Man about town

The future lies in greener, more intimate communities, Gary Day hears from a geographer on the edge

August 4, 2011



Credit: Miles Cole


In a recent interview for the Radio 4 arts programme Front Row, Nicholas Crane described himself as a quiet man who likes to read and write books. A brief internet search reveals a different picture, that of an active, outdoor type. Was this disparity a sign of lack of self-knowledge, or that Nick has a secret identity, like a superhero? The introductory titles for his new four-part series, Town (BBC Two, Thursday 4 August, 9pm), confirmed that this is no ordinary geographer, as he paddles a canoe, climbs a cliff and flies a helicopter, all in a desperate attempt to find a municipality prepared to play host to him and his camera crew. You can understand their concerns. Nick's rhetoric verges on the apocalyptic. "I have seen towns explode into cities," he boasts, "I have seen towns with their hearts ripped out." But, to be fair, he seems to have been the witness to the carnage only, not its cause.

Nick believes we should go back to living in towns. They are "smaller, greener and more intimate" than cities. What's more, cities "don't have all the answers", a baseless charge since Nick wouldn't even ask them the questions. Before towns up and down the country got too excited by his sticking it to the cities, Nick had a word of warning: "We are living", he thundered, "in a time of great social and economic upheaval." People probably felt the same during the War of the Roses and the French Revolution. Invoking a Darwinian idiom, he said towns should either adapt or die. Once they had a clear function - a river town was for transport, a market town held markets - but now they have outgrown their original purposes and must find new ones. Gulp.

Nick went to Scarborough, Yorkshire's premier seaside resort, to see how it was coping with the end of days. Mostly by art festivals and teaching people to surf, apparently. He was particularly attracted by its remote location, at the end of a railway line and on the edge of England. Having taken all that trouble to isolate themselves from the rest of the world, the locals must have wondered how he managed to find them. But Nick is a resourceful character. Back in 1986 he discovered the pole of inaccessibility for the Eurasia landmass. My ignorance of this term made it sound all the more impressive. It denotes "a location that is the most challenging to reach owing to its remoteness from geographical features that could provide access". After that, getting to Scarborough must have seemed as easy as buying a railway ticket. No, easier.

Nick subscribes to the Montesquieu school of anthropology, that climate affects character. Because of their position on the coast, Scarborough people like to live on the edge. One person who did appear to live on the edge in Scarborough was Wendy Noble, "a cliff inspector". The town's crags are crumbling. As if to prove the point, a small shower of soil fell into Wendy's hood as she and Nick abseiled down a rock face. In 1993, Holbeck Hall, a hotel, slithered into the sea. Here was Nick's opportunity to prove his superhero status. If he could just find somewhere to change into his cagoule, he could use his powers to prop up Scarborough's precipices and keep its inhabitants teetering on the brink.

The town was founded by Viking raiders in the 10th century. "It must have seemed like a Mediterranean resort" to them, said Nick. Sensing that the place might prove a popular holiday destination, some other Vikings decided that they should run the place. A mighty battle ensued and Scarborough was burnt to the ground. Why didn't they just refer the matter to the monopolies commission? By the 13th century, Scarborough was famous for its fair, a fish market that brought traders from all over Europe. But it was the discovery of a spring at the foot of the cliff that really made the town's fortune. The high mineral content acted as a purgative, giving you "a couple of lively days", said Dr Will Mayes from the University of Hull. A dip in the sea was also deemed to be beneficial. Nick stripped to his floral underpants and raced into the waves to test the theory.

When his teeth had stopped chattering, he ridiculed the Grand Hotel, built in the shape of a "V" in honour of Queen Victoria but also embodying the theme of time. The four turrets represent the seasons, the 12 floors the months of the year. "It looks like the summer palace of an imperial fruit cake," chortled Nick. But he couldn't hide his admiration for the town's all-female mayoral team, nor the way in which everyone decides on how the council should spend its budget. Visitors don't just come to Scarborough for the sea, but to see the future.

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