IT’S Bank Holiday weekend in Saltburn and the sun is shining. There isn’t a breath of wind and the tide is out, leaving a wide, sandy expanse to be explored. The North-East coast doesn’t get any more perfect than this.
Families pitch little tents along the beach and toddlers clutching buckets and spades in their tiny fists waddle towards the water. Surfers pull on their wetsuits and stroll down to the sea, surfboards wedged under their arms. Other visitors enjoy a promenade along one of the coastal town’s best assets: the (horizontal) pier.
Take a closer look, and there are crowds of people stopping, touching, gazing at something colourful on the railings. The famous Saltburn Yarn Stormers, as they call themselves – that elusive group of knitters who distribute intricate woollen figures around the town in the dead of night - have struck yet again.
This knitting hasn’t been here long. The wool is still fluffy and unstained. It hasn’t even been rained on. Last year’s fantastic Olympic-themed scarf, which stretched along the pier, was half drowned by the summer’s awful weather. Locals think the latest offering appeared overnight between Friday and Saturday.
If you live out of the area and hadn’t heard of Saltburn a year ago, you have now. The notorious “guerrilla knitters” have made national headlines over, and over, with their topical scenes – the Olympics, the Jubilee, a naked Prince Harry.
This time the theme is more low-key, but the work no less astonishing. Beautiful seaside scenes adorn most of the length of the pier. There are donkeys, with “knit and purl” stitched on to their nosebands. An RNLI volunteer is performing a daring rescue. A mermaid, shells protecting her modesty, reclines on the railing, looking over the sea to the new windfarm off the Redcar coast. Little pink jellyfish with sequins sewn on top glint in the sunlight. An elderly man with patchy sunburn lies back on a wooden and wool deckchair, his feet resting on a little knitted blue and white coolbox. Could this be based on one of the yarnstormers, or their husband?
Three woollen beach huts are halfway down the pier, knitted flags on top spelling out “SYS” – which can only stand for Saltburn Yarn Stormers.
There are little clues, if you look for them. One woven banner is made up of cut-up bits of plastic and cloth – one of which says “Unison” on it. Is one of the elusive knitters a trade union representative? Or works for the council? But do we really want to know who they are – or is the mystery part of the charm?
One visitor to the pier, who lives in Saltburn but did not want to be named, says the anonymity of the knitters is almost as important as the scenes themselves.
“I think a lot of people have a very good idea,” she says. “But no-one in Saltburn will ever give the game away.”
Elaine Corner, a knitter from Lincolnshire, was visiting family in the area and, during a stroll along the seafront, decided to come and see the yarnstorming for herself.
“A lot of it is simple knitting,” she says. “But it’s beautifully done and the way it is all stitched together must have taken a long time. I can only think there is more than one of them doing it. I think it is fabulous. It draws people to the pier because it is cheerful and colourful. We didn’t come to the seafront just to see the knitting but once we saw it on the pier we had to take a look.”
Lottie Allpress, originally from New Zealand but living in Oxford, said: “It is really nice. I’ve never seen anything like it before but we’re enjoying looking at all the scenes. It’s something a bit different to look at.”
While there’s no doubt that many visitors enjoy the woollen creations, it’s not enough in itself to bring visitors in, thinks Edna Vernon, who runs the beach shop and cafe at Cat Nab, Saltburn.
And she would know more than most. Seventy-eight year-old Mrs Vernon has run the cafe for generations and was born just metres away in a caravan at Cat Nab.
“What fetches people to Saltburn is the sunshine,” she says. “When it is raining, nobody comes.
“I do think the first time the knitting was up it did fetch a lot of people down. But I don’t think most of the time it brings anyone else in. They come to Saltburn because it is a beautiful place and the knitting is just a bonus.
“I can serve 5-6,000 people here in a day and I wouldn’t say that’ll be any more than normal just because there is some new knitting on the pier. It has let people know about us though, and that can’t be bad.”
Does Mrs Vernon knit? “Do I knit? Yes I do,” she says. Does Mrs Vernon know who the mystery knitters are? “No, I don’t,” she says. There’s a twinkle in her eye. “That’s part of the thing, isn’t it, that no-one knows who it is,” she says. And that is the end of the subject. Most locals know, but no-one is telling.