The Great British break is ripe for a renaissance

Holidaymakers should take a lead from Queen Victoria and swap their foreign package deals for resorts nearer to home, says D J Taylor
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Towards the end of last week, as the flood waters receded and large parts of Gloucestershire began to re-emerge from a lake compounded of overflowing rivers and backed-up sewage, a new voice could be heard above the clamour of outraged or self-exculpating citizenry. The flood victim, the politician, the insurer, the chartered surveyor, the eco-warrior aghast at the prospect of thousands of new houses being built on flood plains: all had had their say. Now they were joined, belatedly but with no less resonance, by one of the few outright winners in last month's round of deluges: the travel agent.

What does the potential holidaymaker do when England's green and pleasant land softly deliquesces under six feet of water and the spectre of a foot and mouth epidemic lurches on to the horizon? Why, according to the available evidence, he or she puts in a call to or lurks in the Thomson's foyer eyeing up the bargain flights to Alicante. In the past fortnight, apparently, UK airport escalators have been groaning beneath the weight of the half million or so punters keen to escape the downpours of an English summer for the heatwave currently enveloping southern Europe. The tourist industries of the West Country and the Thames Valley, on the other hand, whose inundations are still being mopped up, are staring meltdown in the face.

The late-21st century social historian, bidden to examine the cheap flight phenomenon of the early 2000s, will probably regard it as one of the oddest forms of human denial ever on public view. Here we are on an environmentally degraded planet with the oil running out – the peak of the production pyramid is expected to be reached in 2009 – and the skies turned grey by gently descending carbon particles, nervously contemplating a future in which fossil fuel will be in very short supply, and all over the world airlines are falling over themselves to undercut the competition and tack on extra runways to their airport terminals.

Thirty years from now, it seems safe to say, air travel will have reverted to the status it held half a century ago – a luxury for the privileged handful, frowned on by governments trying to conserve dwindling energy stocks. Nowhere will this vista of shrivelled horizons – the stark realisation that, no, you can't go to Vietnam for a fortnight because the fuel isn't there to take you – have more of an impact than on that fine old institution, the Great British Holiday.

The idea of the holiday is deeply ingrained in the national culture of the past two or three centuries. Georgian aristocrats loafed around their villas on Lake Como. The English "milord" en vacances in continental Europe with his coroneted carriage, his retinue of servants and his difficulties with argot and cuisine, was a feature of pre-Victorian satire. Like many another national institution, though, the Great British Holiday was essentially a middle-class phenomenon, blessed with the royal imprimatur (Queen Victoria built Osborne House on the Isle of Wight as her very own vacationing hidey-hole) and based on the Victorian relish – moral as much as recreational – for sea-bathing and bracing coastal air.

Victorian novels are crammed with references to the annual departure of the professional classes – Mr Brief, the barrister, pictured with his family at Ramsgate, for example. Numbers of south coast towns owed their prosperity to the summer's inrush of well-heeled bourgeois visitors, and developed boom-and-bust economies predicated on the assumption that they would be deserted for six months of the year.

Stuck in Deal in the spring of 1856, at work on Little Dorrit, Dickens found himself wandering the streets of what was in effect a ghost town. ("All the houses and lodgings ever let to visitors were to let that morning. It seemed to have snowed bills with To Let upon them. This put me upon thinking what the owners of all those apartments did out of the season; how they employed their time and occupied their minds.")

Further down the social scale, meanwhile, less elevated parts of the demographic were enjoying bastardised versions of the same amusements: not the fortnight's recreation in the genteel seaside resort, with papa coming down from his chambers at the weekend, but the drink-fuelled bank holiday excursion to Crystal Palace or Epping Forest. The late-Victorian novelist George Gissing devoted a whole chapter of his slum novel The Nether World (1889) to a horrified account of the East End's late-summer irruption from Clerkenwell and Whitechapel, by means of an endless procession of special trains, to the south London pleasure gardens, and their battered, drunken return a dozen hours later.

Gradually, as a succession of Factory Acts enshrined the principle of paid leave, these trips became an almost ritualised part of the social calendar. "Wakes week", when the northern mills and factories shut their doors, sent most of industrial Lancashire off to the burgeoning resorts of Blackpool, Morecambe and Barrow-in-Furness.

Blackpool, in particular, was transformed into an extraordinary poor man's Xanadu of variety halls and amusement arcades, where the imbalance between amount of holiday accommodation and volume of descending punters was often so great that thousands of trippers had to spend the night on the sands.

By the early 1930s, fuelled by this boom, a distinctively working-class holiday seaside culture had come into existence, made up of kiss-me-quick hats, comic songs (George Formby, say, with his innuendo-laden "With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock") and Donald McGill's semi-obscene postcards. All this, encouraged by newspapers who sponsored sandcastle competitions (the Daily Mail) or sent anonymous correspondents to promenade the seafront (such as the Westminster Gazette's "Lobby Lud") whom sharp-eyed holidaymakers were invited to unmask, forms the backdrop to Graham Greene's Brighton Rock (1938), which opens with the murder victim, Fred Hale, aka "Kolley Kibber" of the "Daily Messenger", arriving on the seafront.

