creatives who live and work on the North Yorkshire Coast.
Together with creative industries in nearby towns a network called ‘Creative Coast’ has been created to emphasise the regions importance in this area
Predating this, but closely linked is the development of Scarborough as centre for theatre and literature. Alan Ayckbourn’s presence as writer in chief for the Stephen Joseph theatre connects Scarborough with London, New York and other hubs of drama. Further evidence of the ways in which Scarborough has embraced art and literature can be seen in the development of the Seafest festival, one of Britain’s biggest arts festival featuring the themes of sailing and fishing, with a wide range of folk and other musicians and dancers coming together in July every year from all over the UK and further afield.
When thinking about connections it is often tempting to focus on those between Scarborough and other places, nearby and further afield. Seaside towns such as Scarborough are often reliant on those interconnections defining its success, evidenced by the still very significant reliance on tourism for much of the town’s prosperity.
Yet one of Scarborough’s strengths in recent years has been to look at the way the town relates to itself in terms of the way it works as a community, how it communicates with its constituent parts. The town’s redevelopment has been characterised by the establishing of Scarborough as a Renaissance Town.
An American idea, the emphasis during the renaissance process is on trying to involve individuals and civil society groups as a conscious part of the renewal process – meetings are open and everyone is able to attend and voice their opinion, and some elements of the budgetary process are directly decided by citizens.
Importantly meetings are held in all parts of town – in the centre, the suburbs and the estates that surround the town so the emphasis has been on physically engaging with as many citizens as possible.
As representative democracy continues to suffer from falling turnout, this experiment in deliberative and participatory democracy appears to be bearing fruit, with the process engaging the socio-economically deprived parts of town as well as the town centre which has often been the main focus of regeneration efforts.
Scarborough: a future characterised by diversity
Scarborough then faces the future with an approach that can be characterised as trying to build capacity and diversify itself in the face of adversity. The last forty years have seen enormous challenges to the success and wealth of the town with its two key industries – tourism and fishing experiencing decline. Yet the town has bounced back.
Tourism continues to be important, but the industry has started to specialise, focussing on cultural tourism and using the beauty of its Moors hinterland alongside its beac-hes to attract weekenders.
A small fishing fleet still exists but focuses much more on shell fish than white or oily fish. Much of the emphasis in recent years has been in trying to negate the problem that continues to blight seaside communities – seasonal employment by developing the town centre and diversifying into a much wider range of industries and services.
Investment in new industries has seen IT emerge as significant local player alongside the development of an enormously successful and increasingly year round cultural offering supplementing the consolidation in existing light engineering (Plaxtons, Blue Bird) and in food manufacturing (McCains).
If the town is truly to succeed in redefining itself – it has been voted the most enterprising place in Britain in 2008 and in Europe in 2009, it needs to engage all socioeconomic groups and all parts of the town. Although it has faults, the renaissance process remains an engaging way to do this and as an experiment seems to have much going for it. Much like Scarborough!
- Matt Staples was writing in response to an episode of the BBC/Open University coproduction Town With Nicholas Crane: Scarborough