The Tragedy Of British Seaside Towns

Great Britain

Brighton's ruined West Pier

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!


17 comments on “The Tragedy Of British Seaside Towns”

  1. Vivienne says:

    Weymouth Sands – John Cowper Powys

  2. pheeny says:

    Somerset Maugham wrote a few stories round “Blackstable” – a thinly disguised Whitstable of the day and further up the coast Paul Magrs’ Effie and Brenda series are set in a (hopefully!)fictionalised Whitby

  3. pheeny says:

    Poor old Margate breaks my heart to see – it is like some hitherto grand relative that has hit the gin bottle and fallen into destitution

  4. Adam says:

    The Royal Bath Hotel in my hometown of Bournemouth used to be beautiful place, frequented by Edward VII, Oscar Wilde and Douglas Fairbanks in its heyday. It is now owned by Brittania Hotels (possibly the shoddiest hotel group in the uk), and home to coach parties, stags and hens…

  5. Vivienne says:

    I have family members living in Dover, Ramsgate, Brighton, Lyme Regis and Littlehampton, so I know the seaside in and out of season. I have to say I rather like the rundownness sometimes. Slightly out of season, it’s possible to have the whole sea to oneself.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Well, I had thought to stop in Hastings – Pevensey, actually – but perhaps not. We are going to Plymouth, though, and the Devon/Cornwall coast no matter what anyone says. When I mentioned to someone I had hoped to go on the railway right along the coast I was told that it wasn’t a train you want to ride. Not sure why but it’s moot anyway since it will take them over a year to rebuild the line after those storms.

  7. Roger says:

    Patrick Hamilton’s Mr Gorse books are set in a grim Brighton.

    Julian Rathbone: A Last Resort.

  8. Chris says:

    Spot on. I live on the Isle of Wight, and used to be proud of the resorts… heck I’m still proud of many of our attractions, but I have to say the most popular seaside resorts of Sandown and Shanklin are really run-down, and if I were a holidaymaker, I’d be severely disappointed. Having said that there are some fantastic places to visit, but I think most people come here as a family, with bucket and spades. The beaches are fabulous, but the hotels and high streets are decaying and dying a not-so-slow death.

  9. Marc says:

    The area around Brighton station does the town no favours whatsoever. A visitor who arrives in the town by rail is confronted by an incoherent jumble of taxis and buses, a lack of pedestrian signage, confusing road crossings… but most of all, a street of scratty shops that are housed in buildings that are cosmetically in a very poor shape.

    There is a lot of movement and vibrancy in the area: this part of Brighton is clearly an area with energy, but the overriding impression is of a place that saw better days a long time back and is still sliding downhill because no one cares enough to do something about it.

    Christopher – I think your comparison with a run down area of East London is accurate.

  10. Vivienne says:

    Poor Brighton. It was clearly originally built very quickly and it’s amazing so many of the cramped terraces still exist. Given that a picture of Brighton beach, more or less crowded, is the newspapers’ preferred representation of English weather, maybe they can’t afford to attract more visitors with a welcoming station. At least they have a lot of non-chain shops which makes it, like Whitby, worth a visit.

  11. Ford says:

    Helen … the line around Dawlish is a brilliant ride; particularly at sun-up, or sun-set! I haven’t been on it, when the waves have been crashing over the carriages. The current Mrs D has; and said it was …. most invigorating! Let’s hope it’s rebuilt soon!

  12. chazza says:

    Hastings should be twinned with Innsmouth but that’s said in a nice friendly non-Euclidian way. Full of strange, off-centre people and unusual locations. Long may it not be popular amongst the trendies and the young. And we have the May motor bike run when the town is packed with ZZ Top look-alikes and the Jack in the Green festives when the town is full of mummers and Wicker Man look alikes (sadly lacking in Brit Ekland doubles, though!)You can be certain of an unusual welcome….

  13. chazza says:

    And visit the reefs off the beach but not on Festival days….or nights…

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Ford, that was the sort of thing I was expecting from that railway, but there’s not a chance of repair by May. I’d forgotten about Jack in the Green. Hmm, must go checking the dates. We’ll be in Iceland first so we’ll be prepared for whatever the west country can hand us. (You did know they’ve canceled the new express road into Reykjavik because it would have to go through a little people’s settlement [read elves] and destroy their church?)
    What is Swindon like these days? We have to go to the Railway museum there but I might like to look at something other than 2-4-2 engines and historic….

  15. snowy says:

    Tried to drag up some English seaside books, come up dry.

    Can only think of films: ‘Bhaji on the Beach’, ‘Wish You Were Here’ and the end of ‘Quadrophenia’.

    [The Dawlish section is due to re-open about a week after ‘The Bleeding Heart’ comes out.]

  16. Ken Murray says:

    I used to work near Leigh-on-Sea and it is one of the nicer spots along that coast. Trips to the Oyster Smack pub were good in the summer months. It featured in a film with Robert Carlye butchas been a film location a few times. I think old stager Peggy Mount used to live there too.

    Shame that they all but ruined the victorian pier hill hotel in nearby Southend-on-Sea. Although I remeber they used it as the location of a weird black comedy starring Denholm Elliot and Richard E Grant.

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