English seaside towns: past, present and future

AmusementsBefore we pull together our ideas about regenerating seaside towns, we need to be clear about where and what kind of places we are talking about, as well as what exactly we mean by ‘regeneration’.

Our focus is on English seaside towns with some element of tourism and resort activities in their economies, following a pattern of development that can be traced back to the eighteenth century and forming part of the world’s first Industrial Revolution. Some understanding of the complexities of a variegated past is necessary if we are to place their current situations in perspective and develop a convincing position on what their future might be.

English seaside resorts cannot compete internationally on climate, and depend almost entirely on domestic markets (as has always been the case). Nevertheless, they can lay claim to attractive topographical and historic identities, including architectural and cultural heritage, together with traditions associated with popular culture and entertainment (their ‘intangible heritage’). They need to be able to retain (where appropriate) and carve out market sectors and niches that are founded on authenticity and distinctiveness – features that respond to native cultural traditions in contrast with the ‘Fordist’ mass-produced resorts of, especially, the Mediterranean from the 1960s onwards, although those destinations have their own histories and are not as uniform as stereotypes about ‘mass tourism’ suggest.1 That is another story.

But the English seaside also needs to overcome the adverse aspects of the legacy of the past, especially the lack of innovation and loss of media credibility over the last two generations, and the associated social pathologies of local stagnation and decline.2 This affects the working definition of ‘regeneration’ that this Handbook adopts – which will need to go beyond the government’s preoccupation with labour markets (without denying their importance), to be sensitive and responsive to local and regional identities and traditions even as it revives, refreshes, reconstructs and innovates, and to take account of existing residential interests and visitor markets, even as it seeks to replace or supplement whatever may be lost or failing. So this chapter sets out: what kinds of coastal or seaside town are at issue; how the ‘resort’ element in their economies fits into past trajectories, present circumstances and future options; to what extent the problems we identify in the early twenty-first century are new; what options are available; and what kinds of intervention might be helpful across a broad spectrum.

We begin by emphasising that we cannot understand the present or plan for the future without an understanding of the past.

  • Where have the tremendous number and diversity of English seaside towns come from, how did they develop, and what were the key influences on them?3
  • What can we learn, positively and in terms of what to avoid, from past practices and processes, from how we got to where we are now, and from alternative trajectories and models of development beyond our shores?
  • What can we learn about demand flows, branding, marketing, the provision of amenities and entertainments, the creation, protection and enhancement of desirable environments, the management of space and conflict, and the relationships between private enterprise and local government, the citizen and the developer, or local democracy, political legitimacy and economic development?
  • What are, have been and might be the roles of diversity, of competition and complementarity between and within resorts and resort clusters, of transport systems, and above all, of perceptions of distinctive character and identity, as expressed through that topophilia that invests emotion and nostalgia in buildings and locations?4
  • How might an understanding of the trajectory of the seaside, not least in terms of past or recurrent problems, be harnessed to the satisfying and economically successful generation of new futures?
There are a lot of questions here. Some will be tackled directly in this chapter; others will inform subsequent discussion in what follows.

First of all, where are we talking about? When we look at most lists and definitions of ‘coastal’ towns and communities in England, or indeed in Britain, we find a tendency to include every local government district or parliamentary constituency that has a stretch of tidal waters within its boundaries. Charitably, this must explain (for example) the inclusion of Sherwood, a former mining district close to the very centre of England, in a list of 130 ‘coastal’ parliamentary constituencies: the River Trent is tidal for a very long way inland. But this raises a general question – should we regard tidal estuaries as ‘coastal’ for present purposes? If so, London is a coastal city, although none of its constituencies is listed among the 130. So are Bristol, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Hull, Middlesbrough, Ipswich and Goole, and many other towns and cities that are, or have been, important ports on estuaries and tidal river systems. Where should we draw a notional line?

