The singing starts at 8am, the baritone vocals escaping from the kitchen with the smell of bacon.
“I love you ba-aby, and if it’s quite alright, I need you ba-aby to warm the lonely night…”
Frankie Valli is a favourite, Johnny Cash, too. And The Beatles, obviously. He does requests. He: James Rusden, co-owner and chef at the Toulson Court B&B in Scarborough, which in an unlikely turn of events has just been declared the world’s best-rated bed and breakfast by TripAdvisor — for the second year running. I had to go.
I took the train up, passing through the kind of scenery that gives Yorkshire folk the right to call their land ‘god’s own country’. Watching the rolling farmsteads and forests outside, I reflected on some of the considered critique that the TripAdvisor community has brought to the world over the years.
There was that viral review of Mount Snowdon: “Very steep and too high.” And Sean G’s musings on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco: “It’s a bridge. It’s covered in fog. It’s pointless.” And my personal favourite, Honestlocal2012’s takedown of Stonehenge: “I was disgusted to find that this was just a few rocks to look at and nothing to do. Don’t waste your time what a silly place.”
Really, where would we be without it?
Still, you can’t argue with the sheer volume of rave reviews for Toulson Court — 1,765 by the time I checked in, and with an average rating of five stars. And the glowing reviews don’t just come via TripAdvisor. The place gets 9.8 out of 10 on booking.com (Dubai’s Burj Al Arab clocks in at 9.2), and an almost unprecedented 4.9 on Google. What’s going on?
James and Angela, the B&B’s husband-and-wife team, aren’t quite sure themselves. They greeted me wearing matching Toulson Court polo shirts and smiles. The first time it happened they “thought it was a bit jammy.” “Lots of the world was in lockdown, lots of hotels in Europe were shut,” said Angela, checking me in. But now it’s happened again.
“It puts us on a bit of a pedestal,” admitted James, aware of growing expectations — and keen to manage them. “We’re not the Ritz; we don’t have roll top baths or crystal glasses or sea views. We’re just an ordinary B&B in a Victorian house with fairly small rooms.”
For the most part, Toulson Court is ordinary. The suburban location is ordinary, the property is ordinary, the decor is ordinary and the views are really ordinary; net curtains obscure a road out front and other people’s gardens out back. I wasn’t expecting Sydney Opera House, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain, but neither did I expect garden sheds.
But all that misses the point of Toulson Court. Which brings us to what is not ordinary about it, and that’s the sheer devotion that Angela and James show towards the place — and each other.
“This B&B is run on passion,” said Angela. And it shows; it’s in way they fold the towels, it’s in the pillow chocolates, it’s in the spotless decor, the clinical cleanliness, the choice of 13 cereals at breakfast; it’s in the perfectly presented fry-ups, the baked goods on arrival, the free stick of rock on departure.
You can’t help but buy into the humble pride, the nostalgia, the sentimentality of it all. At a time when many of their competitors are becoming anonymous room-only holiday lets, Angela and James are doing the opposite; they are building an honest, salt-of-the-earth business on passion and personality — for £85 a night. If the revival of the British seaside holiday had a face, it would probably be theirs.
“It’s not for everyone,” said James, of the vibe, specifically his early morning singalongs. But the crooning is necessary — it helps him manage his anxiety, a result of having been diagnosed with two brain aneurysms, one inoperable.
The prognosis came after James suffered a stroke, triggered by redundancy from a high-flying, high-pressure role in recruitment (Angela also worked in recruitment). The diagnosis and the drugs that doctors prescribed to manage his anxiety sent James into a depression. He got panic attacks. “I had a mental breakdown,” he said.
Angela and some cognitive behavioural therapy helped James get a grip and the pair vowed to start again; to quit the corporate world and run a B&B by the sea. That’s when they found Toulson Court. That was 2016. Its kitchen has echoed to the sound of his singing since.
