The epiphany came when I was standing in the oxymoron of a speedy boarding queue at Gatwick, waiting to have my ticket checked by Eva Braun, mewling middle-class brats squabbling beneath my feet, all of us en route to somewhere in the EU which is both searingly hot and supported by British taxpayer subsidies (for a while). I had been wondering where on the plane we would be seated. Almost certainly that very row in the middle which is the last to be served by the drinks trolley, and where the stale flatus tends to congregate. And probably behind some ignorant cow who will put her seat back so that I can inhale her rancid scalp while I’m trying to eat my sickly Thai chicken ‘wrap’.
The epiphany I was talking about came as the queue to board the plane — from which we could see our bags being hurled into the bulging, fragile, stomach of the Airbus — dragged on and on. ‘Why am I here?’ I asked myself. Not in an existential sense — just why am I not absolutely anywhere else on earth? And what do I have to look forward to, once the plane has landed and taxied for roughly double the length of the flight? Flies, skin cancer and foreigners. And worse even than foreigners — the British abroad. The working classes shagging on the beach, pissing in the street and fighting. The middle classes getting arsey in restaurants and braying to each other over breakfast. It’s not our fading colonial past the rest of the world hates about the UK, it’s the people we dispatch every July to all ports of call from Le Touquet to Pattaya, Orlando to Nusa Dua. People like me, for God’s sake. Poor foreigners.
So I thought to myself: I’ve had enough of this. No more dawn drives to the gates of hell (specifically Gate To Hell Number 21, a 15-minute trek from the departure lounge, once you’ve had some tyrant insist you remove your belt and put all your stuff in trays and stand in some scanning machine to make sure you haven’t got three pounds of Semtex up your jacksie). Henceforth, we’re staying at home, in the UK.
Travelling used to be fun. Since 9/11 it has involved endless security rigmarole, and queues everywhere for everything. And the cabin crew now believe that they are much more than mere peripatetic waiters: they are the front line in the Defence Against Terror, and they will not be gainsaid, questioned, queried. The look of self-righteousness on their faces is the same look you see on the faces of cyclists, vegans and Dominic Grieve. Going business class is a mere palliative, and a ruinous one when you have three kids. So you spend your two weeks abroad dreading the flight home and, if you’re well orf, get to the airport early to take advantage of the business lounge, which is crammed full of plebs offering only stewed coffee and the remains of a Danish pastry.
More to the point, the number of places to which we can now travel in anything like a sense of security diminishes by the year. We used to go quite regularly to Malaysia and Morocco — would you book a holiday in either now? Certainly not Morocco. Even before they started decapitating western tourists the local men were, in the main, utterly foul human beings, greedy, groping, smirking sexist scumbags.
Epiphanies are always contingent, mind. Just as travelling abroad has become a hugely unpleasant ordeal, so staying in the UK has become much more palatable and, thanks to the collapsing pound, much more affordable. Some 20 or 30 years ago you would not have considered taking a holiday in an English seaside town. They were, in the main, decrepit, hollowed-out hulks used as a depository by local authorities for every low-life skank and druggie they had on their books.
My own town, Saltburn, is a case in point. Back in 1978 I worked for what was then the DHSS in nearby Middlesbrough and our most evil clients were domiciled in Saltburn — especially the street in which I now live. Back then the town had faded almost into invisibility. Poverty and despair hung over it like a perpetual haar from the North Sea. But now look at it, with its food festival, its folk festival, its glorious, wildlife-rich ten-mile beach packed with surfers and families, so much space for everyone and you’re only a short cliff-lift ride from a multitude of restaurants and cute poncey shops. Once again, the place has found prosperity. Who would not want to come here?
The previous decline of the likes of Saltburn — and its bigger cousins, Skegness, Scarborough, Hastings, Ilfracombe, Blackpool and so on — began, like most declines, in the early 1960s, when those first jets were taking off from London Airport. It was exacerbated by the sheer and unforgiveable vandalism of the Beeching cuts to our national rail network, which suddenly cut off a whole bunch of British holiday resorts and made the rest much more difficult to get to. The decline was immediate and startling. Soon almost nobody holidayed at home, unless it was the posh going for a weekend in Islington-on-Sea (or Southwold as I believe it is known). The entire country seemingly migrated abroad. With a few exceptions — financial crises and the like, especially 2007/8 — this trend continued, perhaps until now.
In 2018 the number of Brits travelling abroad fell by one million, and the number of nights they spent abroad also reduced. The aforementioned annoyance of flying may have something to do with this. In fact the only thing that makes me want to travel abroad is the sanctimony and hypocrisy of the flight-shaming middle-class eco puffins. Sometimes I think I should book a long-distance trip just to annoy them. But the rejuvenation of our seaside towns is another factor.
You now need to search long and hard to find a seaside town without a food festival or a chic art gallery. The promenades have been prettified and gentrified, the amusement arcades tucked away, the piers (often through lottery funding) repaired to an approximation of Victorian splendour, the gourmet ice-cream parlours and tapas bars moved in. There are still those places which buck the trend — Jaywick in Essex has a good claim to be the most impoverished and desolate town in England, while Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey and good old Blackpool still possess what we might call rough edges. But in most of the rest, there are cornucopias of delight, each town tailored to meet a new market.
Middle-class day trip to the south coast? Whitstable, oysters, lobster, pleasant clapboard houses. Something a bit edgier? Dungeness, with its weirdness, its nuke plant, its wildlife reserve. Gently faded glamour? Herne Bay. Spruced-up art-house stuff? Margate. Margate without the bolt-on culture? Ramsgate. And that’s just the south-east coast, which is now thriving, prices rising swiftly — not least because the high-speed train from St Pancras can reach Margate in an hour and a half.
Warmer summers mean we don’t all have to flock to the west country, where the embittered natives sometimes leave razor blades buried in the sands and feed you stuff called stargazy pie. Although plenty, mystifyingly (in my opinion) still do, despite the crowds and the prices.
The northern resorts have become much more palatable, from beautiful, Hanseatic Berwick, through the Georgian Balamory façade and endless sands of Alnmouth, down past Victorian Saltburn with its magnificent pier, surfing community and unspoiled inland valleys, to Hornsea with its mere full of rare wading birds.
In Norfolk and Suffolk you are spoiled for choice, between chi-chi writers’ retreats, windswept sand dunes for the ornithologists, Cromer for the crab and Great Yarmouth for people who rather wish this gentrification stuff had never happened.
Back in Yorkshire, there’s Whitby, which with great skill re-invented itself as a place for the goths to come and immerse themselves in Draculiana — which cleverly led, a little later, to this thriving town being the centre of the ‘steampunk’ craze. I avoid Whitby, these days — not because it isn’t delightful, but because it is so frantically busy. And good though the fish and chips at the Magpie Cafe is, it’s not a patch on Seaview at Saltburn.
People want more from their holidays and day trips than just sea and sand, which is why the British seaside town is back in fashion. That and the fact that travelling abroad, to widen one’s horizons and meet different kinds of folk, is beginning to lose a little of its allure.