Why we do like to be beside the seaside

It has been a British obsession for centuries. And this summer, our buckets and spades are coming out in record numbers, writes John Walsh

Can it be that we're going off Abroad? Is it true that British holidaymakers, having discovered The Continent in the 1950s, India in the 1960s, the Greek Islands in the 1970s, the Caribbean in the1980s, South America in the 1990s and Australia in the 2000s, are going off the foreign trip?

The most recent figures about "Travel Trends" from the Office for National Statistics are sobering. In 2009, visits abroad by UK residents fell at the fastest rate since the 1970s. Only 58.6 million visits were made to the land of Johnny Foreigner, compared to 69 million made in 2008 – a drop of 15 per cent. This downward trend was first spotted in 2007, but then it was minimal; now it's impossible to miss. The inescapable conclusion is that we're becoming more reluctant to leave home for our summer break.

And we aren't terribly reassured about the value of foreign holidays when we hear, as we did last week, of the collapse of Goldtrail, the latest British tour operator to go tits up in Aegean, leaving thousands of holidaymakers fuming and stranded.

But where are we going? Foreign visitors coming here continue their own baffling trend for visiting huge, unlovely conurbations (London, followed by Edinburgh, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge). But for home-grown seekers after holiday fun, there has always been just one true destination: the good old British seaside. On the sand, on the esplanade, by the bandstand, on the promenade, in the shallows, in the deckchair, in the ice-cream queue, on the funfair dodgems, in the beachside bar, under the fairy-lights of the pier, under a knotted handkerchief, on the booze, on the pull ...

Of course, we've been excited by the idea for a long time. In the summer of 1839, Charlotte Bronte, then working as a governess in Skipton, Yorkshire, wrote to her friend Ellen Nussey about her holiday plans. At the age of 23, she said, she'd never been to the coast, never seen a beach, never clapped eyes on rolling waves. The prospect of doing so, on a proposed trip to Bridlington, was intensely exciting: "The idea of seeing the sea – of being near it – watching its changes by sunrise, sunset, moonlight and noonday – in calm, perhaps in storm – fills and satisfies my mind. I shall be discontented at nothing." Did she feel a big anticlimax on finally clapping eyes on the briny? Not at all. According to Ms Nussey, she "was quite overpowered, she could not speak until she had shed some tears ... her eyes were red and swollen, she was still trembling ... for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued and exhausted."

Over the years, millions of British holidaymakers have felt a similar delight (though perhaps without the weeping, trembling and exhaustion) on seeing the seaside. For three centuries, it has filled the hearts of the overworked with dreams of escape, romance and carefree intoxication, and filled the lungs of the consumptive with bracing ozone. In the 17th century, it was sold to the great British public as a kind of gigantic medicine bath that could cure everything from leprosy to syphilis. A York doctor called Robert Wittie brought out a pioneering pamphlet in 1667 called Scarborough Spaw, singing the therapeutic benefits of the old fishing village's mineral-water spa: it was wonderful, he said, for "drying up superfluous humours" – those awkward coursings through the body of blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile that the Elizabethans believed to be responsible for illness.

Dr Wittie's enthusiasm led to a small outpouring of books recommending that people bathe in, and drink, seawater as a panacea against skin diseases, arthritis and even tumours. By the mid-18th century, a horde of scabby, arthritic, phlegmatic and gouty invalids were heading for the coast, from Scarborough to Blackpool, to pitch themselves into the healing briny.

Travis Elborough, the author of nostalgic social histories of the Routemaster bus and the long-playing record, this week publishes a charming study of our national beachside frolics, Wish You Were Here: England on Sea (Sceptre, £14.99). A native of Worthing in Sussex, he traces the rise of Brighton from a dank, smelly fishing village of six unpaved streets called Brighelmstone, to a sophisticated, cosmopolitan resort, visited by royalty. He attributes the rise to one Richard Russell, a Sussex doctor, whose key work, A Dissertation on the use of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, particularly the Scurvy, Jaundice, King's Evil, Leprosy and the Glandular Consumption, recommended constant bathing day and night. It was taken up by, among many others, George III's younger brother, the chronically ill Duke of Gloucester, who visited Brighton in 1765. Other royal Dukes followed, one of them renting Dr Russell's house. George, Prince of Wales, visited his sick relative in 1783 and came back to Brighton to see if the salt waters could do something for the swollen glands in his neck. The former fishing village found itself recreated as a fashionable resort.

Jane Austen, who witnessed the mineral-spa cultists at first hand during family visits to Bath and Lyme, offers a wonderful picture, in her unfinished novel Sanditon (written in 1817) of the Brighton fan in full flow: "No person could be really well, no person ... could be really in a state of secure and permanent health without spending at least six weeks by the sea every year. The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every disorder of the stomach, the lungs or the blood. They were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-septic, anti-bilious and anti-rheumatic. Nobody could catch cold by the sea; nobody wanted appetite by the sea; nobody wanted spirits; nobody wanted strength."

According to Elborough, it was George Prince of Wales – later Prince Regent – who changed the nature of the seaside resort from a destination of heath and physical recovery to a territory of fleshy delights, a workers' playground, an arena of funfairs, brass bands, entertainments and coarse humour. George's vacations with his uncle and aunt, the Duke and Duchess of Cumberland, led him to associate Brighton with unfettered fun. The involvement of other ducal relatives with dubious marriages, and George's own love of ad hoc seductions, meant that he loved Brighton as a place of escape and licence. He installed his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert, there; he commissioned the neoclassical Marine Pavilion and the crazy, bulbous, St-Basil's-Cathedral-meets-the-Mughal-Emperors folly of the Brighton Pavilion. And with the Regent came a less classy, more dissolute, demimondaine crowd of would-be courtiers, Hellfire Clubbers, raffish swells and flashy bucks, all drinking, gambling, whoring and indulging the Regent's love for dancing and target-shooting with airguns.

