The Tragedy Of British Seaside Towns
Tourists come to the UK for all sorts of reasons, one being its ‘Englishness’, something I only start to appreciate after returning from overseas. The cities are enjoyed for their vibrancy, the countryside for its beauty, but the coastal seaside resorts are largely sidestepped. Our seaside towns had a different history to their European counterparts. In the early 19th century a series of factory acts enshrined workers’ rights to have a holiday. In 1871, the Bank Holidays Act laid down that Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and 26th of December (if a weekday) should be official holidays.
This gave rise to visits to the coast by working populations in huge numbers. Fishing villages became entertainment centres almost overnight. The heyday extended from the late Victorian period to its zenith in the 1920s and 1930s, which is why there are so many art deco buildings at the coast. The upper classes were starting to travel abroad more, but seaside towns continued to open holiday camps and their popularity continued until the 1970s, when cheap continental air flight arrived.
The seaside towns died. What happened in the years that followed was a saga of mismanagement and small-town corruption. Instead of preserving the elegance they had, as in France, Germany, Italy and even on the Polish coast (which has some beautiful seaside towns), Britain allowed its seaside treasures to be ruined by cronyism, as councils fought to try and bring back visitors. By chasing the traditional working-class trippers, who now wanted to visit other countries, they lost everyone.
Blackpool in Lancashire was found to be the most deprived resort in the UK, followed by Clacton and Hastings, with ‘severe social breakdown’ affecting another thirty resorts. There were pockets were the trend had been reversed. Lytham St Annes in Lancashire, Christchurch and Poole in Dorset, Worthing in West Sussex, Southport in Merseyside and Bognor Regis in West Sussex were the six towns to buck the trend with lower than average levels of deprivation.
Rates of school failure, teenage pregnancy, lone parenting, and unemployment now made these resorts as depressed as deprived inner-city areas. Nobody would want to visit such places, which continued the cycle.
Even prosperous towns declined. My brother made the mistake of taking my mother back to her home town of Brighton, which made her burst into tears. Ostensibly prosperous, the town looks like a run-down area of East London, with its Regency facades ruined and a history of ineptitude that allowed its most beautiful pier to collapse – the last part was finally, irrevocably destroyed in this winter’s storms. Now a new proposal intends to shove a gigantic observation platform in the middle of the promenade to further ruin and vulgarise the little that’s left.
It doesn’t have to be like this. The Midland Hotel in bleak Morecambe was restored to its former glory, but few other grand buildings have been so lucky. Of course it takes money to restore areas, and visitors and former residents won’t return until the towns are made safe and appealing again. One factor that may change all this is the astonishing leap of city house prices, which is moving families back to coastal towns, and they’re bringing entrepreneur skills and money with them. Leigh-On-Sea near Southend is a typical example of a well-revived town.
Books on seaside towns:
‘Sun, Sea and Sand – Braggs/ Harris
Wish You Were Here – Elborough
The Good Companions – JB Priestley
The Year Of The Ladybird – Joyce
Brighton Rock – Graham Greene
The English Seaside – Peter Williams
Calabash – Fowler (see what I did there?)
All further seaside town book examples welcome!