The mineral rich waters of Scarborough’s spa are reputed to have made the North Yorkshire town England’s first seaside resort more than 350 years ago. But today it’s sea water, rather than spa water, which is the subject of discussion. Residents and holidaymakers alike have been advised to not swim in either of the town’s bays due to poor water quality. BBC News went along to find out how the bathing ‘ban’ has gone down.
For John Dalton a swim in the sea is nothing to worry about and very much something to look forward to.
The 69-year-old doesn’t believe the water he bathes in is dirty.
“The water is really clear, you can see the bottom, there are seals and dolphins out there.
“When people tell me the bay is dirty, I don’t believe them,” he tells me as he enjoys a coffee in a cafe near the beach after his second dip of the day.
“I do think it’s disgraceful that companies can discharge effluent and toxins into the sea.”The media will put people off. You should trust your own senses and the fact that sea life is abundant here.
“Now people don’t want to go into that beautiful sea, which is crystal clear today, because of something they have heard.”
When we meet it’s a hot and sunny day in Scarborough. Perfect beach weather.
But looking out across the wide sandy crescent of South Bay there is no-one swimming in the invitingly cool water.
An isolated paddleboarder breaks the scene as they slowly move away from the shore.
The reason for the lack of activity could be the stark warning signs peppering the entrances to the sand, setting out the area’s poor water quality rating.
A short walk past the arcades, ice cream sellers and harbour reveals a similar picture in the town’s North Bay.
Normally rated excellent, Yorkshire Water says the plunge in quality is explained by a damaged screen at a storm overflow allowing sewage and debris to spill out into the bay.
A temporary repair was quickly carried out, the firm says, but the guidance will remain in place pending further tests.
Steve Crawford, who runs the Fluid Concept Surf School in the South Bay, believes the poor water rating has had a “profound” impact on his business, resulting in thousands in lost income.
The 54-year-old told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: “I don’t do much work in winter because it is colder, and this is the time of year when I pay my winter bills, prepare for next year, and replace stock, but I’ve barely made a penny.
“As a business, I can’t teach and the lifeguards are actively telling people to not go in the water.”
Another business owner pointed me to an area just offshore and said they had seen what they believed to be a brown sewage spill on the water last week.
While they said the warning against swimming had not had a direct impact on their customers it was “a big issue” in the town.
On the sweeping Marine Drive, which joins the two bays, visitors Christine Sykes and Carol Voakes are looking at an information board installed some time ago by Yorkshire Water.
Across the top it reads ‘Making Yorkshire’s beaches the best in Europe’ and explains how £50m was spent in the area between 2011 and 2014.
It explains how the investment means the firm is able to “store more storm water at times of heavy or prolonged rainfall when the sewerage system can become overwhelmed”.
The pair, who are walking their dogs, tell me they would have second thoughts about letting their pets swim in the water.
“We think it’s dreadful that this has happened.
“We worry about the dogs getting in the water and it’s a shame for the little kids, all they want to do is get in the water,” Christine explains.
“The water quality should be good, we pay enough in water rates,” Carol adds.
Hotelier Lynn Jackson, from Scarborough Hospitality Association, says members of the group haven’t seen a dip in bookings so far but fears families planning summer breaks could think twice.
“It’s one of the risks that you take going into any water sadly, I don’t think there’s any bit of water in the UK that doesn’t get sewage, it’s a calculated risk.
“I’m very well aware of it, I’m friends with surfers, I have been to the meetings [about it], it seems that whatever we do and whatever we say, nothing changes.”
However, she warns against pinning the blame solely on water companies, adding that litter on the beach can get washed into the water, while waste, oil and fuel spillages from boats could also have an impact.
Back on the South Bay, a man who is renting out deck chairs pointed out the bathing water warning signs, and then two poles which he said mark a safe swimming area.
He describes it as “confusing” for visitors.
Charity shop volunteers Sue Emms, 79, and Val Humphreys, 88, say they have swum in the sea in Scarborough since they were children, but that people were now becoming more aware of water quality.
Sue told me: “There’s a lot more information nowadays. I don’t think I would be very happy going in now, I wouldn’t go in it myself personally.
“People come to Scarborough with their children so I would have thought maybe they will go somewhere else now.”
North Yorkshire Council says the water quality in the South Bay has been an issue for a number of years and requires a “multi-agency response”.
Councillor Derek Bastiman from the authority explains how a “dedicated business growth hub team” is in the process of contacting firms directly affected by the bathing water quality status to see if they can provide support.
He says it is “obviously disappointing” that the water quality was again rated poor in 2022 but the council continues to encourage visitors to the coast.
A Yorkshire Water spokesperson tells me a number of factors have an impact on water quality, including sewage, agricultural and industrial inputs, wildlife, birds and road drainage.
They say it can be “complex” to identify the cause of poor bathing water quality.
“In the 2022 bathing season, Scarborough South classification fell from ‘sufficient’ to ‘poor’ despite the number of sewage discharges on Yorkshire’s coastline reducing by half,” the spokesperson adds.
Nationally, campaign group Surfers Against Sewage has called for an end to sewage discharges into UK bathing waters and a 90% reduction in sewage discharges by 2030.
The Environment Agency says it is working to protect and improve bathing waters by regulating and holding polluters to account.
For people like surf school owner Mr Crawford action can not come soon enough.
“This is going to hit a lot of people,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve been hit hardest first.”
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