Sited more explicitly on coastlines rather than estuaries there are also, of course, maritime industrial and commercial cities, some of which contain, or have contained, naval dockyards and commercial shipyards, such as Barrow-in-Furness, Sunderland, Portsmouth and Plymouth; or have been industrial deep-sea fishing centres as well as commercial ports and import processors, such as Lowestoft and Fleetwood; or whose past prosperity came mainly from coal exports and heavy industry, like Workington in Cumbria. We might regard such places as towns that are ‘on the coast’, rather than coastal towns. We could reserve the category ‘coastal town’ for a different kind of place: one whose economy and identity depends, and has depended, to a significant extent on seaside tourism, and the extended influence of a seaside tourism tradition on related activities or identities (commuting, retirement, fishing and maritime heritage), and on enterprises that are mobile because they deal in ideas, intangibles or easily portable items, which draw people to coastal locations because that is where, given a choice, they prefer to live and work.

This is the kind of distinctively ‘coastal’ setting that justifies the adoption of an additional category for evidence-based policy analysis, over and above those ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ areas that happen to be on the coast or include some coastline. But it has been difficult to isolate the targeted evidence on which to base the policies. A surprising number of ‘coastal’ parliamentary constituencies are shaped to contain a small stretch of coastline whose salient characteristics are swamped by an overall dominance of agriculture, industry or suburbia. This also applies to local government districts, especially since reorganisation into larger units in 1974, which often provided a recipe for enduring local jealousies and strife over priorities and resource allocation. As Beatty and Fothergill have understood, and Fred Gray reinforces, to identify key characteristics and problem hot-spots we have to go to the smallest available statistical outputs and build upwards from them.6

It is even harder to develop a united coastal voice when coastlines and individual communities are perceived as being in conflict with each other, although in many cases they actually provide complementary offers for differing constituencies and niche markets, even on the same coastlines. This kind of regional resort system has a long history, growing out of older histories of diverse provision for almost all the population of adjacent industrial regions, negotiated between developers, holidaymakers and transport services according to local characteristics and demand flows. But it remains difficult to generate a united voice behind a shared set of identifiably ‘coastal’ interests, as the British Resorts and Destinations Association (BRADA) has found. It is difficult, but necessary.

‘Coastal towns’, as defined above, are the places whose economies and demographic systems Beatty and Fothergill have analysed. There are a lot of them, and they go back a long way. Most of them have dual or mixed economies, and (as Fred Gray has noted) most have developed as ‘stand-alone’ urban centres – which means that they necessarily pull together a variety of functions and social strata, and have complex small-scale internal geographies.7 Some date, as resorts, from the earliest days of seaside tourism around the middle of the eighteenth century, often developing around existing port and harbour settlements. Some participated in the first great surge of seaside town growth during the first half of the nineteenth century. Many are products of the Victorian railway age – what might be called the first ‘democratic seaside’ – arranged around railway stations, piers and promenade tramways. A few were twentieth-century late-comers, especially the informal so-called ‘plotland’ settlements and caravan resorts.8 Some, like the late Victorian speculation on the cliffs at Ravenscar in North Yorkshire, never got far beyond the initial property auction in the first place, and are now of archaeological interest. 

Most contain elements of some or all of the above, as they have grown by accretion and adjusted piecemeal to new fashions and new markets, from bathing machine to (in a few cases) naturist beach, and from the Assembly Rooms ball to the club scene.9

My own efforts to count and tabulate such places between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, concentrating on those for which runs of census population figures were available, put together 122 along the English coastline, 13 of which had census populations of fewer than 1000 in 1911.10 But as early as 1885 a national guide to ‘seaside watering-places’ listed 170 in England alone (including the Isle of Wight but not the Isle of Man or Channel Islands).11 These included major maritime cities like Southampton and Plymouth at one extreme, and at the other tiny fishing hamlets like Staithes and Prussia Cove, and even coastal villages in coal-mining districts, such as Ryhope in County Durham. Here the local tourist ‘industry’ was run by a Mrs Salkeld, who rented out boats and the solitary bathing tent, and presided over a ‘sort of marine grotto’ where she sold refreshments. Already, too, there were places that had seen better days and needed to be revitalised. This is not a new problem!

