While ironing out the many creases in my flabby, knackered, middle-aged executive's body recently, the in-house masseur at The Mercer Hotel, one of New York's finest, said to me: "Do you remember when you had jet-lag as a kid?" Well, no, I explained, there weren't a lot of time zones crossed between Leeds and the tiny seaside resort of Filey on the North Yorkshire coast. It's perhaps tribute to it's old-world charm that, despite choosing to holiday in hot, distant and often excessively expensive destinations, I still travel regularly from Leeds and London to this lost world of buckets, spades and lifeboats. Nowadays, on a quiet Sunday morning, being thoroughly disrespectful of the speed limit but appreciative of the York bypass, you can do the 75-mile journey in well under 90 minutes. The bulk of that is the meandering country roads that come after the A65 ceases to be driveable.
As a kid we travelled to Filey pretty much at every opportunity. My gran, Margaret Lamb, now lives there in the Hylands retirement home, and is one of the main reasons my sister, Alex, and I keep up the holiday vigil. When we were kids gran had a flat to let there in a terraced street called Brooklands. So there'd be two weeks in the summer, a week at every half-term and even adventurous trips east during the rain and windswept autumn and winter months. Whatever the weather, there were always cliffs to be walked, kites to be flown and dogs to be exercised.
Like all family rituals the journey had its reassuring air of repetition. Here was the corner where my father always told us he'd fallen out of his own father's car as a kid; there was the detour to the war memorial that showed pointy-helmeted Germans cutting open peoples' throats. Upon reaching Filey the car would sweep down the one-way hill that spills you on to the front and then we'd veer to the right and up the long, curved cobbled incline that would bring us back up to town level.
It's hard to sell this place as in any way glamorous, because very little seems to have happened here. I suppose that's where the appeal lies. I'm sometimes reminded of the line from Morrissey's best solo hit "Everyday Is Like Sunday" of "the seaside town they forgot to close down", but that would do Filey a gross disservice. Although, small, old-worldly and unpretentious, the place is positively buzzing throughout the summer, and on most Sunday afternoons and all bank holidays. Despite this, it's also, in many ways, a well-kept secret. One that has attracted a famous former England and Leeds United footballer to retire there and is regularly visited by the editor of Heat magazine, offering a welcome respite from the world of showbiz gossip and plastic-surgery spotting.
Most of the attractions that have drawn families from generation to generation remain the same. Crazy golf, merry-go-rounds, motorboats in the park, putting greens and donkeys on the beach all thrive. Although the archery and the religious beach-based playgroup, Sunshine Corner, seem to have passed on. As a kid I would spend my holiday pocket money on comics and Bamforth's saucy postcards. The newsagents, Wrays, that provided me with the Cor! and Cheeky summer specials used to feature a wooden-framed walk-through newspaper stall in front of the main shop. Nowadays it's glass-fronted and you can pick up a Thomas the Tank Engine toy or a decent modern novel in there, but the name's the same. The saucy postcard newsagent is still there, too, offering jigsaws, local papers and notices in the window selling second-hand baby accessories.
There are numerous fish and chip shops scattered around the place and I've been going to exactly the same one for over 30 years. Outside there's a sign that says: "Eat here or have it away" - straight off the saucy postcards. The food is as good as I remember it, and is best washed down with Vimto or dandelion and burdock out of a can. On the subject of eating there may well be an Italian bistro and an Indian restaurant now, but probably the best place to scoff Yorkshire pudding or scampi is the Victoria Hotel on the Crescent.
The town also boasts the best chocolate shop I've ever visited, Sterchi's. A few years ago I experienced a strange Fortean occurance here. When my mum died well over a decade ago, we scattered her ashes on the Brig, the headland that spits out into the North Sea. It was moving, too moving perhaps, the high tide winds blowing her ashes back into our faces. On her anniversary recently I was sitting outside the house we stayed in as children, wondering whether or not the dead really can see what's going on in our lives now. Losing a parent when you're relatively young pretty much draws a line under your childhood, and the memories I have of our holidays there as a family are probably the best I have of those distant days before the alcohol, sex and loud music dragged me out of my mid-teens. Driving round the one-way system to Sterchi's to pick up some chocolates before we left town, the window was packed with easter eggs. Only three featured any iced writing - one said "Mum", another "Son" and the third "James". Weird.
The small-scale retail bonanza doesn't stop there. Maynards sells bag after bag of its own branded sweets - jelly snakes, liquorice torpedoes, and if you want something even better than that, all the other local sweet shops and newspapers stock Lyons Midget gems, the original.
It was in Filey that I watched Leeds United cheated out of the 1975 European Cup Final by a bent referee, but that's the only bad memory I have of the place. Everything else is family photo-album gold. Now I go there with my little boy and watch him tick the same boxes I did throughout the 1970s. Looking for seals out in the bay, floating boats in the pools that gather at the foot of the sea wall, ignoring the temperature to wade into the enormous oval paddling pool. And chucking hundreds and hundreds of copper coins into the amusements on the Coble Landing.
If the resort has a hub it is the Coble Landing. The fishing boats haven't changed in over a century, and the lifeboat still ventures out into hazardous seas and saves people every season. The RNLI remain our bravest boys this side of Iraq. Filey Bay stretches from the Brig to the lighthouse 14 miles away at Flamborough. The last visitors to have arrived from abroad appear to have been the Romans, who are believed to have landed some galleons on the Brig. More recently the discovery of a deep-sea wreck threatened to disturb the relative anonymity of the place when it was suggested it might be a missing American battleship from the War of Independence. The panic soon passed though. I'm not sure the sun lounge or the numerous small tea-rooms would have been ready for Texans and the like. Leave that to Scarborough just up the coast and Castle Howard, set of Brideshead Revisited, which you pass when venturing out this way.
When I was publishing Viz, the editors regularly lambasted Filey as the sleepiest place on earth. I didn't have the heart to tell them how wrong they were. Nowadays you can check into any number of B&Bs or decent hotels. One of the sea-front establishments was voted the best seaside hotel in The Independent's "Ten Best" feature.
I'm not sure whether I could manage a whole two weeks there any more. For a start you'd have to get one of those chalets on the front that allow you to escape the rain and eat your sandwiches away from the task of blowing up the rubber dinghy. Then there'd be the endless demands to go and ride the bloody thing over the massive waves that crash in from the North Sea. There might be jellyfish or, if it got really hot, a plague of ladybirds that would turn the white hotels red.
Plus you'd have to get up early and go and play the cliff-top pitch-and-putt. And there's walks on the Brig or through the park and the woods that line the ravines down to the beach. All in all it sounds like far too good a time. Still, we'd never be short of chocolates, sweets or fish and chips.
Downcliffe House Hotel (01723 513310; www.downcliffehouse.co.uk)
EATING AND DRINKING THERE
Sterchi's of Filey (01723 516150; www.sterchis.co.uk), 36 Murray Street.
Maynard's (01723 514945), 4a Murray Street.
Filey Tourism (01723 513396; www.fileytourism.co.uk)