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.

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