Many ‘coastal’ resorts, of various sizes, are themselves on estuaries: Arnside, Cleethorpes, Lytham, New Brighton (whose decline as a resort is an important case study in itself),12 even Southend or Weston-super-Mare. Moreover, how should we deal with places that develop on separate sites within the boundaries of a larger local government district, or that are subsumed into larger entities through local government reform (especially that of 1974), or that form distinctive enclaves within existing larger towns (like, on an unusually large scale, Cleethorpes within Grimsby, or Southsea within Portsmouth)?

These problems of identity and classification are important if we want to build a precise and convincing (or at least consensual) database of ‘coastal towns’, sensitive to change over time. But in the absence of agreed definitions or precisely calibrated statistics, an element of subjectivity must always creep into the calculations. This applies equally, of course, to the imagined and shifting boundary between the ‘rural’ and the ‘urban’, which is being increasingly recognised as problematic as academics and policymakers investigate the spread of suburbia, exurbia and the ‘rurban’.13 The concept of the ‘rural’ in Britain had become so complex by 2001 that the Office of National Statistics commissioned a special report to clarify the terminology. The report noted a tendency to categorise the ‘rural’ as a residual – whatever is ‘not urban’ – and to use the category as a ‘matter of convenience’. This is a reminder of the frailties of the existing urban/rural divide for policy purposes. Further, we should note that one of the ONS’s own area classifications was ‘coast and service’, which combined ‘coast and country resorts’.14 If the government accepts the category ‘rural’ as a basis for policy formulation, it is hard to understand why it should deny the validity of ‘coastal’. 

Beatty and Fothergill are well aware of these issues, and recognise the element of subjectivity in their own classifications and calculations, as of course do I as regards my own contribution to these discussions. Under all the circumstances it is clear that theirs is the best list to work with, not least ‘because it is there’ and to discard it would be to abandon an essential baseline and comparator. It deals with current circumstances, and is certainly not demonstrably inferior to any conceivable alternative. The limitation that in its original form it dealt only with the larger resorts, which may not have been representative of coastal experiences and problems, is now dispelled by the supplementary report of July 2009. Its coverage still adds up to ‘only’ 74 places in England, leaving up to 50 of the smallest out of account – but they really are probably best left in the existing ‘rural’ category for present purposes, reinforcing from the other side the point that not everywhere on the coast is a ‘coastal’ or ‘seaside’ town. Put together, their populations would add up merely to a single medium-sized town, distinctive though their collective experiences might be.

The places on the Beatty and Fothergill list have many core characteristics in common, but they display a spectrum of current fortunes and historical trajectories. We need to understand the reasons for their current circumstances before we can intervene to try to change them.

Even without the smaller settlements, there is a very wide distribution of sizes among these towns, from Greater Bournemouth with over a third of a million, and Greater Brighton and Greater Blackpool with well over a quarter of a million, to a cluster of places that just cross the qualifying barriers of 8000 (in 2003, based on the 1971 census) or 10,000 (the additional ‘benchmarking’ exercise of 2008).15 They contain nearly six per cent of England’s population, but the proportion who have visited them or lived in them will be very much higher, especially given the tendency for seaside residence to be seasonal or a life-cycle stage, especially late in the life course (but also early in it, before moving away in search of higher education or a career).

The largest towns are actually seaside conurbations, containing within their boundaries several smaller places that would feature well up the league table in their own right, such as Christchurch and Poole within Greater Bournemouth or Lytham St Anne’s within Greater Blackpool. All (perhaps especially the largest) have complex economies, combining in varying degrees tourism, fishing, seaport, retirement, residential and industrial functions, and often sustaining intricate family economies as opportunities fluctuate seasonally, in ways that may not be captured by benefit claimant statistics. For example, I suspect that seasonality of employment is still more widespread than statistics based on the implicit assumption of ‘one person, one job’ – and failing to pick up on seasonal migration – may lead us to believe.

Collectively, seaside towns grew more rapidly than the national figure throughout the twentieth century, although the motors for growth changed over time. However, since 2001, although still growing, they have lagged behind the rest of England. The long history of growth, to varying degrees, is significant in itself, and may help to explain the relatively high proportion of seaside inhabitants of pensionable age (24 per cent against a national figure of 19 per cent), although this discrepancy has been a long time in the making.