“I stopped singing once, and the guests complained,” he said. So he carried on, even had lessons. “I’ve been asked to do panto,” he added. “I might do it this Christmas.”
The guests? Repeat visitors, mostly. “People our age or older,” said Angela, 55. “They’re like family now. Some call for a natter every now and then.” One couple asked them to be witnesses at their wedding.
The original seaside town
I leave Toulson Court for the afternoon and keep the theme of my trip going by heading to TripAdvisor’s best-rated attraction in Scarborough: Peasholm Park, where squirrels eat nuts out the palm of your hand. The park looks like China, that’s the idea: the lake, the pagodas, the weeping willows and dragon boats were inspired by Oriental scenes on Willow Pattern pottery, which was all the rage in the Victorian era when the park was built. Like Toulson Court, Peasholm is a source of pride, a labour of love. It looks magnificent.
And what of the rest of Scarborough? A delightful town, genuinely charming; still clinging to what’s left of the fishing industry and apparently thriving as a holiday destination. Reputedly England’s oldest seaside resort, Scarborough’s pleasingly underdeveloped North Bay was an early pioneer of bathing machines; those portable changing rooms that allowed women to dip in the perennially cold North Sea away from the male gaze, as social convention once dictated.
The bay is overlooked by the ruins of Scarborough Castle, which sit atop a craggy hill. I climbed it, walking through the wonky, weather-beaten old town, which tumbles downhill the other side towards South Bay. I stopped halfway at St Mary’s Church, where the stone walls have been worn smooth by centuries of rain. Anne Brontë is buried there. Her original headstone has succumbed to the elements, but its modern replica relays the original epitaph and corrects a mistake — she was 29 when she died, not 28.
I stopped for a swifty at the Leeds Arms, a traditional boozer with fishing memorabilia on the walls and garrulous locals. The barmaid told me with pride that they had no TV. “It’s a proper pub this, a place where people come come to chat, like they used to.”
Chatting with the locals
I got talking to Colin, an 87-year-old former fisherman with white hair and rheumy eyes that still twinkle. He went on his first fishing expedition in 1948, aged 13, and only retired just 18 months ago.
“There were about 30, 40 trawlers at Scarborough when I started,” he said, wistfully. “Now there’s one.” His grandson stayed in the game, got his own boat. “Aye, he’s doing alright.”
Colin and I left the pub together and walked down the hill. “That’s me,” he said, pointing to a pretty Victorian townhouse. We paused, taking in the fading day. “Not bad is it, Scarborough?” I ventured, feeling uplifted by its geniality, the sea air. “No,” he said, eyes glinting. “It’s not. See you, mate.” And off he tottered back home for “tea”.
Down in South Bay, I saw more tottering, albeit of a different variety; tipsy out-of-towners wobbled along the seafront, where amusement arcades jingled and the smell of donuts and fish ‘n’ chips hung nostalgically in the air. Like the young families and old couples around them, the weekend partygoers were here for seaside merriment and, apparently, all-day karaoke at the Lord Nelson. The place was heaving. Inside, punters stood three deep at the bar while someone murdered Peter Andre’s Mysterious Girl. What would James think, I wondered.
I kept walking along South Bay towards Scarborough’s Grand Hotel, an embellished, red-brick, bird poo-splattered monument to Victorian ambition. Its looks have faded, as they do, and the place now provides lodgings for an unlikely mix of holidaymakers, Afghan refugees and seagulls, which squark incessantly from the ornate eaves.
Back at Toulson Court, I’m greeted by Angela, who has more baked goods and their two dogs, Delilah and Lulu, at her heels. It felt like coming home, which is the idea. “We want this place to be like coming to visit your sister or your mam,” she said. And so I took a chocolate cupcake and disappeared to my room.
How to do it
Toulson Court offers double rooms and smashing breakfasts for £85 per night (toulsoncourtscarborough.co.uk). Direct trains to Scarborough take around 30 minutes from York with the TransPennine Express (tpexpress.co.uk).