Although the weather can be cold or wet, November and December never seem as depressing as January and February. I think that is partly because there is always something taking place. The end of October sees Halloween being celebrated, followed by Bonfire Night and then Christmas is in full swing. Whereas there is little of note in the first two months of the year. So, why not have a trip to the coast to blow the post-festive cobwebs away?
Are you mad? I can hear you saying. Not at all, some resorts such as Whitby, Scarborough and especially Saltburn are perfect for visiting out of season. There is so much to see whilst you walk along, and you may even find yourself a small fossil in the rocks by the foreshore.
Here is my quick guide to the town’s fascinating history.
Until 1860, Saltburn was nothing more than a hamlet set in a beautiful seascape. It was the coming of the railway to the village in 1861 that spurred Quaker businessman, Henry Pease, into action with his dreams of turning it into a new and fashionable watering place. He was also involved with the Stockton and Darlington Railway and obviously saw increased profits from the venture.
One of Pease’s first developments was the Zetland Hotel. The building was designed by Darlington architect William Peachy and the foundation stone was laid by the Earl of Zetland on 2 October 1861. The first part of the hotel to be built was the stable block at the rear, a substantial building in its own right.
Saltburn’s Zetland Hotel
The hotel itself was opened on the 27 July 1863 and was one of the first purpose-built railway hotels in the world. The height of luxury was embodied in the fact that the hotel had its own railway platform. After Saltburn station, the train continued for a few yards to the rear of the hotel, where guests could arrive and depart. George Tweddell’s visitors’ handbook of 1863 described the hotel:
“The front and sides have spacious terraces, with perforated balustrades of terra-cotta, surmounted with vases of flowers: and a neat balcony runs along the whole front of the middle storey. A semi-circular tower rises in the centre of the front, which is used as a telescope room, and is provided with another balcony; and both from the top of this tower and the balcony the view is gorgeous. The hotel contains about 90 rooms, comprising about 50 bedrooms, a large dining and coffee room, a ladies’ coffee and drawing room, reading room, smoking room, billiard room etc.”
Additional land was purchased from the Earl of Zetland and a surveyor, George Dickinson, was employed to produce a plan allowing as many houses as possible to have sea views. The ‘Jewel streets’ – Coral, Garnet, Ruby, Emerald, Pearl, Diamond and Amber Streets – were built along the seafront. Although Pease’s plans for Saltburn were never fully realised, the project being badly affected by an economic depression in 1875, a cliff lift, a pier, the Jewel Streets and, of course, the hotel, testify to the fact that Pease’s dream was far from a total failure.
In the mid-19th century, the major recreation in Saltburn was the Valley Gardens, opened in three stages in the period 1860–1871. The bulk of the pleasure grounds were designed by John Newton whose proposals included extensive tree planting, a croquet lawn, a bandstand with banked seating, a network of woodland paths and steps linking the existing lower and upper paths, two new entrances with pay booths at the coast, the Albert Memorial, several summerhouses, seating and a formal ‘Italian garden’.
Perhaps Saltburn’s greatest and most lasting achievement was its pier and cliff lift. It was Henry Pease and the Saltburn Improvement Company’s inspired resort that was the first of the Yorkshire coastal towns to consider building a pleasure pier. Construction was approved in 1861 but it was not until 1867 that work commenced under the auspices of engineer John Anderson.
Connected with both the Stockton and Darlington and the South Durham and Lancashire Union railways, he sensed profits were to be made in the evolving resort and had bought large plots of land as they became available. He was responsible for the construction of the Alexandra Hotel, which at the time was considered almost on a par with the nearby Zetland.
In January 1867, Anderson was appointed both engineer and contractor of the Saltburn Pier Company, which he had formed alongside John Bell, Edmund Grove and James Taylor. The first delivery of the ironwork arrived from Cochrane and Grove of Ormesby and on 30 December of that year work commenced. According to the Newcastle Courant the first pile of the new pier was driven in by Mrs Thomas Vaughan of Gunnergate near Middlesbrough.
Storm damages pier
The cast iron pier with wooden decking was 1,500ft long and some 20ft wide, with a landing stage for the use of pleasure steamers and other small boats. On the land side were two grand hexagonal entrance kiosks. It was to much acclaim that the pier opened to the public in May 1869.