How are the larger seaside towns currently faring? The ‘benchmarking’ exercise found that, according to its primarily economic criteria, several were performing strongly, with a concentration along the south coast (of all sizes, from Greater Bournemouth to Sidmouth), but also outliers at Southport, Whitley Bay on Tyneside, and Whitstable on the Thames Estuary. Others were deemed economically weak, with a string of poor performers along the east coast from Clacton to Bridlington and then Whitby, together with Thanet, contrasting examples in Devon (Torbay and Ilfracombe),16 Penzance in Cornwall, and the Lancashire resort of Morecambe. Of the largest urban areas in the category, Thanet fared worst, followed by Torbay, Hastings, Greater Blackpool, the Isle of Wight (which contains several small seaside towns of varying character) and Southend; then at the top were the three south coast conurbations based on Brighton, Bournemouth and Worthing.

Several aspects of these findings call for comment. First, there is no exact fit between the fortunes of regions and seaside towns. The south coast, from west Sussex to east Devon, has concentrations of current economic success, which seem to be affected not only by widespread economic growth in south-eastern England but also by ease of communication with London. Significantly, Hastings (with more difficult metropolitan access), and resorts like Folkestone which formerly doubled as cross-Channel ferry ports, do not reap discernable benefits from regional prosperity. Round the corner on the Thames estuary is Thanet, where the loss of early comparative advantage in transport access has contributed to serious and sustained decline since the later twentieth century. Just a little closer to London but on the same coastline, Whitstable is deemed to be doing well. In the North West, residential Southport appears to be prospering, while Greater Blackpool is probably kept out of the ‘economically weak’ category by its comfortable residential components along the Ribble Estuary, especially Lytham, which mask the well-known pockets of poverty in some of its central wards, and Morecambe continues to struggle.

It seems that the patterns are based less on the fortunes of resorts’ surrounding regions than on the character, social composition and markets of individual places. The most ‘difficult’ category, indeed, might be defined as ‘old provincial popular resorts that historically had regional industrial visitor catchments’. This would include most of the struggling east coast resorts north of Southend, as well as Morecambe and the historic resort core of central Blackpool – which was, however, a holiday place for the whole of the North of England before the First World War and for most of Britain by the 1930s, though always deriving its dominant character from the old textile and mining centres of Lancashire and West Yorkshire.17 The resorts of the Bristol Channel, extending as far south-west as Ilfracombe, might fall into this category, and so might post-war Torquay and Paignton, which also came to draw strongly on the industrial north and midlands, and even Southsea, Weymouth and the Isle of Wight. Redcar, on Teesside, would fit the pattern were it not so tied into manufacturing industry that it is omitted from the Fothergill statistics. Thanet might even be assimilated into it, as through trains and indeed coach services from manufacturing districts in the North and Midlands brought substantial numbers of visitors during the 1950s and 60s. Going beyond our present geographical remit, the North Wales coast, Aberystwyth, Pwllheli and the Isle of Man would also fall into the same category.

Big LadySeagullsAnother useful label might be ‘resorts that have developed strong residential functions as prosperous retirement and commuter centres’, as opposed to the less prosperous retirement that takes former industrial workers, often with long-term illness and disability, to the old popular resorts and (for example) the caravans of the Lincolnshire coast. This might help to account for the strong showing of Whitley Bay, near Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Southport on the Fothergill criteria, as well as extra-metropolitan Brighton, Worthing and a Greater Bournemouth that includes highly prosperous areas of Christchurch and the property hot-spot of Sandbanks.

