Its epic beaches, busy harbour and spectacle of seabirds make this seaside town on the Yorkshire coast worth a visit. Words: Lesley Gillilan
With its funfair, crazy golf and donkey rides on the beach, Bridlington is a proper, old-fashioned seaside resort – but the East Riding town is full of surprises. Tucked away in back streets or lurking on the outskirts, there are historic houses, quirky vintage shops and quaint cafés. The artist David Hockney has a house on the seafront. And the Georgian streets of the Old Town are so well preserved, they have landed the part of fictional Walmington-on-Sea in the forthcoming movie, Dad’s Army (set in 1944).
Fishing boats chug in and out of Bridlington’s busy harbour – one of the nation’s leading sources of shellfish, particularly brown crabs and native lobster. The beaches are epic: a vast belt of pale sand stretches south towards Spurn Point at the mouth of the Humber and north towards Bempton Cliffs nature reserve – easily the best place in England to see nesting seabirds. On spectacular white cliffs, close to Flamborough Head, the RSPB are opening a new visitor centre this April, just in time to see the season’s first puffin.
10AM ON THE PROM
The best way to see Bridlington’s seafront is on foot, so I set off along Marine Drive towards the quieter, sandier south shore, where I pick up the Nautical Mile, a sequence of artworks and structures created by artist Bruce McLean and architect Irena Bauman as part of a Lottery-funded initiative to brighten up the promenade. There’s a mosaic paddling pool, wavy sculptures, murals and a row of modernist beach huts (which are available to hire by the day or the week). The tide is out and I sit on the seawall, feet dangling over rippling sand, and watch walkers heading for Spurn Head.
12PM TREAD THE BOARDS
You can’t miss The Spa Bridlington, the large domed theatre which dominates the seafront to the south of the harbour. Regular tours are on offer (from May), but I just amble into the foyer and peer into the 1930s Royal Hall. As I can see from a gallery of old black and white photographs, Bridlington’s premier concert venue hasn’t really changed much since the 1940s when squadrons of airmen from RAF stations all over Yorkshire danced the night away under the Art Deco ceiling. In the same spirit, Tea Dance @ The Spa is a regular Wednesday fixture. Next door, The Spa Theatre, built in 1896, is a classic Edwardian original with an ornate, two-tier auditorium, with plush red seats and gilded decoration. The two theatres are bridged by a glassy new wing, part of a £20 million upgrade, where I sit in the Café Bar with coffee and cake and gaze at the views of Bridlington Bay.
1PM GOLDEN OLDIES
Bridlington’s sedate Old Town is a complete contrast to the seafront with its quaint, bow-fronted shop fronts and narrow High Street – said to be one of the best preserved Georgian streets in the country. I explore the Priory Church of St Mary, built on the site of a twelfth-century monastery. Then I rummage around Burlington Books, a treasure trove of old editions housed in an original Victorian chemists. I ogle at lace, jewellery and up-cycled furniture in the Little Vintage Shop. And I stop for lunch (home-made soup and seafood pancakes) in the quirky Georgian Rooms, a combination of old-fashioned tea room and antique market which rambles over several floors and out into a large, terraced garden.
3PM STEP BACK IN TIME
A mile’s coast walk from North Beach, Sewerby Hall and Gardens sits in 50 magnificent acres of clifftop parkland right on the seashore. You can explore the walled gardens, do a woodland walk or pop into the Clock Tower Café, without buying a ticket, but it’s worth paying an entrance fee to visit the zoo (for cute pygmy goats, Shetland ponies Ilamas and cheeky capuchin monkeys), or to step inside the 300-year-old Hall. With help from the Victoria & Albert Museum, the rooms in this Grade I-listed country house are dressed and furnished as though caught in a moment in 1910. I visit the nursery, pantry and working kitchens, before hopping on the little Land Train that trundles along the coast between Sewerby and Bridlington prom.
7PM FISH SUPPER
There are other good places to eat: Naked Fish (fresh fish and chips with a contemporary twist) and the meaty, very British Funny Onion, but I’m won over by the views from the Rags Hotel restaurant, a friendly, informal eatery in a former Air Sea Rescue station right on the harbour. I’m joined by a friend (local artist Anna Kirk-Smith) and we sit at a table by a window on the upper deck, and watch the sun setting over crab pots and fishing boats, as we share a seafood platter of crayfish tails with seafood sauce, oak roast salmon and salad served with a creamy chive dressing and chunky bread. Main courses include locally caught sea bass with sizzled ginger or oven-baked cod loin wrapped in wafer-thin Italian ham. The desserts are seriously good.
10AM SEABIRD SPOT
In my cottage at High Barn, I breakfast on free-range farm eggs, granary bread, organic apple juice and Yorkshire tea (all included in a generous hamper of local produce) and set off for Bempton Cliffs. At the RSPB visitor centre, I pick up a guide and a pair of binoculars. Information points give me a rough idea of what I might see when I step out on to the cliff path – gannets, fulmars, guillemots, kittiwakes, puffins – but nothing prepares me for this jaw-dropping natural spectacle. On towering chalk cliffs, a dizzying 400ft above the churning North Sea, some 200,000 seabirds come here to breed between April and July. It’s impossible to describe the noise or to explain how so many winged creatures manage to nest on such tiny ledges of rock. And I can’t tell you how thrilled I am when I spot my first puffin.
12PM WHITE CLIFFS
Nesting seabirds are also an attraction of nearby Flamborough Head, the iconic, east-coast landscape – a windswept, white rock-promontory, eight miles long –between Bempton and Bridlington. There are two lighthouses: one, an ancient octagonal tower dating back to 1674 (though it was never lit); the other, built in 1806, still in use, and open to the public from April onwards. Instead, I stroll along the cliff path, down a slipway crowded with cobble boats, to the sheltered white beach at North Landing. A longer walk takes me to deserted South Landing, on the other side of the headland, where I stop to collect pebbles.
2PM BEST CHIPPY
For Sunday lunch Bridlington-style, I head for Fish and Chips at 149 on Marton Road and join the queue. Voted best fish and chip shop in Britain at The National Fish and Chip Awards in 2011, it’s still a winner and definitely the best in town.
3PM A FAMILY HOME
Driving out of Bridlington, I make a detour to visit Burton Agnes Hall, a charming Elizabethan stately home, still lived in and more or less unchanged since it was built in 1598. Highlights in the house include ornate Tudor plasterwork and a collection of modern art and crafts in the Long Gallery. From the top floor, I can see the glint of Bridlington Bay. However, the resident ghost, said to haunt these halls, eludes me.
NEED TO KNOW
High Barn Cottages
On a quiet country road between Bridlington and Bempton, this courtyard of beautifully converted barns offers a choice of five luxury cottages. All have comfy sofas, wood burners, two en-suite bedrooms, high-spec kitchens and picture windows with views across gentle farmland. Prices from £600 a week, or £390 for a three-night break highbarncottages.co.uk
In a tall Georgian town house on The Crescent, steps away from Bridlington’s North Beach and Esplanade, each apartment or studio has king-size beds and a kitchenette. Some have two bedrooms, most have sea views and there is a penthouse designed for loved-up couples. From £69 a night carltonapartments.co.uk
HOW TO GET THERE
By rail, take a train to Hull (from London with First Hull Trains) and then change for Bridlington via Northern Rail (on the Hull to Scarborough line). To get the best out of the area, it’s handy to have a car: the journey by road from London, Bristol or Edinburgh takes four to five hours via York or the Humber Bridge. For more information, see visithullandeastyorkshire.com