Once more on to the beach: how Britain’s seaside towns bounced back

For years our coastal resorts have been in decline. But now bookings are on the rise, and over half of us will go to a British beach this year. So what has changed?

John Napier plonks a pair of blue sequined stilettos – size nine, vertiginous heels – on the counter of his shop, Cobblers to the Old Town, on the high street in Hastings. These, he says, belong to a loyal customer, a handsome South American man who works in the film industry and whose partner, a New Zealander, is a big noise in oil. They are part of a new affluent gay crowd visiting and even moving to the East Sussex town. Napier, who is 66 and bald with a white goatee beard, believes that his shoe repair business tells the story of the renaissance of the seaside; that the soul – or sole – of Hastings is somehow here. So, he gets the high heels and party shoes, but also fixes split wellies for thrifty fishermen, tap shoes for nifty showbizzers and expensive brogues for hipsters DFL (down from London).

“I do love that mix,” he says, Glaswegian accent peeping out, like scuff through polish, after almost half a century in the south. “On Saturday afternoons in here we all have a glass of wine and a chinwag. Musicians, a private investigator, a newsreader, actors, a lord; Harold Bishop from Neighbours came once, when he was doing panto. Oh, yeah, Hastings is picking up.”

We had been told for years that places like Hastings were doomed. The tide, by now, should have gone out entirely. The leftovers of the last full English should have been scraped into the bin by the last landlady; the last B&B shuttered and locked; the last donkey should have given its final ride and be trudging – Eeyore-ishly, Morrissey-ishly – slowly over wet sand in the direction of the nearest sanctuary and retirement. All this ought to have come to pass and the British seaside holiday should, in short, be dead.

Crowds on the beach in Margate last week
‘The best seaside towns are, frankly, getting their shit together’ … Crowds on the beach in Margate last week. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

And yet, look. See what is happening instead. See the crowds of kids crabbing off Whitby’s harbour wall while their parents plan to walk off lunch by climbing the famous 199 steps to the abbey. See the “No vacancies” signs all over Southend and Skegness. From Essex to Yorkshire, Somerset to Cornwall, bookings are up and up, sometimes by more than 500% over the past few years. In 2015, Brits made 19.4 million trips to the English coast, a 10% increase on the year before; in Scotland, the rise was 17%. Forecasts for 2016 are promising – a recent survey suggests that more than half of all Britons planned a seaside break this summer.

Why is this happening? “For me, UK resorts are making a comeback for a few reasons,” says Matthew Rock, co-author of From Ebb to Flow, a report exploring the great British seaside revival. “The EU referendum, the whiff of impending crisis in the global economy, a Trump presidency, a slowing Chinese economy; the terrorist attack on the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse – there are many reasons to be concerned about the future and rein back spending on foreign holidays. And the best seaside towns are, frankly, getting their shit together.”

Perhaps we have also arrived at a greater appreciation of the pleasures of the classic British break. A blend of familiarity, simplicity and beauty makes our coastal resorts comforting and exciting. The Proustian rush of candyfloss and donkey dung, yes, but also the thrill of experiencing towns reinventing themselves for the 21st century. Margate’s 1920s Dreamland amusement park, given a retro makeover by the Red Or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway, is one example – the schlock of the old meets the shock of the new. Think, too, of Banksy’s Dismaland in Weston-super-Mare, and Butlins marking its 80th anniversary by remodelling their Minehead family chalets in consultation with users of Mumsnet. Shakespeare would have a phrase for all this: once more on to the beach.

The greatest symbol of the British seaside’s rise from the ashes is the new pier at Hastings, rebuilt after a long period of disuse and a terrible fire. Its gala reopening ceremony takes place on 21 May. Walking to the far end, drawn by the blue haze of the English channel, one is tempted to peer over the edge and down at the girders, looking for the phoenix that surely roosts there.

A blaze took hold in the small hours of 5 October 2010, and the following morning huge numbers of locals gathered on the hillside crazy golf course at White Rock Gardens to look down aghast at the giant black skeleton jutting out into the water. “You had the spectre of this smoking ruin with the remains of the ballroom rotting away at the end,” says Simon Opie, chief executive of the charity that rebuilt the pier. “It was a blight on the town. What did it say about Hastings if that iconic structure was a charred mess? From a moral point of view, it couldn’t just be left. Something had to be done.”

Hastings pier after the 2010 fire.
‘What did it say about Hastings if that iconic structure was a charred mess? From a moral point of view, it couldn’t just be left’ … Hastings pier after the 2010 fire. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

It is hoped that a visitor centre, bar-restaurant, fairground rides and open-air concerts will attract 325,000 visitors a year. In the first fortnight of being open to the public, the pier has already been visited by an estimated 75,000 people. But it’s about more than just money. Rebuilding – at a cost of £14.2m – was a defiant act. “It’s about drawing a line in the sand in terms of the decline of seaside towns and the way the seaside economy has been allowed to slowly fade away,” says Opie. “This pier is saying it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Opie is a former head of entertainment at Disneyland Paris, and therefore au fait with the economics of the modern leisure industry. But he also appreciates the delights of the traditional coastal holiday, having spent childhood trips to Hastings walking on the pier with his grandfather. So, does he believe the British seaside can make a lasting comeback?