We might also consider a third category of ‘smaller resorts with attractive harbours, fishing, boating and distinctive landscape and heritage assets’. A list of the top ten resorts in the Holiday Which? competition for the best British seaside resort for 2006 suggests that this may be a valid, and in some senses highly successful, category. Whitby, to which we shall return, came first; but its success was part of a wider renaissance of small British seaside resorts that were perceived to have distinctive character and atmosphere, and to be the bearers of attractive, evocative traditions from the history of the English seaside, into the beginning of the new millennium. The other resorts in the top ten were all small and presented some claim to distinctive character: Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, Frinton in Essex (with its reputation, dating from its inter-war heyday, for exclusivity, bowls and lawn tennis), expensive and equally exclusive Swanage and Sidmouth in Dorset and Devon, artistic St Ives (home of the Tate Modern gallery, on the site of the old gasworks) in Cornwall, the little Welsh resorts of Tenby and Abersoch, Rothesay on the Isle of Bute in western Scotland, and Portrush in Northern Ireland.

Only Sidmouth, St Ives and Swanage joined Whitby among Britain’s ‘43 principal seaside towns’ as defined by Beatty and Fothergill, and they all featured among the six smallest, with census populations between 10,200 and 13,800.18 They were all relatively difficult of access from major population centres. Even Frinton, easily the nearest to London, tried to discourage visitors with ‘alien values’ by suppressing attractions and activities deemed ‘inappropriate’ and using its rail crossing as a kind of unofficial frontier post.19 The others were far from the nearest motorway, and any rail journey, if available, necessitated connecting with a rustic branch line. Wells-next-the-Sea, Swanage and Portrush were not only ‘remote’, especially from a London media perspective, but also had close connections with steam railways, a particularly popular and evocative form of ‘heritage’ attraction in Britain. A visit to Rothesay involved a short sea crossing – it had a long history as a popular destination for Glasgow area holidaymakers travelling down the Clyde estuary, initially by paddle steamer.20 In these cases the journey was a positive aspect of the overall experience, even part of the attraction, not least because it acted as a filter on the ‘wrong sort’ of fellow holidaymakers or residents.

Small resorts with ‘character’, and offering – in the ‘top five’ cases at least – large numbers of beach huts, that fashionable accessory to holiday living at the seaside in the early twenty-first century, were clearly of the essence.21 A measure of eccentricity and the capacity for catering for niche markets also seemed to help. Above all, what mattered was to be able to connect with a sense of nostalgia for a secure, rich and interesting past that could be transmitted to a new generation through the revival of an idealised family holiday in a ‘traditional’ and evocative seaside destination – essentially relieved of all the associations of dullness, dampness, incompetence and poor service that had plagued the British seaside in the late twentieth century, but were no longer seen as inevitable, as the predominant tone of media coverage began gradually to shift from mockery towards celebration, from denigration towards affection.22

Nor was this kind of resort confined to the top ten in this competition, interesting though its outcomes were. Whitstable’s current high profile, for example, is associated with similar characteristics; and other seaside places with less promising economic profiles, such as Hastings, are now making a virtue, and a selling point, of their more attractive eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. But Whitby is a particularly good example of a coastal town whose current reputation as a tourist destination is in tension with its position in the economic and demographic league tables. It was consistently at or near the bottom of all the economic and demographic performance tables in the original Seaside Economy report of 2003 (although it is interesting that the subsequent ‘benchmarking’ study in the aftermath of the Report of the Select Committee on Coastal Towns, which updates the picture using statistics from 1998/9 to 2005/6, shows the town in a much more positive comparative light). Its employment level increased by 16 per cent during those years, putting it seventh among the chosen towns, while it was fifth in the relative importance of the classic tourist trade occupational categories in distribution, hotels and restaurants. It was also strong on gross value-added per capita, coming tenth, and it was making excellent progress in reducing its working age claimant rates. It was pulled down by issues connected with age structure, educational attainment and housing amenities, but it finished in the top half of the survey when overall comparative deprivation levels were calculated. Even so, it still featured in the Department of Trade and Industry’s list of ‘declining’ coastal towns in 2008, on the basis that its employment rate was more than 3 per cent below the figure for England as a whole, a measure that Steve Fothergill rightly described as ‘one-dimensional’.23