By this time, inevitably, the idea of the holiday had tugged away from its original mooring in a desire for sun, sea and fresh air and turned horribly symbolic, a matter of caste, status and social differentiation. You went on holiday, and on a particular type of holiday, not so much because you wanted to, but because the nature and extent of the holiday demonstrated the kind of person you were.

The middle-class bank clerk of J B Priestley's novels beguiled his leisure on the Frinton sand dunes to show that he was a cut above the pitman with his annual fish-and-chip orgy at Skegness. The pitman, alternatively, wanted to clinch his superiority to the man on the dole, who might just contrive a day-long charabanc trip to Grange-over-Sands.

The novelist Simon Raven, on the prowl on the Kentish coast in the late 1950s, produced a fascinating piece of reportage from a café tenanted by an anxious working-class family uncertain as to why they had come on holiday in the first place. ("You know bloody well why we came. Because your bloody mother wouldn't let me rest till I'd arranged a proper holiday for you. 'Everyone else does it,' she says, 'and it's only right you should do it for Rita...'")

The cheap package holiday of the late 1960s added a further refinement to this process of social distancing, again reflected and endorsed by a popular culture that ran alongside. The "holiday" songs of the immediately pre- and post-Second World War era had been about Blackpool and Butlins. By the 1970s, on the other hand, the pop charts were resounding to Sylvia's "Y Viva España", "Dreadlock Holiday" by 10cc and "Oh, I'm Going to Barbados" by Typically Tropical.

My own familial experience of the Great British Holiday perfectly mirrors the rise of this complicated game of social leapfrog. My paternal grandfather was an electrician who, throughout the 1930s, escorted his family from their three-up three-down Norwich council house to a week in a boarding house 20 miles away at Great Yarmouth: virtually all of the photos I have of my father as a boy show him striding, school cap on head, mackintosh folded over arm, along the clotted Great Yarmouth seafront or staring from the back of a charabanc. My mother's family was a bit more genteel, although politically naive, which meant that the solitary foreign jaunt they planned in the 1930s – to Germany – was stymied by the outbreak of war.

Family holidays in the late 1960s, consequently, were an odd compromise between these two exacting traditions (working-class hedonism versus middle-class prudence). A succession of ghastly south coast boarding houses, tyrannised by terrifying old women and rife with obscure prohibitions, eventually gave way to Lakeland barns and east coast holiday lets.

Then, as late-1970s affluence kicked in, came the first trips "abroad". There was a rather horrible head-on clash of buried class affiliation in the late 1970s when, bored by the Cumberland scenery and anxious to revisit ancient haunts of childhood, my father contrived a day trip to Blackpool. My mother, fetched up in this nightmare world of amusement arcades and hot-dog stands, promptly burst into tears.

Ask what happened to the Great British Holiday in the past quarter-century and the answer is that, like a great deal else in British culture, it became steadily more embourgeoisified. One can see this in the "charming" seaside resorts of the east coast, where the property gets bought up by incoming second-homers and the holiday lets have been gentrified to death by the letting agencies.

Southwold in Suffolk, where I used to go as a teenager, staying inexpensively in houses which you were expected to clean yourself on the Saturday morning before you left, is now a maritime version of Notting Hill, with upmarket delicatessens on every corner, famous novelists found drinking in the pubs, celebrated actors heard asking for directions in the newsagents and a sub-population of barnacled locals still hunkered down in cottages that have so far escaped the developer's lariat.

Burnham Market, 40 miles to the west, is even worse – like a street in Chelsea, with passers-by and four-wheel drives to match, that some enterprising planner decided to drop into the middle of the Norfolk verdure.

Meanwhile, a handful of the old-style working-class resorts narrowly survives. Great Yarmouth, for example, is an extraordinary time-warp of northern families tucking into fish-and-chip snacks beneath bingo parlour frontages and billboards advertising performances by the Nolan Sisters or the surviving remnants of the Barron Knights.

Curiously enough, despite these anachronisms and embarrassments, archaic survivals and lifestyle-mongering, the forthcoming renaissance of the Great British Holiday, when the jet fuel runs out and there is nowhere else to go, is something to be warmly anticipated.

Travel, as Malcolm Muggeridge once remarked to a film camera stationed before the Taj Mahal, narrows the mind. The north Norfolk coast beats Tuscany into a cocked hat. Who is there who can truthfully say that they prefer the Dordogne, with its carloads of English people combing the local hypermarchés for pasteurised milk, to Radnorshire?

One of the advantages of the 21st-century travel slow-down is that it might just goad us into a greater understanding of the people we are and the world we ever more precariously inhabit.