My 50-year love affair with Yorkshire's most special seaside resort

James Brown
"We walked to the Brigg just after high tide and it was windy and wet and felt dangerous and exhilarating" - getty

It’s hard to provide a capsule explanation for the Yorkshire coastal town of Filey. It hasn’t been popularised by a traditional folk song like Scarborough Fair, nor does it have a famous resident like Bridlington has David Hockney, and it doesn’t have an outstanding modern boutique hotel like The Parisi in York. So the simplest way I’ve found to explain the location and my attachment to it is that it sits on the North Yorks coast between all three of these places and is where I spent every single rainy holiday as a kid. My mum’s ashes are scattered there and my granny, who I was also very close to, died there too. As a child it was a place of great delight and adventure, then became a source of deep sadness, and now offers some hope again as I return with my own kids. 

With a six-year-old son to entertain on a pre-lockdown Saturday, Filey suddenly offered a nostalgic pull and off we went, my 18-year-old son too. I’m not saying the six-year-old has had too many foreign holidays, but when we arrived and were met by a grey bay, he asked: “Daddy, is there a time difference between Filey and London?” 

Most people’s answer to that would be “yes, 30 years”. Filey isn’t a very happening place, but it has its charms; someone once described it as “undamaged by the outside world”. In recent years it has become proud of what it is: a popular destination for Yorkshire families who want good fish and chips and a great walk on a magnificent beach. 

The simple Victorian resort has an imposing brutalist seawall that footballs have been hammered against forever and communal flower gardens with an ever increasing army of remembrance benches. It sits between matching headlands, to the north is the must-walk Filey Brigg which the Romans used as a landing dock and 13 miles to the south is Flamborough Head. Between the two is a huge curve of firm sand that was recently voted the sixth best in the world by users of TripAdvisor. Anyone who’s visited the Maldives might disagree, but there’s something deeply personal about people’s relationship with Filey. Mine certainly is.

As a kid, my granny, Margaret Lamb, owned a holiday flat there which is why we visited from Leeds so often. On arrival glimpsing the sea each time felt as exciting as waking on Christmas morning. We’d drive along the front past the mini fairground, the archery and the paddling pools, then turn back on ourselves up the cobbled Crescent Hill where my dad would slow the car and insist we shout ‘lift!’ to help us to the top. 

The vast beach at Filey - getty

The day would start with Variety Pack cereal boxes and then it was off to a chalet above the sea wall and the beach itself to play football or cricket, build rows of sandcastles and sandwalls to dam a stream that fed the sea, and then sand-boats to sit on until the sea surrounded us. Lilos and rubber dinghies would battle the lively North Sea surf.

We’d throw coins at bells in charity wells, watch tractors drag fishing boats up the beach, be thrilled by lifeboats departing on a rescue mission, sometimes accompanied by the orange offshore rescue helicopter overhead. In winter my dad would drive his Simon Templar Volvo P1800 onto the beach and one summer was so hot the large white houses on the clifftop turned red with ladybirds. 

Maynards sweetshop was where I’d buy jelly worms, Wrays newsagent was for the Tiger & Scorcher summer special, Sterchi’s had a bread shop and a chocolate shop too. This was 45 years ago, and it’s cliched nostalgia I know, but guess what? They’re all still there. Sterchi’s has moved round the corner but it has the same deep blue frontage. Maynards sells goodie bags with vintage comics and old fashioned sweets, and Wrays is a stationers, jigsaw emporium, toyshop and newsagent. I visited all of them with my boys, creating new memories.  

A youngster at Butlin's Filey, which closed in 1977 - getty

When my mum died suddenly and tragically in Leeds, 27 years ago, we scattered her ashes on the Brigg and then when my grandma moved out to a retirement home there I’d combine it with seeing Leeds United to visit her every other weekend. London, Leeds, Filey and back was a long drive but she was my link to my mum and we’d often just sit in my car and look out to where we’d scattered her ashes. 

After my granny died I still visited, staying at the nice All Seasons BnB, until three years ago I just felt empty, and wondered ‘why am I still coming here?’ I called my dad to thank him for bringing us here as kids, and then decided not to go any more. I wasn’t getting any closer to my mum, I was visiting out of emotional habit and it was making me feel very sad.

The town attracts those in search of an old-fashioned seaside holiday - getty

Last year, realising I could bring Billy reversed that. Both boys, 12 years between them, loved jumping up and down the heavy sea washed steps as the waves crashed in around their feet. Both bought chocolates for their mums in Sterchis, finished huge portions of haddock and chips in Inghams and tubs of 2ps in the arcade. We walked to the Brigg just after high tide and it was windy and wet and felt dangerous and exhilarating. The place came alive again for me, it no longer felt like something from the past. And then something very strange happened.

Many years ago I was sitting crying outside my Granny’s old holiday let with my then wife, asking her if she thought my mum could see us. She was into a big TV show at the time about messages from beyond the grave and said ‘Yes definitely’, and then we drove round to Sterchis, my mums favourite shop. In the window full of chocolates, only one shell was decorated, and it had the name ‘Jamie’ iced onto it. Which was what my mum had called me. My wife looked at me and just said ‘See?’ It was really strange, and probably just a coincidence...

Then seven years ago I decided to go to Filey with Billy’s mum, Lisa, when she was pregnant. Lisa spent a while on her computer looking for self-catering places then she said ‘How about this, it looks nice’ and it was my granny’s old holiday let. While we were there I was getting out of the shower and I saw my phone was ringing someone. I didn’t have voice activation and I hadn’t been near it for ten minutes nor had I called that number for over 10 years, in fact I was surprised I still had it, it simply said ‘Granny home’. It was her number for where she had lived almost all my life. I shivered, I couldn’t work out how that had happened, there was no logical explanation.

An old rail poster for the Yorkshire resort - getty

Because every year her home was full of Christmas cards with robins on them, I always think of her any time I ever see a robin. This time, just as we were waiting for the cab to leave Filey, I popped out to post some postcards, and as I walked into the Crescent Gardens I saw a very tame robin just a foot or so from my head on top of a hedge looking at me. It flew on to the first bench I was heading towards, waited for me, then flew to the next, waited, and then flew onto the end of the hedge and waited for me again. I looked up and we were right outside the room she had died in. I just laughed and said ‘Hello Granny’ and it flew off. When I got back to the boys I told them about this and they looked out of the window. The eldest just pointed across the road and said ‘Look’! And the robin was sitting there looking at us. No-one can tell me Filey isn’t special.