“I really do,” he nods. “What’s important, and what this pier symbolises, is that, in order to make that leap forward, you have to separate from the past. It’s no use thinking that it’s ever going to return to the model where the oppressed workers were finally able to come to the coast by rail when bank holidays were invented. Those social conditions just don’t exist any more. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a purpose to the seaside. The core attraction of being able to sit beside the sea and experience the elements is still there, and still a pleasure.”

That pleasure is even more acute in Rothesay, the main town on the isle of Bute. The view across the bay to the Cowal hills is the best seaside panorama in Scotland, maybe the whole of Britain. Rothesay, a 35-minute trip by ferry from Wemyss Bay on the Clyde coast, was the most popular Scottish holiday resort from the 1930s until the 50s. It was, in essence, Glasgow-on-Sea, Weegie-super-Mare. Each July, when the city’s workers and their families took the “fair fortnight” holiday, the population would expand almost sevenfold to 40,000. This pilgrimage was known as going “doon the watter”, a phrase that persists as sentimental nostalgia; the phenomenon it describes is long gone.

Since those glory days, the decline has been steep. Precise statistics on visitor numbers do not exist, but the numbers of trips to Bute on the ferry fell by more than 42,000 in 2015, a drop of 6.29%. More alarming, the most recent census revealed that the island’s population had fallen from 7,228 to 6,498 in 10 years. “Those figures were a shock to everybody, and a wake-up call,” says Paul Duffy, a community councillor and facilitator of a campaign to revitalise the town.

Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.
‘People aren’t interested in that old seaside ice cream cone and walk along the beach any more. They’re looking for more’ … Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Photograph: Alamy

The town, too, has its symbolic architecture: the Rothesay Pavilion, a category-A listed, modernist concrete pleasure palace – either one of Scotland’s best buildings or an eyesore, depending on your taste. In poor repair, its concrete badly weathered by the wet and salty air, it has been closed for redevelopment since September. Built in the 1930s to boost tourism, it is hoped that its reopening – on a proposed date of 1 July 2018, the building’s 80th anniversary – will act as a catalyst for the town’s rebirth, rather as the Jerwood Gallery, arguably, did for Hastings. An artistic director has been appointed, and there are plans for art exhibitions and live performance which, in theory, will make Rothesay a destination for cultural tourism. The redevelopment is estimated to cost £10.5m, investment that may provide an answer to the town’s basic problem, as laid out by one regular visitor: “The throngs went long ago. The middle class have still to arrive.”

Not everyone agrees it is money well spent. “I’d knock it down,” says Sara Goss, who owns a restaurant and a guesthouse of self-catering suites. She would prefer to see an empty school building converted to use as an enterprise zone. Rothesay has a shortage of properties available for business, locals say, which holds the island’s tourism back. Aidan Canavan, who owns the Bute Brew Co, this week threatened to close the craft brewery and move off the island after the council refused to lease him a former slaughterhouse into which he hoped to expand. Canavan, 37, dislikes the phrase “doon the watter”, regarding nostalgia as a trap; he believes Rothesay’s recovery depends on attracting a new sort of visitor – young families, people from the cities. “People aren’t interested in that old seaside ice cream cone and walk along the beach any more,” he says. “They’re looking for more.”

This, no doubt, is true. Yet nostalgia surely plays a part. Seaside towns are built on strata upon strata of happy memories; a sort of emotional geology. Dig down on Bute’s Kilchattan beach and you might even see the layers. These are places of ritual. Few visitors to Rothesay, since 1919, have left without eating chips or ice cream, or both, sold to them by a Zavaroni. Fat and sugar are as much part of the sensory experience of the Scottish holiday as cold, damp sand and the sardonic cry of herring gulls with their ink-dipped wing tips. Margaret Zavaroni, 62, cousin of the late Lena, runs the cafe on Albert Place. She’s a seaside siren: metallic eye-shadow, deep tan, pink lippy, bright green eyes. Famous locally as Maggie Zav, she sings Tina Turner and Shania Twain in the Taverna pub on Friday and Saturday nights, and spends the rest of the season busily purveying Top Hats, a proud Zavaroni invention – an ice-cream cone crowned by a marshmallow snowball.

“We need a boost,” she says, citing the new reduced ferry fares as a hopeful development for this summer. “This island is special, and people all round Britain should come and see what we have here.”

