“Look,” said Liam Herringshaw, pointing at a melon-sized bulge in the layers of rock fronting the prom in Scarborough. “There’s where a five-toed dinosaur walked 160 million years ago.”
It was probably an 11-tonne cetiosaurus (whale lizard), he said, digging from his bag a picture of a long-necked dino with a small head and trunk-like legs. Toe shapes are visible on the bulge’s outer edge, which means this would have been one of the creature’s back feet (front feet had a different toe arrangement).
Liam, paleontologist, tour guide and overall fossil enthusiast, loves the way that – unlike ammonites, which are the bodies of unexciting sea molluscs – fossil footprints are a record of gigantic prehistoric creatures going about their lives. When I asked how the prints had survived, he told me Jurassic times were much hotter: Yorkshire then had a southern Mediterranean climate, and this dent in mud could have been baked by hot sun.
We saw several fossil prints on a stroll along South Cliff, passing Scarborough Spa, sometime venue for the Yorkshire Fossil festival, which Liam co-founded in 2014. Liam said autumn and winter is the ideal time to spot fossils – seaweed dies off, storms wash away the sand, and flat rocks reveal their secrets at low tide.
Scarborough is known for summer fun on its two huge sandy beaches, but out of season there’s lots besides fossils to enjoy here and on the rest of Yorkshire’s coast, thanks to an initiative called Route YC. Billed as “Yorkshire’s ultimate road trip”, its six itineraries explore lesser-known aspects of North and East Yorkshire’s 90 miles of coast. But we wanted to do a lower-carbon tour of the area between Scarborough and Bridlington, and the online maps – listing places of interest from surfing beaches to nature reserves, viewpoints and cycle routes, as well as places to eat and sleep – are helpful for a car-free trip too.
We arrived in Scarborough by train via York, and then, over several days, used the northern route running south along the coast. A 15-minute, £2.20 ride away is Filey, a small town of 6,000 people with a huge beach. When I was a child in Hull, my primary school would charter a train each summer and bring the whole school here for a day. The sight of the sea from the top of Cargate Hill brought memories flooding back: the grassy area where we ate our “pack-up” (egg sandwiches in tinfoil), the shocking chill of the sea.
Filey didn’t seem to have changed much, retaining its fishing village feel. Its quaint grid of streets is all independent retailers and cafes, and traditional cobles – small fishing boats with a high prow – still launch from the Coble Landing slipway. (Dutch Gin – jenever – was apparently smuggled through Filey in such quantities that the joke went people here washed windows with it. Bottles of the legal stuff made in a former herring smokehouse at Filey Distillery – tour and tasting £20 – have a famous preserved coble, the Margaret, on the label.)
The five miles of golden beach sweeping south from Filey Brigg headland looked just as impressive to my adult eyes. At low tide the sand is a full quarter-mile wide – no doubt a nightmare for a teacher supervising 30 seven-year-olds. One addition is a 12ft steel artwork, A High Tide in Short Wellies by Ray Lonsdale depicting a stoic fisherman with rod, beard, woolly hat and thousand-yard stare.
We wished we had time to walk the eight miles back to Scarborough along the King Charles III England coast path. Winter is a great time to do this, with oystercatchers, redshanks and purple sandpipers visiting in significant numbers. Instead we walked back to the station and happened upon the Cobblers Arms, a micropub in a former shoemenders, serving four real ales and great Yorkshire craic.
We’d seen Bempton’s cliffs, site of the RSPB reserve, rising from the sea south of Filey, but Bempton is a village in its own right, with a cute unmanned station behind a white picket fence. Arriving by train, we enjoyed a half-hour walk through the village to the reserve, passing 13th-century St Michael’s church, pretty cottages and the popular White Horse pub. (There’s one train an hour back to Scarborough, so the car-free need to plan their return carefully.)
Bempton Cliffs is an astonishing wildlife spectacle, the sort you might expect in the far north or west of Britain. The 100-metre cliffs are home to 15,000 pairs of gannets – the UK’s largest seabird, with a 2-metre wingspan – from January to October. In autumn the last chicks – almost black and larger than their weary parents – were about to make the irrevocable tumble from their nests.
The noise was incredible – was every pair having a loud domestic? – and we eagerly deployed hired binoculars (£7 a day) to spy on the birds’ golden heads, perfectly applied black eyeliner and green stripey feet. Winter residents include razorbills, guillemots and short-eared owls escaping the Scandinavian cold. From March, puffins arrive to build nests in rock crevices, and minke whales and dolphins can be spotted out to sea.
Bridlington, seven minutes south again on the train, is half Scarborough’s size and was never as fashionable, but also has two glorious sandy beaches, separated by a proper working harbour. Now a top shellfish port, it lands a sustainable crab and lobster catch worth £7m.
“Bridlington in winter is a silent place, where cats and landladies’ husbands walk gently down the middle of the streets,” wrote TE Lawrence (of Arabia), who was stationed here with the RAF in 1934. We saw few cats as we strolled, but there may have been the odd landlady’s husband among the crowd in the Grade-II listed Old Floral Pavilion, enjoying drinks and food under the glass-and-iron roof, behind folding picture windows. The 120-year-old building was refurbished last winter as part of a big regeneration project and is open daily all year round.
Back at our Scarborough base there was still lots to see. Two late-Georgian villas on the genteel Crescent are now Woodend Gallery and Scarborough Art Gallery. The latter is running an exhibition called Always Been Here, tracing Scarborough’s queer heritage, until 7 January.
A walk to the 12th-century castle, on its 6.5-hectare (16-acre) headland with 270-degree sea views, led past St Mary’s church, also started in the 12th century. In 1849, a desperately ill Anne Brontë came to Scarborough with sister Charlotte hoping sea air would give her strength, but died three days later. Her gravestone is in the churchyard, the words eroded but tributes of shells and pretty stones lined up on its top.
We know today that it takes more than a blast of sea air to cure tuberculosis, but given average winter rainfall is less than half that of places in the West Country, a bright, bracing break on the Yorkshire coast could see off all kinds of winter blues. Unless you’re a dinosaur, that is.
Where to eat
Several Scarborough restaurants are out to prove coastal towns aren’t all about fast food. Cafe Fish serves the local catch at keen prices (half a lobster with salad is £18.95). Latvian owner Kirill Savonin is proud of having changed local tastes: sea urchins, new to most diners, are now in hot demand.
Scarborough-born Joe Clark offers “French-ish” dishes made with traceable, local ingredients at his fine-dining restaurant Clark’s. We started with a delicious Lindisfarne oyster each (£3.50), there was homemade seaweed butter with great bread, “Yorkshire rarebit” topping sweet flaky cod (£22), and memorable lentil-chorizo stew beneath honey-glazed duck (£24).
Where to stay
The Bike and Boot (doubles from £75), formerly the Mount Hotel, offers funky modern rooms aimed at cyclists and walkers. It’s so dog-friendly you could feel out of place without a mutt in tow. Mains in its Bareca restaurant start at £13.
The Crescent Hotel (doubles from £110 B&B) couldn’t do funky if it tried. It’s old-fashioned in the best sense, charming and comfortable, with excellent cooked breakfasts and a solidly traditional menu in its Reflections restaurant.