Steamboat trips to Scarborough and Bridlington operated regularly in the summer months, as well as travelling further up the coast to Hartlepool. Bands entertained those waiting for their sailings and the many visitors who were content just to saunter up and down the new attraction taking in the fresh sea air. A saloon serving refreshments was opened in 1871.
The pier proved to be an instant success with 50,000 people visiting in the first six months. To boost attendance even further, the Pier Company erected a 120ft-high vertical cliff hoist, which could take up to 20 passengers at a time up and down the cliff. Looking at photographs of it now, it appears an extremely precarious structure. It must have worked, however, as it operated effectively for years until its demise in 1883.
For the first three years after its opening, the pier made a profit but by the end of 1873 that return was rapidly diminishing. When a severe storm hit the town in 1875 and badly damaged both the landing stage and much of the seaward end of the pier, there was no money left to pay for the repairs. A loan was taken out, which the company could ill afford, allowing the restoration to be completed in 1877.
The length of the pier was reduced by 250ft, and the supporting iron structures strengthened to prevent further damage. Upon its reopening the pier was once again in profit. Even so, it was not to last, and by 1879 the Saltburn Pier Company was in liquidation. The running of the pier was taken over by the Saltburn Improvement Company which set about refurbishing and improving the attraction, adding a bandstand together with seating shielded by glass partitions plus refreshment rooms with new and more substantial buildings at the entrance.
Saltburn funicular tramway
The other major improvement was the replacement of the cliff hoist system with a cliff tramway, allowing an easier and far less ‘perilous’ journey up and down to the town. The funicular, still in operation today, rises 120ft, runs on 207ft of track at an incline of 71%. The two cars carried between ten and 12 people and were fitted with beautiful stained-glass windows.
The South Durham and Cleveland Mercury reported that:
“The new inclined tramway, which for some time past has been in course of formation, is now in working order. Several trips were made on Monday quite successfully. The enlargement of the pier is nearly complete, and the new headway with its prettily designed windscreen, cannot fail to be highly appreciated. In 1887, gas lighting was replaced by electricity.”
The pier became a symbol of Saltburn’s popularity as a seaside resort, with thousands visiting, especially from the northeast of England. Listening to the band, promenading and even fishing in the sea below were popular pastimes. Operations ran smoothly until 7/8 May 1924 when the vessel Ovenburg, carrying a cargo of china clay from Fowey in Cornwall, repeatedly collided with a section of the pier during a storm. The result was a 210ft gap. Temporary measures were put into place allowing the front section of the pier to be used but it was not until five years later that it was fully restored, with the addition of a theatre on the landside.
Turbulent years for the pier
Bought by the Saltburn and Marske Urban District Council in 1938, the pier was requisitioned two years later by the army and a large section was removed to prevent its use in the event of an invasion. Lack of maintenance over this period saw the condition of the pier deteriorate rapidly and the end of the war found it in an extremely poor condition.
Debates about who should foot the bill for the pier’s restoration, plus a shortage of steel, culminated in the repair work not being undertaken until 1947. It was eventually reopened to the public in 1952 at a cost of £20,000. It was reported that 20,000 people visited it in the first month. The year following saw another chapter in the pier’s chequered history when, once again, a storm resulted in severe damage to its structure. Further repairs were completed five years later at a cost of £23,000.
Once reopened, the pier always remained popular with up to 90,000 visitors a year. The 1970s, though, saw further problems on a regular basis, mainly with the supporting piles and the rusting of the steel work in general. The continuing problems culminated on 29 October 1974 when the pier head was destroyed in a severe storm and much of the remaining structure was badly damaged.
With the pier declared unsafe, the local council applied to the Department of the Environment for permission to demolish it. There was an outcry in the town and a public inquiry was held in November 1975. Following recommendations, that only the 13 end trestles should be removed, restoration work began again in 1976 with the pier being reduced to 681ft in length.
The pier was reopened to the public on 29 June 1978, the entrance now restored, enclosing an amusement arcade and café. Further renovation was undertaken in the 1990s. The culmination of all this hard work and expense came when the pier was highly placed in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Heritage Awards and was subsequently awarded Pier of the Year in 2009. Martin Easdown of the National Piers Society wrote that Saltburn Pier has had probably, the most turbulent history of any surviving pier in Britain today. Long may she continue to provide relaxation and entertainment to people for many years to come.
Give Saltburn a try out of season. I am sure you won’t be disappointed.