Sunscreen in hand (sometimes), Allan Brodie has visited 250 or so English seaside resorts. Busy ones, quiet ones, tiny ones with three creaky deckchairs, a dried-up paddling pool and a couple of tired old donkeys. His favourite? He doesn’t hesitate: Scarborough.
“When I first visited it years ago, I sat looking down at the harbour,” he says. “I could have been on a Greek island.”
His enthusiasm echoes the reaction of HV Morton, the celebrated travel writer, who visited Scarborough in the late 1920s on a Yorkshire journey taking in Hull, Beverley, York, Harrogate, Ripon and Whitby. “In full noon sunshine,” he wrote in his best-selling The Call of England, “you would not be surprised to meet a sheik in a blue burnous riding a white Barbary stallion up one of the many hilly streets. The old fishing town at the back of the harbour… has the look of a naturalised Kasba. The broad blue bay… might be its French quarter.”
One minute, he says, it’s like Algiers, the next like the South of France, the next like Gibraltar. What was this man on? Scarborough (without sheiks and Barbary stallions) is one of eight Yorkshire resorts featured in Allan Brodie’s newly published The Seafront, a study of what it says on the spine. The others are Whitby, Bridlington, Filey, Hornsea, Withernsea, Saltburn, Redcar… and the village of Atwick, just north of Hornsea, where thanks to coastal erosion, “caravan sites increasingly teeter on the cliff edge.”
Brodie, an architectural historian who has written widely about the seaside, avoids Morton’s purple prose. Detailed, authoritative but accessible, the book explores the history and geography of England’s seafronts, which provide “a resort’s shop window… an advert for the joys of the town”. Laid end to end at some mega-resort, they might stretch to about 2,000 miles long (and 100 yards wide).
I’ll be taking the book, published by Historic England and lavishly illustrated with more than 300 photographs, on a chilly winter trip to – well, not Scarborough (whose first guidebook was published as long ago as 1734), but Bridlington. You may be even less likely to bump into sheiks and Barbary stallions there than you would in Scarborough, but it arguably has a more interestingly varied seafront.
But before a heavily mufflered stroll along it, back to Brodie. He shows how stretches of coastline were gradually developed to reflect changing holiday patterns. Week- or fortnight-long holidays gave way to short breaks and day-trips, evolving “from sea bathing in the 18th century to sun-worshipping in the 20th century”. The focal point was often the pier – England had around 100 of them a century ago, but fewer than 50 survive today.
This is the world of Punch and Judy, beauty pageants and bleeping amusement arcades, of sandcastles, fish and chips and holiday postcards (“perhaps the ultimate ancestors of social media”).
Knobbly knees and glamorous granny contests have been replaced by “hen and stag parties, marauding along the seafront where once Edwardian gentlemen promenaded in their suits while nursemaids pushed mighty perambulators”.
Resorts’ growth could be astonishing. In 1861, Blackpool was a small town attracting 135,000 visitors a year. By 1897, there were almost a million of them, and by 1914, around four million. In the late Victorian era, the resort’s seafront offered a choice of 36 photographers, 24 ventriloquists, six quack doctors and five conjurors.
Eleven years ago, Brodie who lives in landlocked Wiltshire, co-authored English Seaside Resorts with fellow historian Gary Winter. Their research – which took them to much the same 250 resorts – prompted the odd bit of scepticism from their families. “They regarded it as ‘Allan and Gary going on holiday again’,” Brodie said. “And I suppose Gary and I had more candlelit dinners with each other than we’ve ever had with them.”
Seaside Resorts was published as a survey revealed that three out of four people thought many resorts had become run-down and shabby since the seaside’s heyday – not in the Fifties, as is generally claimed, but in the mid-Seventies. In 1974, more than 40 million people took a British break of four days or more.
Revisiting the resorts a decade later, did Brodie find much change? “Well, it’s ups and downs; some resorts show signs of decline, some show signs of prosperity. But the really big change has been the installation of modern sea defences.” Thanks to climate change, he says, “the sea is a resort’s greatest asset, but it is also its greatest threat.”
One of the biggest success stories has been Margate, where Turner Contemporary, the art gallery designed by Sir David Chipperfield (Hepworth Wakefield’s architect), was opening around the time the first book was published.
His conclusion is both upbeat and poignant: “The seaside is alive and well, but changing, much as it has been doing for the past 300 years… and there is no reason to believe that future generations will not also create lifelong memories there, of sunshine and storms, romance and laughter, and fish and chips!”
The Seafront by Allan Brodie, Historic England, £50.