Matthew Rock cites “belligerence and creativity” as qualities that will help declining seaside towns “turn the tide”. Creativity, of course, but you’ve got to love that belligerence – a dogged refusal to die. You can sense it in Rothesay, and even more so in Hastings, a place with a pronounced bolshy streak that some locals boast is the pirate DNA spiralling through their bloodstream. It feels appropriate that the town’s head of marketing is descended from a man hanged for smuggling.

Hastings is not without problems. England’s 13th most deprived town, it has rough sleepers in “Bottle Alley” on the seafront and within the elegant Ionic portico of the church on Pelham Crescent. Lovely turnstones upend pebbles on the beach, but so do the problem drinkers, ruddy from sun and wine, burying broken glass from carry-outs deep beneath the shingle. Such desolation, however, is no longer the dominant note. Somewhere within the borough council offices is a “black museum” of negative press cuttings – Costa del Dole, Hell Hole-on-Sea, and other such headlines – which has not been added to for a while. Instead, the local conversation is about the risk of gentrification and rising house prices.

fishing boats and Victorian-era ‘net shops’ in Hastings
Mysterious and fairy-storyish … fishing boats and Victorian-era ‘net shops’ in Hastings. Photograph: Alamy

Little wonder people are rediscovering Hastings. It is a splendid place, with that sort of beautiful oddness that characterises the best of the British seaside. The Stade, the historic fishing area, is notable for its Victorian-era “net shops” – a cluster of black wooden towers used by generations of fishermen to store their gear. Built tall and narrow for pragmatic reasons – a lack of space between sea and cliffs – they now appear mysterious and fairy-storyish. One imagines some mermaid version of Rapunzel letting down her seaweed hair.

You can stand in the shadow of the net shops and watch the world pass. Fishmongers, morris dancers, a young curate cycling past on his way to perform Holy Communion for an ailing parishioner. We could be back in the golden years. The miniature railway chuffs its way along the half-mile track, as it has since 1948.

Janette and Nicholas Wooller, a mother and son from Burgess Hill, have driven down for the day, in a racing green Jaguar XKR, to celebrate his 25th birthday, and are taking a selfie on the beach. It’s wet, but they don’t mind. The thought of pie and mash is warming them up, and besides, they have come prepared with coats and jumpers as well as sunbathing gear. Janette, when commended on this foresight, seems to speak for all of Britain’s seaside towns as they come to terms with the 21st century.

“You have to be ready for the change of weather,” she says. “If we get wet, we’ll just carry on.”


Peter Ross

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hastings Pier reopens following £14.2m restoration project
Local supporters and Heritage Lottery funding have helped restore ‘the people’s pier’ following fire damage and eight years of closure

Will Coldwell

27, Apr, 2016 @4:45 PM

Article image
The joy of beach huts, by Julie Myerson
A beach hut is a dream of escape, a shortcut to childhood longings, writes Julie Myerson. How lucky, then, to be like Sarah Chandler, whose family have passed their love of beach huts down through the generations

Julie Myerson

23, Aug, 2013 @4:37 PM

Article image
10 of Britain’s best wild beach walks
Magnificent sands that, even in summer, are wide enough to swerve the crowds and enjoy lungfuls of salty air

Kevin Rushby

08, Aug, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Show stoppin': a car-free art tour along the East Sussex coast
The Coastal Culture Trail links three modern art galleries along 18 miles of this stretch of seaside. On a family trip, our writer explores by train, bus and on foot

Phoebe Taplin

26, Jul, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Style revival: Britain’s booming seaside towns
Traditional resorts like Bournemouth and Torquay, once known for amusement arcades and OAPs, are having a moment, with cocktail bars and cute cafes, new outdoor activities and chic places to stay

Davey Brett

28, May, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Old-fashioned fun: 10 traditional UK seaside breaks

Not all British seaside resorts have to go the way of Brighton and Whitstable … Lesley Gillilan seeks out 10 of the most gloriously traditional, with all the fun of the fair

Lesley Gillilan

03, Aug, 2012 @9:44 PM

Article image
10 of the best family days out in south Cornwall

Play lighthouse keeper, board a navy helicopter, canoe the River Tamar, or hit the fairy trail on Bodmin – south Cornwall offers plenty of fun family days out, says Hayley Spurway

Hayley Spurway

14, Mar, 2012 @12:50 PM

Article image
Seaside fun in Blackpool

Hilary Whitney braves Blackpool's rides with two 11 year olds.

Hilary Whitney

21, Jul, 2007 @10:50 PM

Article image
The best of the UK seaside
Nostalgia, beaches and ice-cream come together in perfect harmony as 12 authors and locals choose their favourite places on the UK coast, with places to stay

10, Jun, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
10 of the best family days out in north Cornwall

From coasteering and kite-flying to steam railways and theme parks, north Cornwall offers some brilliant family days out, says Hayley Spurway

Hayley Spurway

14, Mar, 2012 @12:42 PM