A ‘vision of a heavenly city above the cliffs’ led to the creation of this seaside resort, 150 years ago. Quaker industrialist Henry Pease saw the potential for development here and laid the foundation stone to the first row of houses in 1861. Victorian hi-tech followed, like a steampunk virus – railway (1861), pier (1869) and funicular ‘balanced cliff lift’ (1884) transforming ‘humble Saltburn into Saltburn-by-the-sea, the last word in northern seaside chic’. Today ‘Saltburn is at a crossroads, reinventing itself as a leisure destination for the 21st century, a haven for artists and walkers, surfers, cyclists, and lovers of the great English seaside’.
This was the first new (to me) pier to be visited on a planned odyssey around all 55 surviving ones, together with trips (where practical) to some fictional and imaginary examples. On a late May Bank Holiday we drove here, past the Angel of the North and the model of Saltburn Pier on the outskirts of the town. We parked near a cafe in a gray drizzle. I looked up at Victorian terraces lowering above the cliffs. A miniature train went past. I had begun the journey in earnest.
We had lunch in the Vista Mar bar-cafe-restaurant, motto ‘love food | love drink | love life’. As we ate I watched a line of freight ships crawl along the horizon. Enjoyed the fishcake but only ate a token chip; I worry about such things, these days. I was nearly 50, a third the age of the town, health enhanced by surgery, tablets and ‘lifestyle’. The time-horizon had been bent in my favour, but for me the landscape was clearly finite – why had I decided to spend precious days wandering around grey margins and peering at strange embellishments? I felt like one of the Challengers of the Unknown, ‘living on borrowed time‘, not having supercharged adventures but instead drifting in some bosky netherworld.
After lunch we decided to explore separately. Outside Vista Mar I futzed with my cameras. A surprise loss of battery power in my digital camera left me with just the Lomo Spinner and a phone with which to capture images. [Further photographic entropy may have occurred – at the time of writing the film from the Lomo Spinner seems to have gone missing, so as yet I have no 360-degree picture to show you.] Head down in the rain I loped towards the pier.
Saltburn has been described as an inter-war ‘stronghold’ of Pierrot shows1, suggesting that they persisted after other resorts had replaced them with more modern entertainments. Pierrots don’t seem to have hung around until now, however. What I did see were plenty of surfers and, despite the cold day, families enjoying the sandy beach and queuing for fish and chips.
I checked out the souvenirs – coffee mugs with digital images of the town and a plate showing leaping dolphins. Then I walked on to the pier, and took a couple of 360 shots with the Lomo [but you’ll have to take my word for it.]
Squeals from children drifted up through the planks – beneath me they were sheltering from the rain and dashing into the waves. I walked down to the end where people were taking advantage of the best fishing spot. I guess I’ll be doing 55 walks like this and, despite the rain and greyness I felt cheered at the prospect of reaching many more of these joyfully absurd viewpoints over the waves.
Halfway back I leaned on the railings, looking along the coast – the classic ‘existential’ pier-pose. I heard a voice: ‘Edge is a man alone’. Jennie had found me. We walked through the amusement arcade – still no Pierrots, but a machine version of the King. (Photos above and below by Jennie; full set here.)
We took the Inclined Tramway (powered by a gas pump and 20,000 gallons of water) to the top of the cliffs, walked through the fossil garden and towards the main streets.
I liked the definite way the town, cliff-railway and pier all joined up. The town itself seemed tidy and purposeful. The brisk energy of the surfing beach, the clean lines of the promenade – these things had seduced my holiday-self. In the secondhand bookshop I found ‘How to See England’ by Edmund Vale (1937). His ‘How to See…’ instructions do not involve ‘wandering round all the piers2 taking random pictures’ but I can empathise with his statement that ‘We must rely on a few set pieces and, everywhere else, endless hints, endless clues’ – stated over a drawing of a dolphin – itself perhaps one of the ‘clues’.
We wanted tea but found ourselves in the friendly Artsbank with its five floors containing a vast and splendid array of popular art: painting, prints, photography and sculpture. Amongst these I began to see another role that piers have – as visual subject matter; Saltburn pier was portrayed in various media by several contributors to the Artsbank of ‘affordable art’. Jennie suggested that, just as in Walking home to 50 I had become part of a fraternity of walkers, I would now join some loose group of artistic explorers of the coast. My technique of ‘just showing up with a toy camera’ [then losing the film] is slightly different than the application of skill and judgement seen in the Artsbank pieces, but nevertheless this seemed like a fine way to spend time. My mission began to make sense.
Earlier valetudinarians had sought out seaside resorts for the health-giving benefits of seawater, ‘ozone’, sunlight3 and leisure. I would do the same, seeking instead the therapeutic power of random arrival at places like this, finding streets named Diamond and Coral and Emerald or, hopefully, circa 55 other marvels.
We turned the corner into Marine Parade, with its tall Victorian terraces and curved viewpoint windows.
When we arrived these had seemed foreboding; now I would happily have taken a lease on a basement flat there. From this point the sea was visible again. This was the visionary city, still solid with detail in the miles of salty air: a supercharged adventure after all. On black iron railings, details smoothed by decades of painting and repainting, a fragment of leaf… no, a butterfly flickered in place.
1 In The British Seaside by John K Walton (MUP, 2000) referencing Pierrots of the Yorkshire Coast by Chapman & Chapman (Hutton Press, 1988)
2 In fact he mentions piers not at all. Castles, mountains, rivers and monasteries get plenty of space. The spot in the index where piers might be mentioned is bracketed by ‘Pews, Church’ and ‘Pilgrim Fathers, the.’
3 The Sunlight League believed that sunlight was ‘nature’s disinfectant’, I learned in Walton’s book. The Sunlight League reminds me of John Sunlight, arch-enemy of Doc Savage… this link must be investigated further.