If you’re concerned that England is losing its eccentricity amid all those bland American malls and chain stores, get yourself to Saltburn. The place has enough quirks and kinks to restore your faith in English idiosyncrasy.
Take the mysterious Saltburn yarnbombers. One morning in March, the town awoke to discover an entire Olympics created in wool wrapped around the pier. There were knitted gymnasts and weightlifters, hurdlers and canoeists in the 50-yard-long creation.
A few weeks later the yarnbombers struck again. This time it was a Diamond Jubilee tribute, with the woolly Queen depicted in a number of outfits, several corgis and Princess Beatrice and her mad hat. On both occasions thousands of people flocked to Saltburn to witness the woolly works.
And this is only the latest manifestation of Saltburn’s enjoyably odd way of doing things.
‘The turning point was in the early eighties,' recalls parish councillor and community activist Jim Wingham. ‘The council funded a Victorian weekend. People took it to their bosom and they dressed up.'
‘People would walk along the prom then go in the pubs and have a drink. Then, many years ago, a chap had an idea of forming a Victorian football club. They dressed up in Victorian clothes and they all stuck on false moustaches and they played football on the beach.’
Over the years the Saltburn Victorian Footballers raised thousands for local youth groups in the town. And their exploits inspired a gala day with a duck derby and aircraft display, this year attracting 20,000 to the town.
Jim believes these adventures are sparked by a special community spirit – the same spirit which has helped to preserve and restore the town since he first clapped eyes on it 42 years ago.
‘I fell in love with Saltburn, even though she was a lady with mucky skirts. The pier and everything was neglected,’ said Jim, who is now 71.
‘But the view from the top prom across to Huntcliff is one of the iconic views of England. It’s my favourite view.’
Today, he says, ‘she’s wearing newer clothes and make-up’, thanks to investment and hard work. And the proud townsfolk are responsible.
‘The community work together. We have litter picks. We’ve been very successful in Britain In Bloom. They’re very dedicated people, and if you suggest there are too many hanging baskets they look at you with looks that could kill,’ jokes Jim.
If any part of the town’s heritage comes under threat, the town rallies. He became involved in the parish council after forming Save Our Saltburn, a campaign to preserve the railway station. A similar crusade kept open Huntcliff School which went on to grow and prosper.
Wilma Gardiner-Gill, arts development promoter at Saltburn Community and Arts Association, has a similar story to tell.
‘There’s a huge community element in the town, campaigning to save things. The junior school would probably have been flats by now, but the town got together and saved it.
‘And that happens all the time. There’s Friends of the Pier, Friends of the Valley Gardens, lots of pockets of groups, a real community base.’
The reprieved junior school will re-open in autumn as a sister venue to the Saltburn Arts Theatre and Community Hall.
‘It’s over a hundred years old so the rooms are huge,’ Wilma said. ‘There is going to be a town archive there. There’ll be a rehearsal space, costume storage, a skateboard park, lots of exhibition space. We’re going to be very busy.’
Make that busier. Saltburn Community and Arts Association already stages a list of events which is as broad as it is long.
There are monthly jazz nights and an annual music competition, a film society with more than 200 members and a yearly film festival, popular comedy nights every month, local bands and big bands, magic and cabaret.
The Saltburn Folk Festival takes over the town for three days in August and there are regular art and photographic competitions.
Clearly it’s a creative place. ‘There’s a huge pool of artists,’ Wilma agrees. ‘And not just painters. There are also lots of writers.'
‘I’ve been here 15 years, and it’s always had that reputation. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s because we’re right next to the sea and a beautiful beach, we’ve got history and minutes away you’re on the moors.’
Plenty of famous names have been lured to Saltburn too, she said. ‘At our first film festival six years ago, Barry Norman came along. He’s a really lovely man. We’ve had Honor Blackman too and Eric Knowles came and did an antiques thing for us.’
Last year the town responded with customary enthusiasm to Saltburn 150, a year-long festival to mark the 150th anniversary of the railway arriving. There were lectures, a beer festival, a beach spectacular and the creation of special mosaics depicting life in the town.
Wilma secured funding to commission a filmmaker to capture the celebrations, and the Saltburn 150 movie was due to be shown for the first time at the town film festival in late August.
‘He’s filmed something like 70 hours of footage and he’s somehow condensed that into an hour and a half,’ she said.
No doubt the film provides an excellent snapshot of Saltburn. But you need a lot longer than 90 minutes to get to know this remarkable seaside town in all its eccentric glory.