This apart, the recent evidence confirms impressions that were already current in the mid-1990s that Whitby was turning a corner. But it should also remind us that this kind of evidence is only part of the story, presenting a warning not to put too much trust in the quantitative and seemingly quantifiable. Whitby has enhanced its reputation as a popular weekend destination for seekers after distinctiveness and ‘authenticity’. Its day-tripper markets from old industrial areas of North East England and West Yorkshire have been augmented by touring coach parties and more distant affluent visitors, keeping tourism buoyant through times that were harder in other resorts. Like all British seaside resorts, its visitors are overwhelmingly domestic tourists, despite attempts to build an international public around associations with Captain Cook.24 It won the Holiday Which? ‘Best Seaside Resort’ title in 2006, when newspaper publicity was supportive, referring to the town’s 550,000 visitors per year, tourism employment running at one in five of the population, sandy beaches, quaint harbour, abbey ruins, picturesque cliffs, fossils, jet ornament manufacture, kippers, folk festival, Goths (responding to the Whitby setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula), regatta, literary and historic associations. The Yorkshire Post emphasised the town’s recovery from high unemployment rates in the mid-1990s, with extensive new investment, especially around the harbour. It went on to come top of the Observer ‘50 best holidays’ list in 2007, and a year later it won an Enjoy England Award as the best town in England for a day out. At the beginning of 2009 an article on a new hotel venture, again in the Observer, was full of praise not only for Whitby’s ‘retro’ charm, but even for the mysterious mists associated with its classic Yorkshire coast sea frets.25

Why focus on this case study of a small northern coastal town? In the first place, it reminds us that economic and demographic indicators, valuable as they are (and central to government thinking), do not tell the whole story. Regeneration is about jobs, enterprise and services, but it is also about reputation, distinctiveness, attractiveness and aura. Fothergill has noted the existence of ‘competing perspectives’ on what matters in assessing performance and proposing interventions:

  • the socioeconomic indicators in which his primary expertise lies;
  • the significance and promotion of tourism (despite the difficulty in assessing its role in an economy, in the absence of reputable statistics);
  • architecture and the built environment;
  • the natural environment.26

Small boat on beachOthers, such as the ‘intangible heritage’ of tradition and association, might be added. It would be better, of course, if these considerations were to be regarded not as competing, but as complementary, to be brought together in a holistic set of policies that transcend departmental and administrative boundaries. This is what we advocate, and why this Handbook covers so many dimensions of its subject.

We should also recognise that Whitby is attractive for its history and associations, informal as well as formal. These are expressed partly through a distinctive urban maritime environment on each side of the harbour, involving the survival of narrow cobbled streets, eighteenth-century cottages and ‘yards’ set back from the main streets and climbing the lower levels of the cliffs. The ambience associated with this untidy quaintness, which gives a sense of communing with an imagined past that is accessible without detailed historical knowledge, is marketable to a range of visiting publics, and generates a great deal of affection among repeat visitors. This has been shown at various points since the early 1930s, whenever ‘Old Whitby’ has been threatened by redevelopment or commercial innovation, and the present state of the harbour area is itself the result of several decades of conflict and compromise. 

The current popularity of Whitby reflects the importance of a sense of uniqueness and authenticity, of the atmospheric and memorable, and such intangible assets are of the utmost value to a resort. In this context it is also important that Whitby’s recovery has gone forward without recourse to heavy-duty master-planning or heavy-footed demolition and redevelopment. It has benefited rather from external investment in greatly improved water quality on the beaches and in the harbour, and it has seen investment in new accommodation and expanded marina facilities in the upper harbour. Above all, it has built on its existing assets and reputation, and modernised its offer within an established attractive framework, without damaging its fragile core environment.27

These points, and options, do not apply only to old harbour towns and fishing communities. Other kinds of coastal town have their own histories, ambience and versions of authenticity. Blackpool itself, the world’s first ‘working-class seaside resort’, has its own unique heritage, both tangible and intangible, architectural and cultural, based on the surviving piers, theatres and pleasure palaces from its explosive late Victorian growth phase, its streets of Victorian and Edwardian holiday hotels and boarding houses, its inter-war modernist architectures of play and relaxation (including the extensive developments of the 1920s and especially the 1930s at the Pleasure Beach and Winter Gardens), and of course its evolving tradition of hedonistic popular enjoyment. There is a credible basis here for a UNESCO World Heritage Site bid, provided that nothing further of major significance is lost. The streets of Victorian boarding houses are a particular problem, as the economics of adaptation to new tastes and expectations with limited access to capital present daunting challenges.28

