Phil’s Forty, 22: Crabs and nets

It’s 40 years this year since Phil Ascough, our most prolific freelance contributor, arrived in Hull to begin a new episode in his journalistic career. Having spent two years on the weekly Doncaster Gazette, Phil headed east to the Hull Daily Mail. Apart from three years on the Royal Gazette in Bermuda and a short spell at the Teesside Gazette, he’s been here ever since. He worked for the Yorkshire Post and the BBC before returning to the Mail and becoming business editor. He moved into sports media with the Press Association in Leeds and then Howden, and set up his own PR consultancy in 2010. To mark the anniversary he has set out to write 40 essays looking at his career, our city and its people.

Withernsea Fist Trail
Withernsea Fish Trail.

Phil has been holidaying on the Holderness coast, and submits a two-parter in his ongoing essay series…

Part One

One of the big differences between a Mediterranean holiday and a break on the Yorkshire Riviera is that you’re more likely to find Yorkshire seafood in a Spanish restaurant.

The mainstream media were all over it a few weeks ago with the message that more is now being done to promote East Yorkshire as Europe’s crab and lobster capital. Is it?

We set off to Hornsea partly because it’s a nice town, it was a glorious day and we were sure we’d be able to buy a boiled crab, full or dressed. Two out of three ain’t bad.

We walked the prom and the town, we lunched at Whitehead’s where the restaurant was closed but the quality of the takeaway haddock and chips made the half-hour wait worthwhile, and along the way we asked where we could get a crab.

The locals in the newsagents said we would be able to get a live one from the boat launch, which left me thinking it was a good job we didn’t want pork chops. In desperation we even asked the local butcher, who said the nearest boiled crabs were in Brid.

We did our homework in readiness for a trip to Withernsea a couple of days later and collected two lovely, full, boiled crabs which had just come in that morning. Plus two pots of crab paté made from an earlier catch.

Phil’s much sought after crabs.

The best surprises often come from the most unlikely places. Not so much Withernsea itself – although the place has more than its fair share of critics – but the collection of random units and containers which form a “business park” just to the north of the town. There’s no need to navigate your way past the motor mechanics, garage clearance people and signs urging you to convert a container into the perfect compact office. Just look up GWS Seafoods at Waxholme and they’ll deliver to you via Tony 2 Tides, with plans to open a wet fish shop in Keyingham next month.

One of my more memorable visits to Withernsea was in 1995 with Prince Charles on a coach from Gipsyville. All of which sounds so bizarre it’s maybe appropriate to pause and read it again. 

The heir to the throne got on a bus in one of Hull’s more challenged areas and went to see another one in East Yorkshire, experiencing for himself the delights of Hedon Road before the dual carriageway and of the winding country lanes which took us through Holderness to isolation. HRH was a guest of a group of big-shot business people from the local area and across the country, members of Business in the Community, which was part of the Prince’s Trust initiative.

He didn’t pretend to be impressed but he did offer constructive suggestions about what he felt both locations were lacking. Withernsea shaded the prize for the biggest Royal frown – he feared for the future of a town which he believed was missing the sense of community which at least offered hope in Gipsyville. The next time Withernsea needed a Royal visit he sent his sister.

We got back on the bus for the return to Hull. Prince Charles got a head start with his limo, driver and police escort. I don’t know what he made of his next trip to Withernsea in 2013 but if he drops in now he’ll find some big improvements.

Dave Lee touched on some of them in the Yorkshire Post earlier this month. Plans are progressing to build a new pier, which is always an asset. And the town is also finding a modest level of fame having been adopted by Dean Wilson, a poet and pebble collector of growing social media stardom.

The lighthouse, already an impressive landmark by any standards, is apparently going to get a lick of paint, and there are a couple of other assets which have passed many people by.

From the turrets which mark the entrance to the original pier, head south a couple of hundred yards down the prom and take a closer look at the blue hoardings, somewhat weather-beaten but still displaying some fascinating black and white photographs of Withernsea packed with tourists, and of steam trains dropping them off and picking them up again.

Withernsea Rail
Withernsea Rail.

In Withernsea, Hornsea and nationwide, the damage inflicted by Richard Beeching is irreparable but these displays will hopefully remain as a permanent reminder of a proud history and as evidence of the community spirit generated by Big Local, the organisation behind the project.

Just across the road you’ll surely spot the crab, standing maybe seven feet tall and the work of Emma Stothard, an artist based in Welwick. Emma has been commissioner by the Yorkshire Coast BID to create a series of large sculptures from Spurn up to Staithes and the crab contribution in Withernsea also marks the start and end of the town’s fish trail which was inspired by the one in Hull and opened earlier this year. We’ll be going back to have a proper look at that.

The social distancing measures at Seasiders enabled us to sit in for our haddock and chips which were excellent, with a better batter – less salty – making them an improvement even on the catch at Whitehead’s.

Tony's Textiles
Tony’s Textiles voucher.

There was time for a glimpse at another of Withernsea’s great traditions, primarily because it was closed but hopefully only temporarily. Last time we went to Withernsea we took a voucher for Tony’s Textiles. Worth £15, it was from the draw which Jayne and her colleagues paid into at work. It had spent 10 years or more hidden away in an envelope at home.

I forget what we bought but before handing over the voucher we photographed it as evidence of the scale of the household linen empire which was launched by Tony Kirby as a market stall in Driffield in 1976. Withernsea was the first physical shop in a chain which extended to around 20 and it has outlived all the others as the business has changed.

The voucher shows the 15 locations which operated at the time. South Street in Hull made way for a smart site on Jameson Street which closed a couple of years ago as yet more business moved online. 

Last time we spoke Tony told me two things which stuck in the memory. First, demand for net curtains is very big among people from eastern Europe. I checked on a trip to St Petersburg and noted as I gazed up at some huge apartment blocks that most windows had them.

Second, people who have grown up in Hull and moved to live in Australia, the States and all over Europe still trust the Tony’s Textiles brand and order all this and more from the website, taking the name of Withernsea all over the world.

Part Two will be posted at 7pm this evening…

Phil Ascough