English seaside towns are a wonderful thing to behold. They fall into three categories. There are the “professional” resorts such as Blackpool, Scarborough, Skegness and Brighton. The second group are the seafaring towns with fishing boats and harbours and finally there are the towns that happen to be located by the sea and attract visitors because of it but they carry the air of yesteryear. The first group will invest millions in encouraging mainly British tourists to forego staying at home or going to the Costas. They also encourage the long weekends and the day trips. They have funfairs and variety shows to keep the punters entertained. The second group don’t really need the tourist trade. Their welfare ebbs and flows with the UK economy and the whims of European fishing policy. The latter group are the vestiges of the golden age of British seasides when having a beach was quite enough entertainment for a trainload of factory workers on their one week’s holiday. They peaked in the Edwardian era and clung on until the 1960s before beginning a decline. They are dotted with ghostly footprints of weather-ravaged piers, majestic hotels now converted into flats and parks with delapidated bandstands and overgrown flower beds. I’m old enough to just remember them in their pomp with beautifully tended Italian gardens and miniature railways, boating lakes and swingboats.
I probably prefer them to the overpopulated ‘tier one’ towns at the height of summer when parking and rubbish are at their peak and there is a prevalence of novelty shaped rock and abusive t-shirts which shouldn’t really be visible in a family resort. Some of these smaller towns have evolved their own personality – Wells, Cromer, Filey and Saltburn. On a recent Bank Holiday I visited Hornsea on the East Yorkshire coast. There’s no big tourist draw other than a Blue Flag beach, easy parking, Hornsea Mere (a large lake) and a retail discount mall. It’s strapline in the early part of the 20th Century was “Lakeland by the Sea” and there is a feel of some of the smaller Lakeland towns about it.
Thankfully it’s also blessed with a variety of independent cafes and fish and chip shops which were all open on a cool and occasionally drizzly Bank Holiday Monday. I tried a couple.
Cafe Mellars is set on a street running back from the seafront – a street with several competitors all with slightly different emphasis. This has the appearance of a slightly old-fashioned “tea shoppe” from the outside. It’s quite dark inside but it does look like a warm and welcoming place. The other customers are a good indication. They are clearly locals who know to the owner by his Christian name. There’s a couple of builders stocking up on a hearty lunch. It’s all charmingly higgledy piggledy. The specials board tells it how it is with a few misspellings in chalk. The menu is simple but ample. We opted for some toast (nice thick slices), some Yorkshire curd tart (a favourite of mine) and some coffee cake (“mind the coffee beans on the top – they are real beans not chocolate ones”). The Yorkshire curd tart was OK but I prefer a little more curd and a little less raisin. The pastry was good and I took the owner’s advice with the cream. The hot chocolate was immense. It was topped with a thick layer of mini-marshmallows which went gooey with the hot chocolate.
It gave us time to sit back and look at the decor. There are lots of 70s, 80s and 90s album covers and plenty of posters for local events. Alongside the specials board was an advert for an event offering fish platters to support the local fishermen. This is a great little place. Nothing fancy but warm-hearted and just the kind of cafe that every high street needs. I bet their breakfast is just the thing on a cold morning.
We took in the sea air for a while with a good long walk along the prom and then back round into the town centre. We visited Tracy Savage’s pretty gallery with her paintings of hidden, fantastic goings-on amongst stacked-up Yorkshire seaside buildings. Really well observed detail of rust, barnacles and weathering brought to life with witty ideas. We passed on Hornsea Museum but it looked like a well-integrated part of the community. We visited the Original Factory Shop and then were somewhat disappointed to discover it was part of a chain (how does that work?). The was a bowls match on the green close to the seafront and lots of stalwart British visitors sitting on the beach regardless of the temperature. One of the chalets on the seafront was occupied by an elderly couple wrapped up in blankets oblivious to everyone peering in as they passed the front door.
And then it was time to visit Cafe Chocolat. This is on the same street as Cafe Mellars just a little further away from the sea. They make chocolates and right in front of the door is a display of their wares. It was packed when we arrived with a couple of reserved tables but luckily people were leaving as we arrived. The cafe is quite modern and nothing to really look at. Just as well because you wouldn’t be able to see much for the number of customers in the way. It has large windows on two sides facing out onto a balcony which was well used by dog walkers and smokers. The service was fantastic – brisk and friendly. We had the special meat feast pannini, soup (mushroom) and a sandwich (cheese and onion) and a side order of the fried potato chunks. Everything was good. The highlights were an excellent homemade mushroom soup and those fried herby potatoes – crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside and well seasoned. Every customer can pick a complementary chocolate when they pay – a really good way to link the theme together. There was also an evening special menu where the chef obviously plays a little more and this was fully booked for most nights.
There you have it. Just two cafes from the many to choose from but each with its own niche, well executed. Long live the little British seaside town and long live the British cafe!