But there are similar splendid survivals all along the coastline, a growing number being adapted to contemporary needs and sustained as local landmarks, magnets and active sites of regenerated memory, as in the cases of Morecambe’s Midland Hotel, Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion and (now) Scarborough’s Spa complex. How this is done, in what kind of relationship between the public and the private, the third sector and different tiers of government, is less important than that it is done, provided that the places concerned remain accessible. How do we bring new, contemporary life back to Hastings Pier, or Morecambe’s long-neglected Winter Gardens, or Margate’s threatened (and fiercely defended) Dreamland? And how do we reconcile the needs and desires of an older generation of seaside visitors, and retired residents who may have come to the coast to escape change, with the need to build new markets and cater for the rising generation of young residents who are now in evidence in (for example) Morecambe?

These were the iconic buildings of earlier phases of coastal tourism. What might their equivalents be for the early twenty-first century? The building types and styles did not have to be unique to a particular place to generate attachment in their habitual users, at a time when it was realistic to expect to build a regular, returning clientele from the same streets and factories. Every substantial resort had its pier, and every pier had its own idiosyncrasies within the genre. Many resorts had Winter Gardens, but each developed a different architectural style and a unique entertainment tradition, again within a shared grammar of expectations. Even Blackpool Tower was not a unique project, and its rival at New Brighton was actually built, to a greater height, while the venture at Morecambe was nearly half finished.29 The proliferation of seaside swimming pools and lidos during the Edwardian and inter-war periods, most of which have now been lost, similarly encapsulated a sunny vision of open-air pleasure and freedom in a variety of detailed ways.30 The equivalent coastal investments of the early twenty-first century seem likely to be art galleries, as pioneered by the St Ives Tate, or maritime museums like the Falmouth branch of the National Maritime Museum, or the various displays of public art associated with public realm regeneration initiatives, as with the Glitterball and subsequent installations on Blackpool promenade, or the Eric Morecambe statue, Tern project and Stone Jetty installations at Morecambe.

What can private enterprise provide to offer novelty and excitement, responding to seaside traditions and environments and making coastal towns worth visiting for an arresting, distinctive but recognisably ‘seaside’ experience, at a point of intense competition between destinations, a fragmented set of markets and the loss of old certainties? This will be a key question for regeneration promoters. What will not suffice is a proliferation of off-the-peg shopping malls or residential developments that could be anywhere. Getting to the coast requires effort and organization, and it needs to be made worthwhile. There is no point in providing buildings and facilities that could be anywhere, except as parasites on interesting and distinctive neighbours. Anna Minton’s recent book reminds us of the perils of cloned developments, ‘blandscapes’, non-places, the privatisation of space (especially at the British seaside with its tradition of free access to the shore), and what Jonathan Glancey calls ‘hard and shiny playthings designed for maximum profit’.31 The key is to regenerate the democratic excitement that made the seaside an exciting destination for earlier generations.

Many coastal towns can also capitalise on other kinds of maritime building and spatial organization, constructed for purposes other than the tourist but attractive to the discerning (or even the less discerning) gaze of those who value evidence of age and identification with particular settings or functions, and who seek to conjure up romantic pasts that may or may not be historically specific in the mind of the beholder. Harbours, dockyards and their surrounding ‘fishing communities’ or other maritime quarters, with commercial piers, lighthouses, capstans, warehouses and perhaps distinctive kinds of old vessel – restored, rebuilt or replica – are all grist to this mill.32 So are fortifications, gun emplacements and other relics of the sea and the seaport as defended frontier; and so, more peacefully, are the houses built for opulent inhabitants, summer visitors or those who speculated in renting to them.

