Beside The Seaside, Beside The Sea
Pity the poor British seaside town – unloved, unrespected, unvisited. While Europeans flock to Italian, French and Spanish equivalents (they even have great beaches in Holland and Poland) we get the remnants of once-attractive working class towns which have either had no investment or investment of the wrong kind from dubious town councils. Why no reinvention?
In their heyday the seaside towns of Great Britain had a wonderful character all of their own. Peter Williams’ book ‘The English Seaside’ catalogues many of these architectural and social delights, from piers and beach huts to Punch & Judy shows, gardens, hotels and tea-houses. He also includes some truly miserable pictures of graffiti-strewn attractions which reminds us of the problem; that these places were created to take advantage of the first government-sanctioned British working class holidays, and have found themselves unable to compete with cheap travel to Europe. The resulting high unemployment and poverty-trap economics has reduced once-proud resorts like Blackpool and Brighton to hollowed-out shadows of their former selves.
But where Blackpool has an excuse, being extremely poor, Brighton, with its high house prices, has none for being so shabby and run-down. Anyone who thinks it’s nice now should look at photographs of Brighton from the inter-war years, then run their council out of town with burning torches.
Steven Braggs & Diane Harris wrote ‘Sun, Sea & Sand’, chronicling the rise of the seaside holiday, and John Hinde’s photographs in ‘Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight’ (which had an obvious influence on the young photographer Martin Parr) reveals that even the Butlins holiday camps of the 1960s and 1970s were places of interest, if not exactly fun. ‘Happy Holidays’, introduced by Michael Palin, is a frequently hilarious look at the British seaside resort seen through the railways posters of the time, which the Bryant & May UK book jackets nicely parody (you did get that, didn’t you?)
As children we used to visit Hastings (with its castle and funicular), Rye (the setting for EF Benson’s Tilling), Margate (with its creepy seaweed-covered beach swimming pool), Brighton, Herne Bay and the appalling Sheerness (my father’s motto was never go further than you can reach in half a day) and we never had much fun – we spent most of our time wandering about in the rain looking for something to do that didn’t cost a lot. Unless seaside resorts can find a way of offering an alternative to the guaranteed sun of Europe, they may simply be doomed to fade away completely. A new report suggests that coastal towns represent the greatest poverty in the UK – not just of money but ideas.
Some towns are trying – once you get to Dorset the wealth kicks in – but whacking up a piece of ugly civic sculpture made in dented chrome isn’t enough to save a dying seaside town. They make great locations for horror movies, though. And they’re the reason I set my novel ‘Calabash’ in one.