Elborough ingeniously suggests that the working-class amusements which became commonplace on the Victorian seaside – shooting galleries, horsey carousels and fruit machines – are simply debased caricatures of the upper classes' fondness for shooting, hunting and gambling. But everything about the seaside became emblematic of levity or vulgarity. The sea was not employed for actually getting anywhere, by boat or by some marathon feat of swimming, it was merely for paddling in, floating on or mucking about in with one's shrieking lady friends. The beach itself was exploited for its fun potential. Rather than be left as a track for the sea to ebb and flow upon, its malleable sand was dug up with spades, shaped in buckets, patted and flattened by childish hands, and remade as rudimentary castles (to mimic the gentry?). Sunhats intended to protect the wearer from harmful rays were sold festooned with brazen invitations to Kiss Me Quick and Squeeze Me Slow. Energy-giving snacks were offered in the form of pure, spun-sugar pink "floss" or as spearmint-flavoured pink batons with the name of the seaside resort emblazoned through their length. Postcards to send to friends and family members featured bad-taste comic scenes involving fat ladies, spindly men, tarty girls, embarrassed vicars and brazen innuendo. Those wishing to sit or doze on the beach were given deck-chairs as though they were toffs (hark at me!) taking it easy on an ocean-going liner. Energetic types could climb the endless stairs of the helter-skelter to come whizzing down on hessian rugs, like a duchess speedily negotiating a spiral staircase. Children were led along the beach on a donkey, a simulacrum of giving a posh young equestrian his or her first leading-rein experience on the family pony. Or they were entertained en masse by a subversive puppet drama in a red-striped vertical tent, involving a hook-nosed hunchback who abuses his wife and baby, outsmarts the police and finally triumphs over the Devil.

Mr Punch started life in the medieval Commedia dell'Arte as a "lord of misrule," and that was the prevailing spirit of the British seaside in its heyday. What began in Scarborough, and flourished spectacularly on the south coast (Brighton, Bognor, Hastings, Worthing) began to flourish to the west (Bournemouth) and the north (Blackpool) whither ever-larger numbers of workers, liberated by the railways, poured for their brief summer holidays.

Blackpool's heyday was the second half of the 19th century, when the three piers and the famous Tower were built, and the beaches became the playground of Lancashire's newly industrialised labour force. In 1938, seven million people reputedly visited Blackpool: that's just under a sixth of the population of England. Bournemouth established its Pleasure Gardens in the 1860s, the Winter Gardens in 1875 and, in the 20 years after the arrival of the railway, the town's population increased from 17,000 to 60,000.

Of course, we know what happened. In 1950, when the country's workforce was entitled, by law, to holidays with pay, everyone headed for the seaside. But after the 1960s, attitudes to leisure, status and holidays changed, cheap package holidays to France and Spain began to eclipse the traditional fortnight in Margate and Southend. The seaside suddenly seemed terminally naff, grotty and old-fashioned. The holiday-going classes turned up their noses at home-grown resorts and flew off to Tenerife and Torremolinos. After 1970, many seaside towns became places of pathos and melancholy, their beaches depopulated, their funfairs redundant and their thousands of hotel rooms converted into retirement flats, nursing homes or shopping malls.

Despite their tackiness, some still attracted die-hard visitors who couldn't afford (or simply didn't fancy) Mykonos or Florida, but the attraction was sometimes hard to fathom. Bill Bryson visited Blackpool in 1994 and wrote about the town in Notes from a Small Island. He congratulated it on its £250m-a-year tourist industry which was, he said, "no small achievement when you consider the fact that Blackpool is ugly, dirty and a long way from anywhere, the sea is an open toilet, and its attractions nearly all cheap, provincial and dire".

But the 21st century has seen encouraging twinges of rebirth. News arrives every month of once-deadbeat seaside towns becoming rejuvenated: art galleries in St Ives and Eastbourne, arts festivals in Folkestone, designer cafés in Deal and Littlehampton. Across the south coast, from Hastings to Weymouth, former resort towns are busy rebranding themselves as modern, Euro-centric and sporty-cultural destinations rather than repositories of candy floss and Punch and Judy shows.

Could we ever go back to the seaside? We can't hope to rekindle the careless rapture that once invigorated Charlotte Bronte and the Prince Regent, or the excitement that drew millions of Victorians to a dream of no-holds-barred licentiousness, any more than we can go back to believing that seawater will cure leprosy. But you don't have to be John Masefield to recognise that there's something about the combination of sand, shingle and the nearby immensity of water that still moves the English heart, stirs the blood, twangs the sinews and makes you long for a pint of Boddingtons and a plate of cockles. It can't be denied and it won't go away, so – if we're really not planning on a trip abroad this summer or the next – we may as well succumb.

"The seaside is easy to imbue with a mythic significance," writes Travis Elborough. "Its allure is visceral – we are an island after all – but also deeply cultural. From today's perspective, and with our knowledge of their subsequent fate, resorts from the 1950s have the look of a prelapsarian realm ... Perhaps every trip to the beach as an adult is an attempt to recapture lost innocence, or at least to feel as carefree as a child."

Absolutely. See you beside the ice-cream van on Weymouth beach.

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

    Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

    £25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Coordinator

    £17600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum cares for one of the largest...

    Recruitment Genius: Experienced PSV Coach & Minibus Drivers

    £12500 - £24500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Drivers wanted for a family run...

    Day In a Page

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'