Funicular Favourites: Scarborough’s Five Cliff Lift Routes

Scarborough currently has two functioning cliff lifts, or funiculars, as they are otherwise known.

One is located near the Spa, and the other at St. Nicholas Cliff, taking visitors from the seafront to the shops.

The former has been in operation since 1875, following the creation of the Scarborough South Cliff Tramway Company Ltd in 1873. This organisation was responsible for giving the UK its first ever funicular. Two cars, running in opposite directions, took passengers from the seafront to the Esplanade and back again, and the route was (and still is) conveniently located near the Scarborough Spa.

Children's Corner

Above: The tram stop near the Spa is clearly advertised on the left of the picture (source)

Each car can carry fourteen passengers, and the route became known as the South Cliff Lift. The attraction was bought by Scarborough Council in 1993 and is now fully automatic.

Esplanade

Above: The tram stop on the Esplanade is just beyond the outer left edge of this postcard (source)

Following the success of the South Cliff Lift, the Scarborough Queens Parade Tramway Company formed, in 1878, intent on creating a similar attraction for Scarborough’s North Bay. This funicular project was, however, fraught with problems. The railway was designed to link the new Promenade Pier (which opened in 1869) to the top of the North Cliff, but its opening in August, 1878, was thwarted when a carriage broke loose. This was followed by numerous accidents and technical failures, and eventually a land slip in 1887, which led to the permanent closure of the route. Eighteen years later, the nearby Promenade Pier also closed, after being destroyed by a storm in 1905.

North Bay Pier

Above: The ill-fated North Bay Promenade Pier during the late 1800s (source)

However, it was not all doom and gloom for Scarborough’s funicular railways. The Central Tramway, sandwiched between the Grand Hotel and what is now the Olympia Amusements site, began taking passengers from August 1881.

Cliff Lift

The Medway Safety Lift Company opened the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift on August 8 1929, linking Scarborough’s Grand Hotel with the town’s subterranean aquarium, by then known as Gala Land.

Cliff Lift

Above: The lift enabled passengers to travel between Gala Land and the Grand Hotel (source)

Initially the lift did not have a bottom station, and passengers simply boarded carriages directly from the pavement.

Cliff Lift

Above: The St. Nicholas Cliff Lift in the 1970s (source)

This lift closed in 2007, as the council could not afford the necessary upkeep costs to meet health and safety standards, and the station has since been developed into a cafe.

Aquarium Top Cafe

Above: The old cliff lift station in 2014 (source)

The North Cliff Lift, situated at Peasholm Gap, opened only a year after the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift, and was part of the Scarborough Corporation’s development of the area, which included the opening of the Corner Cafe only a few years previously, and the North Bay Bathing Pool (originally opened as a boating pool in 1935) in 1937.

Corner Cafe and North Bay Cliff Lift

Above: The North Cliff Lift during the early years of operation (source)

This lift ran until 1996, after which it was eventually dismantled and the carriages placed in storage.

stats

Above: Comparison chart for the different routes

Have you ever used one of Scarborough’s funiculars?

Sources

Scarborough Funiculars

Scarborough Tramways history

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Scarborough Aquarium Top: Bus Stop, Tram Stop, Car Park, Café?

There are few physical reminders of the Scarborough Aquarium (or its successor – Gala Land) around the base of the Cliff Bridge. Gone are the underground palatial arches and the overground entrance – the sunken wonderland is now an undergound car park, bearing little resemblance to its former self. However, the area itself is still known locally as Aquarium Top, and the current conversion of the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift (into a café, apparently) pays homage to this Victorian namesake.

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Above: The ongoing conversion of the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Below: Detail (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

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Likewise the bus stop opposite the Rotunda Museum, also acknowledges a past that many holidaymakers and casual visitors to Scarborough, may be completely unaware of.

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Above: The Aquarium Top bus stop (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Indeed, whereas today the road is teeming with cars – and its underbelly houses a car park – the area was once the turning point for Scarborough’s electric tramway system.

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Above: From aquarium to car park (Copyright: Stories From Scarborough)

Between 1904 and 1929, five miles worth of track carried electric trams around Scarborough, covering destinations such as Foreshore Road, North Marine Road and Eastborough. The trams also made their way past Scarborough Aquarium (later Gala Land) to make the steepest of all climbs – up Vernon Road.

You can view a picture of the tram climbing Ramsdale Valley here.

In 1925, streetcar number 21 (or 25, depending on which report you read) caused considerable damage to the glass roof of the aquarium ballroom, in the same year that the Scarborough Corporation purchased the site and re-named it Gala Land. According to the Scarborough News, greasy rails and brake failure were blamed for the accident, causing the vehicle to make a dramatic backwards descent whilst trying to climb Vernon Road. The wall that separated the aquarium from the road was also destroyed. Driver George Smith was still in the car when the crash occurred, although was not seriously hurt – several passengers and the conductor had managed to jump free before impact.

tramcrash

Above: The aftermath – there has been difficulty locating the source of this image, given that the link on which it was found is no longer operational. If you own the copyright or know of any reason why it should not be included here, please get in touch, and it can be taken down.

Scarborough Aquarium or rather the stretch of land nearby, was also the destination and boarding point for the old St Nicholas Cliff Lift. Part of Scarborough’s collection of funiculars (which also included tramways on the North Cliff, Queen’s Parade, South Cliff, and Central Tramway – only the latter two still operate today). The South Cliff Lift was the first funicular railway to operate in Britain, and was created by the Scarborough South Cliff Tramway Company Limited in 1873. It didn’t open until 1875, by which point the Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Ltd had formed to build the aquarium. Although they formed in 1874, the aquarium didn’t open until 1877.

It is worth noting that early tramway and aquarium plans were mooted by the Scarborough Sub Tramway Aquarium & Improvement Company Ltd – an organisation that formed in 1871. It has been difficult to establish what, if any, role(s) they played in the later establishment of both in Scarborough.

Above: Cliff Lift ticket (source)

However, whilst the Queen’s Parade (1878) and Central (1880) lines opened soon after, it wasn’t until 1929, shortly after the aquarium was renamed Gala Land, that the St. Nicholas line opened. Its boarding point at the base of the cliff was (and still is) referred to as the Aquarium Top, and passengers initially boarded the tram directly – there was no station and all mechanics were controlled from the top of the cliff. A station was later added however, and whilst the line closed in 2006, it is now being transformed into an aptly named Aquarium Top Café. A touching reminder of the former aquarium’s existence.

What do you think of the café idea? Should the St. Nicholas Cliff Lift Return? How about the aquarium – should it be commemorated more visibly in the landscape today? Ought tourists to be informed of it and its fascinating history?

Please comment and share your thoughts.

Sources

Scarborough News Article

Tramlines Found Under The Road

Scarborough Funiculars

South Cliff Railway

Café Plan For Old Cliff Lift