Welcome back to Britain

This was the long, hot summer that should have broken records for British resorts. So did it? We asked traders in six of the UK's leading resorts if 1995 was good for them. By Simon Calder

"Didn't we have ourselves some kind of a summer?", wailed David Cassidy back in 1972, when nearly 30 million of us took our main holiday in the UK, and the foreign trip was still a minority sport. This summer, even with superlative weather, the number was roughly half that: the European holiday has shot ahead to become the norm.

Last weekend Charles Newbold of Thomson Holidays pronounced that the British seaside is in terminal decline. The official statistics are still being compiled, but the Independent indices give some measure of the health of the resorts around the coast.

One guest-house landlady laughed bitterly when I asked how many customers stayed the full fortnight. "No one stays long any more." This has been the summer to pretend we're all Californian really and head for the beach for the day. But British proms are still designed more for the long-stayers than the day-trippers, so the brass bands aren't playing tiddly-om-pom- pom with much gusto.

It is too early to confirm the terminal prognosis on Britain's mainland resorts, but if I were an investor I would forsake rock futures in Margate and speculate instead on postcard prospects in Northern Ireland. And if I were the Government, I would use some of the Millennium Fund to finance the sort of rejuvenation that the Tate Gallery has brought to St Ives. ST IVES: admissions to the Tate Gallery slightly up.

In traditional seaside terms, the St Ives Tate is a wet-weather attraction, so it would not be a surprise if visitors had numbered zero during the driest August in living memory. Yet the curator, Mike Tooby, says the month was only slightly down on 1994. "It's not what we were expecting at all. We've been open for three summers now, so you'd expect a drop in visitor numbers as the initial burst of interest wears off."

The people visiting St Ives to see the gallery (and its antecedent, the Barbara Hepworth Museum - admission pounds 3.50 for the two) are eroding the normal seasonal divides. "We had 630 people through the door on August bank holiday Monday, which is what we'd expect on a busy day during term- time," says Mr Tooby.

MARGATE: sales of rock at Rowland's Rock Shop down.

In image terms, the Kent resort has had a tough summer. First it was assailed in the guide book Britain: a Travel Survival Kit ("Looking at Margate, God became so depressed that She created Torremolinos"), then Thomson Holidays commissioned a video to show journalists the dismal face of the British seaside on bank holiday Monday. So how did Margate face up to these merchants of despondency?

Not too well, if you measure success by sales of Margate rock at Rowland's Rock Shop on the harbour. An old bank has been converted into a factory shop, where holidaymakers can watch a huge pink candy whale spinning into 700 individual sticks - made, cut and wrapped by hand, then sold to spectators at 40p each.

"Last year it was excellent," says the proprietor, Tony Savage. "I was telling the other traders we were laughing - once we got people in the shop they always bought. This year they all come in and see it being made, but they don't buy it."

The season was behaving in a fairly desultory fashion from Easter through Whitsun to July, but trade picked up sharply with the dazzling August. Not all the visitors were ideal customers ("Down here we get all the drunks and nutters from London"), and the late bank holiday showers sent the stragglers packing.

LLANDUDNO: the number of passengers on the Great Orme tramway has increased.

This is not just any old tram line - it is the only cable-hauled street tramway outside San Francisco (though at pounds 3.20 return to the peak of Great Orme, it costs 50 per cent more than its Californian counterpart). Rosemary Sutton, who manages the line, says that by last weekend 106,059 people had used it - three per cent up on last summer, despite the 1995 season being a fortnight shorter because of a later Easter.

"The tram's done well because of the weather," says Mrs Sutton, "and also because of the excellent road network into Llandudno. We get day- trippers from as far away as Birmingham and Leeds. A few years ago, you'd have come for the weekend or not at all. So we're happy, but the town's hoteliers aren't."

CLEETHORPES: guest house visitor numbers double.

Elaine Reed, proprietor of Shelly's Guest House in Princes Road, says her bookings averaged 10 guests per night over the holidays, twice the normal figure. "But we only have six good weeks each year, during the school summer holidays. And these days no one stays for more than a couple of nights.

"Three of my good friends went bust earlier this year, after the worst winter we've ever known," says Mrs Reed, who is also secretary of the Cleethorpes Hotel and Guest House Association. "You still have to pay your business rates and council tax, and being self-employed it's hard to claim anything from anyone. I've written to the English Tourist Board and to John Major, but they don't seem bothered. We will survive, because people will keep coming back to the seaside."

LARGS: day trips on ScotRail from Glasgow up by a quarter.

The railway station in one of western Scotland's leading resorts has had an eventful year, with the buildings being demolished by a runaway train in July. No one was hurt, but the station has had to be replaced by temporary huts. Undeterred, 24 per cent more Glaswegians have taken the pounds 5.30 day trip down the coast than last summer. Part of the increase is explained by last year's strikes. Compared with 1993, when neither demolition nor industrial action was a problem, the increase is still a healthy 14 per cent. The simple reason, according to a spokesman for ScotRail, has been "phenomenal weather".

NEWCASTLE, County Down: postcards sales at the tourist office sharply improved.

"We've never as many visitors," says Christine McCormick, who runs the tourist office on the promenade. Sales of postcards in August totalled 3,131, 50 per cent up on August 1994. The weather helped, but Ms McCormick says thanks are mostly due to the ceasefire.

"We've had people from mainland Britain who've spent the last 10 or 12 summers holidaying in the South, but until this year they've been too scared to cross the border. We've also had a lot of people from the Republic who've come out of curiosity and are keen to see what they've been missing."

If the curiosity factor is sated, and the weather reverts to its normal skittishness next year, you would expect summer 1996 to disappoint. But Ms McCormick anticipates that sales of the favourite postcard (the Mourne Mountains, 25p) will be even higher next year. In Northern Ireland, at least, reports of the death of British tourism have been greatly exaggerated.

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