BESIDE THE SEASIDE
Skegness? Fantastically jolly. Bognor? Too mucked about. Tenby? Impossible to top. Seaside Resorts, the most recent book by
Candida Lycett-Green, journalist and “champion of England,” is a celebration of her 50 British favorites—it would make a fantastic Christmas present for a loved one pining amid winter’s snow for sea and sand—and a follow-up to the success of her last book, Unwrecked England, which grew out of the column she writes for the Oldie, the humorous magazine for the mature set edited by Richard Ingrams (better known to some as the founding and long-time editor of Private Eye). Both Resorts and Unwrecked are part of the Oldie’s recent venture into books, under the auspices of the publishing house, James Pembroke. “I always wanted to do a book about seaside resorts,” says Lycett-Green. “What it’s really about is how wonderful England really is in ways that no one seems to notice.”
Britain has a huge and varied coastline, more than 11,000 miles long; wherever you are, it’s impossible to be more than 75 miles from the sea. Even that distance shrank with the coming of the railways, which is why the English seaside resort was a mid-19th-century invention. Although the coast had of course always been a place of recreation, until then it was primarily a luxury destination for the wealthy, who could afford to travel. Earlier in the century, the Prince Regent had popularized Brighton, on the south coast, as a trendy alternative to spa towns such as Wells, Cheltenham and Bath. A few decades later, Queen Victoria’s long-standing patronage of the Isle of Wight and Ramsgate in Kent ensured that the seaside residence became a highly fashionable asset for those rich enough to own a second home.
The expansion of the railways helped change all that; they made it possible for the British working class to take holidays (or days off on the recent innovation of bank holidays) by the sea because they could get there by train (or steamer, for which long piers were erected); this in turn led to the growth of coastal towns as seaside resorts. “The Victorians were the most amazingly inventive people: they were on top of the world on the engineering front,” says Lycett-Green.
Who needs sunshine?
But she is quick to point out this is not a book about nostalgia. “I took the resorts at face value; as they are now,” she says, “but you have to have the right attitude if you’re going, that is with a willingness to enjoy yourself. There’s no point if you’re going to feel gloomy, unless you really want to indulge your gloom.” It’s clear that this is code for not minding if it rains. “What’s so fascinating to me,” she continues, “is that nobody describing holidays in the 18th and 19th centuries alludes to the weather.” We’ve only recently become obsessed with the sun, she insists. “Sunbathing was invented in the ’20s by Picasso and his gang, and now we’re obsessed with heat.”
Lycett-Green certainly isn’t one to be put off by a drop of rain. Her lifelong love of exploring the country began with childhood pony rides along the Berkshire Ridgeway (the subject of another forthcoming book!), and she still uses her mother’s trap to ride the lanes around her home. She credits her parents, the poet John Betjeman and Penelope Chetwode—both also champions of England—with teaching her to look at things. “Everywhere is wonderful if you look around enough,” she declares. “As a child I was aware of battles going on, of people trying to pull down piers, and I’ve become a battler too. I was imbued with their enthusiasm.”
Actually, she ended up having a battle about the book’s cover, which shows a Punch and Judy puppet show on Swanage beach in Dorset. “We had a huge row,” she says. “I hate Punch and Judy shows, and it’s not indicative of what’s inside of the book, but the publisher and editor liked it. In fact, the more I hated it, the more they wanted it. We spent three solid weeks looking for a cover. I thought the picture of Tenby might be good, but Richard (Ingrams) said, “It looks exactly like Positano.”
Strolling along the prom, prom prom
Lycett-Green began the book by getting a big map of Britain and doing a lot of pavement-pounding—or sand-pounding—research. “The internet was useless,” she says, “because there’s really too much information, in a way. So I had to go to each place and see it for myself.” Most of her visits were done in winter; she and her husband went to “nice hotels or B&Bs,” she says, or took day trips to places nearer London, such as Deal and Broadstairs in Kent. Britain has never really got round to fully sorting out who owns its coastline. The Crown controls about 45 percent of England’s shorelines; the remaining beaches are in a variety of hands, from the National Trust and the Ministry of Defence to local authorities and, sometimes, private individuals. “In every town I would always go to the local bookshop and ask what I should look at,” says Lycett-Green. (Despite the fact that both resorts and bookshops are on the endangered list these days, she says, “Funnily enough, there were bookshops in most of them.”)
”You’ve got to turn a blind eye to development—to what’s happened, the mushrooming out,” says Lycett-Green. In considering a resort, she has concluded, it can be judged only by its (sea) front, or a few streets back. Her test was to ask herself if the place made her feel uplifted. After all, as she says, “That’s the point.” Some places, like Aberystwyth, in Wales, “were too unhappy-feeling to include—it had an air of gloom about it.” Lycett-Green clearly feels rather bad about this judgment; I could instantly picture the expectant author, eager to see the sights, pacing the front in the rain, tape in hand, camera in pocket, striving to see beyond the contemporary despair to Aberystwyth’s past pleasures. For her, nothing ever quite disappears: “The spirit of the past, people enjoying themselves is almost tangible in places such as Skegness and Weston-super-Mare. Skegness is fantastically jolly and wonderful.”
It’s hard for her to pick out favorites, she says. “I could have written a book on every place—and would have liked to have written a book on every place.” Nonetheless, she admits to finding the fairly lengthy stretch between Brighton and Dorset “pretty boring—those steep shingle beaches, and Bognor has been too mucked about. Southsea, which is now enclosed by Portsmouth, has become submerged—it’s not a separate place anymore.” On the other hand, the aforementioned Tenby, in Pembrokeshire, is simply “impossible to top.” Today’s Costa del Sol-nurtured middle classes wince at these names; cheap flights have changed the locations of working-class holidays. “People are so classist—even Dickens!” Lycett-Green says indignantly. “But in fact the common man brought extra jollity. The coast belongs to the people.”