From a grassy vantage point in Scarborough’s South Bay, I enjoy a grand view of the town and its splendid setting. White-capped waves roll in from the North Sea onto an expansive beach below the old town, hugging the slopes of Castle Hill – an imposing headland capped by the ruins of a medieval castle.
Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, is credited with having invented seaside tourism, firstly for the supposed health benefits of spa water and later for the beaches and other “diversions”. Yet there are no visitors in sight, which is hardly surprising because it’s winter, a season when the winds, local folk say, can be so lazy they blow straight through you.
Mid-February may seem a strange, even crazy time for a holiday on the coast of northeast England. But I’m beside an information board saying Scarborough was popular with the great 19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner, who was renowned for portraying the “moods of nature”. It was scenes like this that drew him here.
The summer crowds having long departed, this is a fine time to appreciate the wilder side of Scarborough and its surroundings. “Yorkshire” may conjure scenes of grimy industrial towns, especially for those in southern England, yet it is blessed with a great outdoors, one that helped nurture cyclists, rowers and triathletes whose 2012 Olympic tally – if their county had been a country – would have beaten the likes of Jamaica and South Africa.
Unlike in Hong Kong, on even the coldest days there’s warmth indoors, especially in our base, the beachfront Sandcastles apartments. Outside, it is a typical English winter day: just far enough above freezing that there is not a snowflake in sight.
Tame ducks and geese throng an ornamental lake, eagerly feasting on bread thrown their way. Squirrels also love handouts; one sits on its haunches devouring offered seeds, bushy tail held high.
Scarborough, the resort, is quiet but not dormant. Seafront amusement arcades beckon with their slot machines and video games.
The Harbour Bar sells award-winning ice cream, a perverse treat on a frigid day. There’s also hot fare, of course, like the perennial seaside favourite, fish ‘n’ chips, from places including the Tunny Club. This bills itself as a “historic fish bar”, and inside we learn that in the 1930s and 40s the building hosted celebrities and millionaire businessmen who made Scarborough a hub for big-game fishing, catching bluefin tuna weighing up to 236kg.
Reminders of history are also plenty in Whitby, a coastal town to the north. A statue of Captain James Cook gazes out across the picturesque harbour where he learned to become a seaman, and which he left to lead three epic voyages of global exploration.
Whitby also featured in fiction and legend: Count Dracula climbed the steps to Whitby Abbey, where, in the 7th century, St Hilda successfully prayed for snakes to turn to stone. St Hilda’s snakes are actually ammonites, fossils of extinct marine creatures with spiral shells, which abound in rocks around Whitby. Nearby are sites renowned for dinosaur footprints. We search one day, but find only giant icicles, like white spears, hanging from rocks that formed in tropical swamps.
Inland of Whitby lie the Yorkshire Moors, with rolling hills carpeted with grass and heather, along with solitary farmhouses and villages tucked into deep valleys.
A preserved steam railway winds through the main valley, and we visit Grosmont, one of the stations. No trains are running today, but we stroll to an engine shed, where an engineer lets us climb onto a steam train’s footplate – then lovingly explains how it works, and what the dials and levers are for. This railway line featured in a Harry Potter film, in the scene that introduced the character Hagrid on a station platform. Hogwarts Castle is not really in the background, though – that was added by computer wizardry.
The steam engine that pulled the Hogwarts Express is here, though, in York’s National Railway Museum. This wonderful museum features over 100 locomotives ranging from a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket to other legendary steam trains such as Mallard and Flying Scotsman – which both pulled services passing through York – and the only bullet train on exhibit outside Japan.
Though York is a city, it has the feel of a large town. Tall buildings are scarce – there is no Empire State Building in Old York – but historic relics abound. The wall that largely encircles the city centre was mostly built in the 12th to 14th centuries, and Roman artefacts form the basis of the collection at the Yorkshire Museum.
The greatest building here is York Minster, a gothicstyle cathedral with towers up to 60 metres high. Construction began in 1220, and it was declared completed in 1472 – that’s 241 years longer than it took to build the 484-metre International Commerce Centre in West Kowloon, and 97 years longer than Hong Kong was a British colony for.
The weather patterns shift, and newspaper headlines warn of Arctic conditions. Freezing winds blow flurries of snow. Dawn breaks on a transformed world: fresh snow covers the ground; whitens trees; blankets the beach above the tideline. The snow clouds have moved on, leaving clear blue skies, and a winter wonderland.
Brilliantly coloured beach huts gleam in patches through the white. The sun rises over Castle Hill – but this is no time to admire the views. We’ve bought a plastic toboggan – for my young son to try, of course – and we’re soon sledging down slopes, bouncing and bumping and laughing as we tumble off at speed.
In the countryside, snow crunches under foot on woodland paths and we hurtle down the steep stretches on the toboggan – until it cracks from collisions with mounds and molehills.
South of Scarborough is Burton Agnes Hall, which looks a lot like the manor house in television series Downton Abbey. Alongside a path through the grounds are snow-free patches with clumps of tough, small plants, their white flowers only just ready to open.
These are snowdrops, and they tell us that spring is arriving. It will still be months before the summer crowds return, but as the snow begins to thaw, it is time to bid farewell to the moods of wintry Yorkshire.
Getting there: airlines including Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) offer daily flights from Hong Kong to Manchester. From there take the train to Scarborough, changing in York – which lies on the main line from London.