In Defence of the British Seaside

Cold legs. Cornettos. Peeing in the sea. Where else would you find such a bizarre but strangely charming concoction of experiences? The seaside holiday is a British institution, a repository of our cultural identity. Although a weak pound provides the perfect opportunity for you to reacquaint yourself with this most British of pastimes, woe betide those who approach a trip to our coast with a fleeting sense of whimsy. Resist the temptation to abandon home soil in favour of cheaper, warmer climes, and give priority the delights of the British seaside.

Sentient beings have always sought rest and relaxation by the coast, but the seaside holiday as we know it is a distinctly British affair. Its origins lie in Scarborough in the 1720s, when the towns ailing population believed that drinking spring water could heal their illness. As medical professionals encouraged their wealthy clients to retreat to the sea, a hospitality industry was born. Rolling bathing machines (think garden sheds on wheels) enabled the genteel upper classes to bath in the restorative seawater without compromising their modesty. This industry expanded rapidly during the Victorian period, and demand for ‘resort’ towns throughout the British coast soared. Places like Brighton, Blackpool and Whitby quickly established themselves as fine places to go on holiday, thank you very much.

The railway democratised the seaside holiday, enabling the working classes to access resorts affordably. Some factories took to having ‘wakes weeks’ – in which workers could take (unpaid) holiday whilst the factory underwent annual maintenance. Wakes weeks helped to instil the notion of regular annual holidays within staff, who had been used to working six or even seven days of the week without a break.

It would be gratifying to be provide a sophisticated analysis of why the British resort holiday declined in popularity towards the end of the 20th century. The reality is frustratingly simplistic; cheap air travel lured British holidaymakers away from Brighton and Blackpool toward Barbados and Benidorm. We all bear responsibility. Package holidays enabled those on low incomes to enjoy affordable sun filled holidays, and the resorts suffered as a consequence. Places like Margate, which had enjoyed an illustrious heyday, now faced a downturn in tourist trade and rising levels of poverty. Unlike plane travel, the cost of rail transport did not reduce at a similar rate. The ease of access that the rail had once provided to these resorts now seemed like an expensive way to spend a hard earned pay packet.

After selling their farming business, my Grandparents turned their hands to tourism at the beginning of the 1990s. Their property, with views of the Teignmouth estuary, provided an ideal location for a guest house. In addition to board and lodge, businesses like the one run by my family, which saw success in the 1990s in spite of the continental exodus, provided personality and local knowledge. Guests became friends, and returned faithfully every year. Seeking sun, perhaps, but also hoping for the familiar comfort of the Pengelly family home.

I would argue that it is this ubiquity which is the seaside’s finest selling point. It is home, but not as we know it. A liminal space between the toil of daily life and the tiring exoticism of overseas travel. You don’t need to take your own teabags and you can drink the water without worrying. But choose a seaside holiday and you can guarantee a reliable mixture of indulgence and chintz. Mini golf, netted curtains and penny machines, mixed in with the odd stick of rock and a donkey ride – what more could you want?

It perhaps goes without saying that an AirBnB, whilst appearing an affordable alternative, does not provide the same experience. Where’s the excitement? The dizzying wait to see which guest house still has a vacancy? Live life on the edge and embrace the full fat seaside holiday with all the unpredictability that it entails. It’s part of the fun.

In recent years, the seaside holiday has had a resurgence in popularity. Prime ministers and celebrities have opted to have a ‘staycation’ to demonstrate their loyalty to brand Britannia. Despite this show of enthusiasm by the political elite, one of the themes which emerged during the referendum was an increasing dissonance between seaside residents and city dwellers, with the former believing that the latter is dismissive of its fruits. Could something as uncomplicated a seaside holiday have the power to heal post-Brexit divisions? Perhaps! But perhaps there is also something to be said for not always seeking rest in unfamiliar places, and for appreciating the charm of those places which are (almost) on your doorstep.

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