To glimpse the Grand Hotel Scarborough standing watch above Britain’s North Sea is to immediately understand how it got its name. When it first opened, in 1867, the Grand was the largest brick structure in all of Europe, a cathedral for wealthy Victorian holiday-makers who wanted to sample the mineral-rich waters of this North Yorkshire resort.
Churchill stayed there. One of the Brontës died on the site (before the hotel was built). Hitler, harboring dreams of making it his own private palace, was rumored to have threatened any Luftwaffe pilot who dared touch it with an instant court martial.
But that was long ago. In the ensuing years, the Grand Hotel hasn’t so much fallen from grace as completely bottomed out. Since 2000, it has been prey to fires, infectious outbreaks, and—in one instance—dangerous levels of bleach in the drinking water. However, now the disrepair has gone into overdrive. This year alone, the staff have been bombarded with reports of blood-streaked walls, 12-hour check-in lines, dirty sheets, and corridors lined with both broken glass and used condoms.
Three weeks ago, the entire hotel was evacuated after a bomb scare. Two weeks ago, Tripadvisor took the rare step of temporarily suspending all customer reviews. Clearly, something has gone very wrong.
The question of what exactly happened to such a mighty jewel is a tricky one to answer. So last weekend I paid it a visit. And, completely by accident, I ended up getting something of a free tour.
I arrived close to midnight, with my six-year-old son in tow (my entire family was supposed to join me, but my wife backed out at the last minute after reading the online reviews). Despite the ancient booking software that apparently needed to be warmed up like an old cathode- ray television, we were eventually assigned a room on the top floor.
A night porter ushered us into an elevator that smelled of smoke and seemed to have been held together by strips of black-and-yellow hazard tape. There he informed us that we were in luck because the top floor was currently being refurbished. However, it quickly became apparent that he was referring to our room directly; upon unlocking the door, we were greeted by nothing but dust sheets and wet paint.
So we returned to reception, where the system eventually allocated us a second room on a different floor. The good news was that this one had a view of the sea; the bad news was that it also had no electricity. By this point our porter had become almost pathologically apologetic, and had taken to curling into a full-body, Fawlty-like flinch before opening any new door, the same way that police officers do in movies when they’re cutting wires on an unexploded bomb.
Since 2000, it has been prey to fires, infectious outbreaks, and—in one instance—dangerous levels of bleach in the drinking water.
Our third room was skin-meltingly hot, but it did have beds and power, so we figured it was close enough. The porter peeked out of the window. “Oh, a city view,” he sighed, glumly finger-quoting the word “city.” I opened the curtains after he left. The view was of a parking lot, a neighboring Travelodge, and a tent with a homeless man in it.
It could have been worse. One continual complaint of the Grand is that some rooms don’t have any windows at all, so in that respect we got lucky. And, in fairness, the room wasn’t a total disaster. Yes, it was a little rough and ready. Yes, the power socket was as far from the beds as you could get. Yes, the toilet didn’t so much flush as vigorously stir up its contents. But we avoided any blood or feces, which was bittersweet. In terms of the hotel’s reputation, it was a little like going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert and not hearing “Free Bird.”
The blame for this calamity lies with several culprits. The first is the hotel’s operator, Britannia, which for eight consecutive years has come dead last in a survey of the country’s hoteliers. Britannia’s modus operandi seems to be to take nice old hotels and then utterly neglect them to the point of dereliction. Britannia operates more than 60 hotels in the U.K.; in previous investigations, the consumer magazine Which? has discovered an array of horrors in its branches, ranging from stained towels and clogged ventilation fans to traces of enterococcus bacteria on its door handles. (Britannia did not respond to request for comment.)
But the decay has been brewing for much longer than that. When cheap package vacations to the Mediterranean took off, in the 1960s, the domestic British holiday industry took a hit. Scarborough’s signage still boasts that it is the U.K.’s first seaside resort, but who would brave the icy Yorkshire wind when they could have a week on the idyllic Spanish coast for the same price?
With its wealthier clientele abandoning it for sunnier destinations, the Grand had little choice but to reframe itself for the budget end of the market. And this problem stretches beyond the confines of the hotel, too. As a town, Scarborough has long since traded its air of Victorian money for a mess of down-market chain stores and bands of aggressively drunk weekenders.
There may also be an element of racism at play here. Earlier this month it was announced that the Grand would be housing 200 refugees recently airlifted from Afghanistan. This, in turn, caused howls of outrage from guests and locals alike, who flooded Tripadvisor with reports of young Afghan children “running riot” through the corridors, setting off fire extinguishers, and damaging elevators. Social media is alight with claims that “illegal immigrants” have ruined the hotel, and those claims have coincided with an anti-refugee leafleting campaign in the town. This month’s bomb hoax, too, was thought to have been initiated by locals who have taken against the new arrivals.
The view was of a parking lot, a neighboring Travelodge, and a tent with a homeless man in it.
It’s worth pointing out that, during my visit, I didn’t see a single refugee in or around the hotel. But even if I had, so what? These are people who fled their homes in fear. The very least they deserve is a warm welcome, and the fact that this hasn’t been forthcoming is nothing less than shameful. Nevertheless, it has been claimed by The Sun that some of the families now want to return to Afghanistan. The timing couldn’t be worse. The last thing that Britannia Hotels needs is the slogan “The Grand Hotel Scarborough: so bad we’d rather take our chances with the Taliban.”
Truth be told, I have stayed in plenty of worse places than the Grand Hotel Scarborough. The problem is that none of them happened to be called “the Grand Hotel.” There’s a vast chasm between what once was and what is now, and the two are almost impossible to reconcile. There are calls for the hotel to be returned to its former glory, but that seems impractical; there is simply no longer a market for a 413-room upmarket hotel on this strip of the Yorkshire coast.
My own suspicion is that the Grand will soon be sold, stripped, and turned into apartments. It would be a shame to lose such an impressive slice of history, but the damage has already been done.
However, despite everything, there’s still a trace of the old magic there. If you come down to breakfast at just the right time, and if you peer through the condensation and bird droppings that cake the restaurant windows, you will be presented with something truly breathtaking: the whole scope of Scarborough’s North Bay, from the harbor on the left to the cliffs on the right, bathed in warm shades of pink and gold as the autumn sun slowly climbs above the sea.
It is an astonishing sight, so spectacular that you can’t help but stop and stare in disbelief. There is still a romance to Scarborough. But to look at the way things have panned out, you can only assume Hitler must be absolutely heartbroken.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL