Finally, at long last, it seems we can start thinking about summer holidays - maybe even a short Easter break, if the Covid numbers keep coming down. However booking anything overseas still looks like a tricky prospect, so this year I’ll be renewing my acquaintance with the Great British Seaside.
Like a lot of people who grew up before budget flights made foreign travel affordable, I didn’t go abroad until I was 18. And so, during my cash-strapped childhood, I got to know the British seaside pretty well. I didn’t spend much time there in my twenties, but once I had children of my own I began to make up for lost time. Taking my kids to these seaside resorts made me remember what fun I’d had there when I was a child. It also made me realise how much these places have improved. Sure, the weather is still just as variable, but food and accommodation are far better than they were when I was small.
For me, the thing that makes the British seaside so special is its remarkable variety. Every resort has its own history - no two are alike. They’re a reflection of our island heritage, and although the beaches are the main attraction, the towns that grew up around them are fascinating too. You’re bound to have your own favourites, but to whet your appetite here are some of mine.
Brighton has always been a beguiling blend of down-to-earth and la-di-da - a mecca for Mods and Rockers, and luvvies like Laurence Olivier and Terence Rattigan. Originally a sleepy fishing village called Brighthelmston, it became a bathing resort thanks to Dr Richard Russell, author of A Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in Diseases of the Glands. More recently, the Pink Pound has given the place a tremendous boost. George IV’s Royal Pavilion is one of the most flamboyant buildings in the country. Brighton’s Museum & Art Gallery is almost as striking, built in Victorian Moorish style.
For as long as I can remember, Hastings has been Brighton’s poor relation, but now Brighton is becoming overpriced, Hastings is still a lot cheaper, and so it’s attracting lots of OFBs and DFLs - Over From Brightons and Down From Londons. There’s a bohemian buzz about the place that wasn’t apparent a few years ago (head for Norman Road in St Leonards). Swan House is one of the best B&Bs in the country, and Hastings Contemporary (formerly the Jerwood Gallery) has a superb collection of 20th Century British Art. The only beach resort with a medieval Old Town, full of beautiful half-timbered buildings - after decades in the doldrums, Hastings is on the up.
Clever Spectator readers may know that Regis is Latin for ‘of the King’ but I bet you don’t know which King gave Lyme Regis its royal title. Give up? It was Edward I, way back in 1285 (Bognor only became Bognor Regis in 1929). For 200 years, this Dorset resort has been famous for its fossils, ever since a local girl called Mary Anning found an ichthyosaur here (it’s now in London’s Natural History Museum) but you don’t need to know what you’re doing to strike it lucky – I found a splendid ammonite here, after a fierce storm.
Local wags call it Padstein, on account of Rick Stein’s culinary empire (he runs a pub, a restaurant and a bistro here, and a super fish and chip shop) but there’s more to this lively Cornish fishing port than good grub. If you’re here for May Day, don’t miss the ‘Obby ‘Oss festival - an ancient fertility rite, apparently, in which masked men parade through the town on hobby horses. The nicest way to get here is by bike, from Bodmin, along the Camel Trail, which follows the route of the old railway line along the River Camel (nothing to do with camels – it’s an old Cornish word meaning crooked).
Most visitors to Penwith head for St Ives but I’ve always preferred Penzance – a place with far fewer sightseers, and a bit more grit beneath its fingernails. The most westerly town in England (Land’s End is only nine miles away), it boasts a wealth of Georgian architecture, especially on Chapel Street – stay at Chapel House, a smart boutique hotel in a handsome townhouse which used to be the Portuguese Consulate. Penlee House has a magnificent collection of paintings by the Newlyn School – Victorian painters who came here to paint the nearby fishing port of Newlyn, still an atmospheric spot today. The iconic St Michael's Mount can be reached via the causeway at low tide and the town also boasts a spectacular, newly refurbished, Art Deco lido which juts out into the sea from the promenade.
In Tudor times Rye was one of England’s most important ports, but then the sea retreated, leaving the citadel high and dry, like an abandoned sandcastle at low tide. Since big ships could no longer reach the harbour, the Industrial Revolution passed it by. Today it’s one of the prettiest towns in the country, immortalised by artists like Paul Nash and John Ryan (of Captain Pugwash fame). Visit Henry James’s house (run by the National Trust) and Grammar School Records (a secondhand record shop in an old schoolhouse). The George is one of the top hotels on the south coast. One of the south coast’s finest beaches, Camber Sands, is a few miles down the road.
People tend to be a bit mean about Southend-on-Sea, but I love it. Only an hour from London, it’s a friendly, unpretentious place, with the longest pier in the land. Londoners (especially Eastenders) have been coming here for day trips and dirty weekends since Victorian times, and though nowadays it's a commuter town, it still has an air of cockney kiss-me-quick. Enjoy the rides at Adventure Island, eat posh fish and chips at Clarence Yard, and stop off at the Palace Hotel, a glorious slice of Edwardiana. The Beecroft Art Gallery has a great jazz collection, and a painting by local lad John Constable.
You really haven’t seen the British seaside in its full glory until you’ve been to Blackpool. There’s nowhere else quite like it. Bold, brash and wonderfully tasteless, it’s like a saucy seaside postcard writ large. With three piers and some stunning variety theatres (make sure you see the Grand Theatre and the Tower Ballroom, built by Britain’s greatest theatre architect, Frank Matcham), it’s always been a bastion of Light Entertainment - the list of stars who’ve played here reads like a Who’s Who of British showbiz. But it’s the punters who make Blackpool so special. Eavesdropping in the pubs and clubs and boarding houses is almost as entertaining as seeing a live show.
If you want to tour the Lancashire coast, and you fancy staying somewhere more upmarket than Blackpool, Southport is the perfect base. The Vincent is one of the best boutique hotels in the North West, and Lord Street is one of the most elegant boulevards in the country - apparently it inspired Napoleon III, who stayed here, to commission Haussmann’s redesign of Paris. Visit Ainsdale sand dunes (a National Nature Reserve), Formby woods (run by the National Trust, renowned for its red squirrels) and Antony Gormley’s iconic sculptures on Crosby beach, half buried in the drifting sand.
The pearl of the English Riviera, Torquay is an enchanting town, with oodles of attractive Victorian architecture and a mild, balmy climate, courtesy of the Gulf Stream. The must-see sight is Kents Cavern, a Stone Age site dating back 40,000 years. Agatha Christie grew up here, and the town is littered with locations from her life and work, including The Grand Hotel (where she spent her wedding night) and The Imperial Hotel (the setting for The Body in The Library). It was on the seafront, during the First World War, that she saw a dapper Belgian refugee, who became the inspiration for Hercule Poirot.