British people do enjoy going abroad for a beach holiday, the favoured destination being the Coast del sol in Spain, but as an island nation the Great British seaside holiday has a tradition stretching back to the 19th century and there are many Brits who happily forgo the sunny climes of Spain and the warm Mediterranean sea for the bracing winds of Skegness, complete with sand in the sandwiches and a dip in the frigid north sea!
Now in 2021, looking back at the history of the British seaside holiday, it can be fairly stated that the real start of this type of holiday was in the mid-19th century as the railway network improved and workers from the rapidly industrialising towns and cities were able to visit the new seaside resorts. The thrill of travelling by steam train directly alongside the sea at somewhere like Dawlish on the south west coast, on the way to the English Riviera of Torbay must have been something quite exciting for people more used to the insides of mills, factories, and coal mines.
Taking in the salty sea air was seen as a healthy thing to do and seaside resorts were likened to spas, a place where one could visit to relax and perhaps even recuperate from illness. To this day many seaside towns in the South and the West of the country are favourite destinations for people to relocate to in retirement due to the relaxed atmosphere, milder climate, and reminder of times spent there on past holidays.
The heyday of the British seaside holiday was the 1950s and 60s. Travel abroad was still not commonplace for the average family but the seaside was easily reachable not only by train but also by coach or car as many people were beginning to buy their own vehicles. This ‘golden age’ appears to be preserved if you visit a traditional resort such as Mablethorpe (on the east coast), Bognor Regis (the south), or Blackpool (the north west), where many of the things you will find are from a bygone era. The promenades are original, as are many of the famous piers, complete with lots of amusements and games including rickety toy car rides, bingo machines, and in some cases one armed bandits (gambling machines which take money just like a bandit does and controlled by one lever, hence one armed). The offers at the fish and chip shops have not changed much, you can still have a slice of bread and butter and a mug of tea with your fish and chips and traditional stalls selling cockles, whelks and mussels are still in evidence in some towns. Continue on down the promenade and dive into one of the souvenir shops where you can buy a stick of rock, (sweet candy decorated with the resort’s name), or perhaps a box of fudge with a pretty picture on the front. As you explore further you will no doubt come across an immaculately cared for public garden, with lawns, flowerbeds, and a bandstand. It is also quite usual for flowerbeds to be used as a decorative display spelling out the town’s name, often in a strategic position where it can be seen from both a main road and the promenade.
Whatever the weather, British families are not put off by a little wind or rain and they like nothing better than to set up their windbreaks, roll out a blanket or two and change into their swimsuits for a day on the beach. If you are lucky enough to be staying on the previously mentioned English Riviera, which encompasses the resorts of Torquay, Paignton and Brixham then you are in the place with the mildest weather in the whole of Great Britain, where palm trees grow and where the sea temperature is warmer too, in the shallows it could, if you are lucky, get up to 20 degrees Celsius. On the other hand, if you are in Scarborough on the north east coast, one of the country’s original seaside resorts then the water on a good day in the middle of summer may only reach 16 degrees Celsius.
Swimming is for the hardier but everyone goes into the sea and children are encouraged to go paddling, which is not connected with boats but rather is used to describe walking in the sea without immersing the whole body. Swimsuits aside, optional headwear in the form of a knotted hankerchief to keep the sun at bay completes the 1950s look nicely
Donkey rides, available for a small charge, are a phenomenon of many British beaches. This four legged relative of the horse is synonymous with that mecca of British seaside resorts, Blackpool. A small town in the north west, Blackpool is easily accessible from the nearby industrial centres of Manchester, Liverpool and to a lesser extent Birmingham, and is famous not only for its donkey rides and nightlife but for the Blackpool tower, something like an English seaside version of the Eiffel tower. It is a magnificent spectacle – and along with miles of the seafront is lit up by thousands of colourful lights during the autumn. Aside from climbing to the top, the interior is an entertainment complex offering attractions much like those found on a seaside pier. It also contains some very fine ballroom dancing halls and the Blackpool tower, though seen as dated is also arguably a British cultural treasure.
These resorts can resemble ghost towns outside the holiday season with their decline talked about and predicted for many years. But they are still with us, and on fine spring or summer bank holidays you will find yourself sharing the beach and the promenade with thousands of others. The peak may have passed but this Great British tradition is not finished yet, as long as the tide comes in and out people will be attracted by the lure of the sea and there is no such thing as bad weather, only a badly dressed holidaymaker.