Oh I do like to be beside the seaside (Part one of two essays on the British seaside.)
The traditional British seaside holiday, sandcastles and donkys, ice cream and fish chips,
saucy postcards, fearsome boarding house landladies and happy campers. The 70's saw it's popularity decline but we still love to go to the seaside.
- How it all began.
- Seaside attractions and the holiday camps
- A decline in poularity and seaside towns today
How it all began.
The traditional seaside holiday is a British institution. But its roots are far from the bucket and spade, ice cream and donkey rides that populate the memories of my generation as sepia toned nostalgic images. Trips to the seaside began in the eighteenth century, when the physician Richard Russell recommended sea water as a cure for his aristocratic patients, swallowing it as well as bathing in it. Doesn’t it make you glad that medicine has moved on since then?
The poorer members of society could not have afforded Russell’s treatment, the cost of travel being prohibitively expensive then. But with the coming of the railways, the seaside became a destination of choice for rich and poor alike. The great pleasure palaces, like Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, were set up to cater for the visitors who flocked in their thousands to the resorts in the mid nineteenth century and included a ballroom, a theatre and promenade amongst its many attractions. From the1870’s, workers from the mill towns of Lancashire had their annual respite from grinding work, a break at northern resorts such as Blackpool and Scarborough during what was known as Wakes Week.
Seaside attractions and the holiday camps
The heyday of the seaside holiday was in the 1950’s and 60’s. Sometimes it was just a day trip, for those who lived close enough to the coast, and what a treat that was, for parents and children alike. I recall sitting on a train, squirming with excitement as Margate drew closer with each passing station. And there was so much to look forward to. Along the sea front were kiosks selling ice cream and candyfloss, sticks of rock (long sticks of very hard candy, usually pink in colour, which had the name of the resort running all the way through it, so each bite revealed the same words around the edge,) as well as beach toys and swim rings and postcards of local scenes, cute animals and the saucy postcards of Donald McGill, with their typically English double entendres. If you were staying for the week sending postcards to friends and family at home was almost compulsory. On our day out mum would buy me a bucket and spade for building sand castles on the beach, while she and dad sat in deck chairs, dad reading the Daily Mirror, which back then was the British working man’s paper. There might be donkey rides along the beach or a Punch and Judy show. There was always ice cream. For longer staying visitors there were cabaret shows or famous comedians giving nightly performances at the theatre on the pier. On our day trip the big treat was going into one of the many cafes along the sea front for fish and chips and ice cream sundaes, then a walk along the promenade, visiting the shops that sold tacky souvenirs emblazoned with the name of the resort, before returning to the station for the journey home, with sand in my shoes, still clutching my bucket and spade.
The visitors who went for more than a day would often stay in one of the many boarding houses, usually on a bed and breakfast basis. Seaside landladies were the stuff of television sit-coms and comedic patter, being portrayed as dragons who ran their establishments by strict rules, and woe betide the guest who infringed any one of them. From the 1950’s the holiday camps were very popular. Guests at a Butlins or Warner’s or Pontins camp could compete in the Glamorous Granny contest, the knobbly knees competition or bathing beauty contests. There was a programme of activities for adults and children all day every day, as well as evening entertainment and the staff (the famous Red Coats at Butlins) were there to see that everyone – and they did mean everyone – had a good time.
A decline in poularity and seaside towns today
With the advent of package tours and low cost airlines in the late 1970’s the seaside holiday declined, loosing custom to the more exotic, and decidedly warmer, Costas in particular. But having lived in a seaside town for a number of years, I know a day at the beach is still popular, and hundreds of visitors still come every year to sample the same delights of ice cream and rock and candyfloss, you can still buy your kids a bucket and spade, still choose from any one of several restaurants for your fish and chips. There are more amusement arcades now, their flashing lights and blaring music enticing the customers in with promise of the jackpot win, more in the way of fast food. Punch and Judy seem to have gone into retirement. But the spirit of the English seaside still lives on. Then when the visitors have gone, that’s another sea side altogether, and that will be the subject of the next essay.