Two weeks ago, author Dr Paul Elsam chose his Favourite Things. Here, to tie in with a current exhibition and a series of walks, he writes of the favourite places of Wilfred Owen, the First World War poet who for a time lived in, and loved, Scarborough.
How many War Poets can you name? If the answer is “just the one”, then you’ve probably thought of Wilfred Owen. Owen was just 25 when he was killed in battle in France, in November 1918. But did you know that he lived in Scarborough for most of the last year of his life? And that he wrote many of his best-loved poems here?
During WW1 Wilfred was a junior officer in the British Army, but he always longed to be a professional poet. You may be surprised to know that he came from quite a poor background – his family always had to rent their home, and Wilfred’s father Tom, who worked on the railways in north-west England, was the only breadwinner in a family of six.
The family loved seaside holidays, and Scarborough was a favourite place. There’s a photo of the family on South Bay beach, enjoying the sun and a pony ride for the youngest children.
They also played cricket on the North Bay sands, just below the Clifton Hotel. Back then it was the Clarence Gardens hotel, and during WW1 it was taken over as a place for Army officers who were preparing to go back to the front, in France or Belgium. Wilfred was still recovering from shell shock and other injuries – he’d been blown up by a German shell, while he was asleep – when he was put in charge of the
officers at the hotel.
Being in charge at the Clarence Gardens was hard work, but it also meant Wilfred didn’t have to go on parade, and he could head out after work without anyone really knowing where he was. So he started to explore, and soon he had some favourite places – an oyster bar, a pub, auction rooms where he could buy furniture, the theatre, and of course the streets. He loved Scarborough’s Old Town the best, and would lose himself in the same narrow streets that are there still.
Wilfred picked himself a nice room at the Clarence Gardens – a room with a view, high up and looking out over the North Sea. He also had a little coal fire where he would warm himself and read, think and write down his poetry. It was here, rather than out in the trenches, that he began or finished many of his moving, often shocking poems – poems such as Miners, Wild with All Regrets, Insensibility, and the curious Strange Meeting, which seems like a ghostly meeting with an
Wilfred never forgot Scarborough. When he was killed – 100 years ago this coming November – they found, on his body, tucked inside a book of poems, a postcard of St Mary’s Church.
l Would you like to know more? Scarborough Art Gallery currently has an exhibition on Wilfred’s stay in Scarborough. And archaeologist John Oxley and author Dr Paul Elsam are running three-hour weekend walking tours to tell of Wilfred’s time here. There are just four dates between June 16 and August 11 with group sizes limited to just 10. Each walk includes a break for drinks at the Clifton Hotel, and ends at a mystery location that John believes was special to Wilfred. Bookings can be made at www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/owen-in-scarborough-a-performance-walk-led-by-dr-paul-elsam-and-john-oxley-tickets-46301803942