Janet Street-Porter: Could Clacton ever be the new Nice?

Too many of our coastal resorts are full of retirees who don't want anything new
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The Independent Online

Faced with a chronic drought, the French government has announced fresh curbs on the use of water. And last weekend, I lay in the heather on a remote moor at the top of Nidderdale in North Yorkshire and prayed for a breeze. The sun beat down from a cloudless sky, and my picnic pasty had fermented before it was out of the rucksack.

Peat bog stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions - normally a black glutinous challenge shunned by all but the most dedicated right-to-roamer like myself. I've negotiated miles of these hillocks of slippery mud in driving rain and thick mist (and that's in August), crossing from Wharfedale to Coverdale and back soaked to the skin, exhilarated by the sheer physical challenge.

Today, apart from the plovers and lapwings calling overhead and grouse scrabbling around in the undergrowth, the place was silent. The ground mud-free, unusually sandy and parched, the odd peaty pool shimmering like a scrap of blue, shiny fabric surrounded by tufts of cotton grass, perfectly still. Leighton reservoir lay far below, already half empty.

The upside of global warming is days like these - and the prospect of a very different kind of countryside in the coming years. At the end of the G8 summit, a report was published which predicted that Britain could become the beach holiday capital of Europe. The Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia based their findings on three years' work carried out by researchers from eight European countries. If we do nothing to counteract greenhouse gas emissions, the world's temperature could rise by up to 6 degrees centigrade on average by 2100.

The university's study looked at the effect of this change on the weather of Europe, with less snow in Alpine areas and more winter rain. The prospect of intense summer droughts in the Mediterranean could mean that more people would choose to take their holidays further north, with Britain's miles of sandy beaches suddenly becoming as desirable as Tenerife or the Côte d'Azur.

Within 20 years, southern Europe will have shorter winters, while the north will have more days above freezing, and heavier rainfall. Ski resorts will go out of business and snowboarding could become a sport of the past. Only the other week, I spent a delightful week walking in the Austrian Tyrol, and at the top of the valley of Tax the snow had already receded much higher than normal - fanatical skiers were having to take three chairlifts up to over 8,000 feet in search of some action.

Personally, I love Alpine walking, with the carpet of gentians, alpine roses and daisies - you'd never get me to strap on a couple of bits of metal and hurtle down a hill in the freezing cold, with only a couple of sticks for steering. I prefer a slower pace, with time to savour the view and inspect what's underfoot. Already, many skiing resorts in the Pyrenees, the Appeninnes, the Swiss Alps and the Austrian Tyrol are extending their season by offering walking holidays.

The prospect of the British coast becoming a desirable destination for millions of Italians and French who'd normally be packing Sardinia or the Greek islands is somewhat daunting. For all the rosy prose written by travel journalists about delightful hotels with first-rate food in Devon and Cornwall, there have got to be an equal number of establishments who serve reheated rubbish and whose rooms have changed little since the 1960s. How often do I still see that weird object of zero use to the female traveller, the Corby trouser press? How many hotels still ask me what newspaper I want in the morning before I've got to my room? How many times do I hear the sharp intake of breath when I ask for a pot of tea and a slice of fruit cake on arrival, refusing to make my own cuppa with frowzy old tea bags and long-life milk in a nasty little stainless steel pot?

Let's be serious about British beach resorts, they've got a long way to go when it comes to catering. For every St Ives, I can quote you a Herne Bay with one seafood café and little else. Whitby is great for fish and chips, but what about local lamb or fresh vegetables? Too much of the British seaside's food and drink opportunities are linked to those two institutions which are so overrated, the pub and the plain and simple caff. I loathe most pubs: they have dirty tables, smoky air, pitiful food and they're certainly not places a single woman would choose to spend more than five minutes in.

Most beach cafés just offer greasy muck that clogs up your arteries and makes you feel slightly queasy for the next hour while your system struggles to digest the lard.

Go to Australia if you want to see how coastal food should be put together in 2025 holiday Britain. There, the multicultural population is reflected in everything from Lebanese to Greek to Italian fare, the fish is fresh and the wine chilled. Ironic that we have thousands of miles of coastline and only a few visionaries like Rick Stein who are trying to move us off cod in batter and on to more sustainable fish cooked in a whole variety of enticing ways.

If we can sort out our catering, turn our seaside hotels from crumbling establishments with dodgy plumbing and nasty carpets into something stylish and simple (already happening in places like Brighton), then we could lure those choosy tourists from Rome or Paris. But we also need a sea-change in the way our coastal resorts are run. Too many are full of retirees who don't want anything new to happen, who resent incomers and block any new development.

Whitstable is a great example, a town bursting with French tourists, easy to reach from the Eurostar at Ashford or the Channel Tunnel. The harbour, the focal point of the town, lies semi-derelict and underused while once again the council wastes another year arguing over what to do. The future for Whitstable is clear-cut: it's going to attract more and more tourists.

Time to stop moaning about the threat of the new and bite the bullet. Tourism brings a huge number of benefits to a community like this one. Too many of our seaside resorts have promenades strewn with signs banning litter, dog mess, skate boarding, cycling, music and parking.

I would love to take a plane load of our seaside mayors to spend a whole day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, one of the greatest places in the world to hang out. In the water, everything from boogie boarding to parasailing to jet skis to swimmers, all getting on with it side by side. On the promenade, inline skating, cycling, little dogs running up and down, children playing, old people sitting peacefully in the shade, runners carrying weights, kids just hanging out. It's clean, ebullient, life-enhancing - a world away from Eastbourne and Clacton. It's time for a plan - and I don't mean building super-casinos or huge blocks of flats. Can we put the fun back into the seaside?