There is hardly a branch of architecture that does not have a distinctive seaside incarnation, although in some cases it would be hard to define precisely what is ‘seaside’ about it apart from the location: piers, promenades and aquaria are easier to attach to a distinctive ‘seaside’ branch of ‘heritage’ from this perspective than, for example, residential buildings (even hotels or purpose-built villas or boarding houses) or entertainment centres. This is not just a matter of iconic buildings that define key aspects of the identity of resorts, like the Brighton Pavilion or Blackpool Tower or the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill. Such signifiers of place identity and myth are highly important in constituting, in MacCannell’s terms, ‘sacralized’ sites or spaces, or in those of Bale as promoting ‘topophilia’, that emotional attachment to locations associated with personal histories of pleasure and pain that can be identified with tourist sites as well as the sports stadia to which Bale’s arguments are applied.33

At least as important, however, are the less immediately impressive but characteristic and cumulatively defining buildings and artefacts that not only make up the backcloth to the iconic sights, but also generate the atmosphere and the sense of uniqueness that set a place apart and generate emotional attachment to it. This theme is most obvious in the older areas of ‘traditional’ fishing harbours, with their small scale, intricate detail, inviting rather than alienating ‘otherness’ (to enough people) and vulnerability to wholesale redevelopment or piecemeal attrition.34 But it applies not only to the workaday elements of such townscapes, as increasingly intertwined with their tourist elements, but also to the purpose-built holiday areas that might at first sight be dominated by massive sea defences, concrete promenades, long terraces of hotels and boarding houses, and the substantial pleasure architecture of piers, Winter Gardens and the like. Kenneth Lindley, in a delightful book, made this point very well in the early 1970s, with particular reference to the promenade, using attractive plain language that anticipated the subsequent coinages of ‘liminality’ (the shore as gateway and intermediate zone in which the usual rules of property and propriety are suspended or at least relaxed) and ‘topophilia’, while treating nostalgia with unworried indulgence:35

The indefinable character we think of at the mention of the word seaside is nowhere more apparent than along the strip of no man’s land between beach and buildings, the promenade. The name conjures up memories of walks along breezy cliff tops; of evening concerts by brass bands, the fairy lights reflected in polished buttons and instruments; of bank holiday picnics on the greensward ... of obstacle golf and paddling pools... . It was the promenade which gave a town its particular character. Along it you would find that strange collection of objects ranging from cast-iron shelters to flagmasts which together made up the seaside image. Here, the massive functionalism of seawalls combined with the frivolities of rustic fencing or fancy ironwork. Much of the detail is ephemeral in character, even if it has lasted a century, and it has an appropriate jollity. It is mainly composed of that strange mixture of nautical functionalism and the joyfully unrestrained which is the key to the charm of urban seaside landscape.

The nostalgic attributes here associated with place identity at the seaside have moved on by a generation, but the point stands. This commentary also reinforces the importance of the seafront as central to urban coastal identity, the need to rescue it from decline and dilapidation and, where there are problems, to focus sufficient regeneration effort in this signature area.36 

As Lindley also pointed out, again, the exact nature of the details varied noticeably from place to place, as did the atmosphere conveyed by the mix of stalls, capstans, wartime mines used to collect pennies for the lifeboat, net stores, fortune-telling booths, ice-cream kiosks, promenade shelters and crab pots, some ubiquitous, some reserved for particular kinds of place or particular places: a mix that shifted over time as items were lost or added or changed their shape, form and position, but all within a shared grammar of memory and expectation.

This is a reminder that, in order to survive, revive and prosper, established resorts need to retain the loyalty of their remaining established customers while recruiting the next generation and reaching out to new or lost constituencies. So they cannot afford to change too completely, even under conditions where the old expectations of loyal, enduring regional markets were shattered in the later twentieth century by the rise of new competitors (within Britain as well as beyond it) and the fragmentation of a widely shared popular pleasure culture into niches organised around age, gender and specific entertainment preference as well as class and (to some extent) ethnicity. These smaller, more unpretentious elements of these coastal landscapes, especially those that represent the ‘heritage of the recent past’, are particularly vulnerable to sweeping, ‘one-size-fits-all’ developments, as recently demonstrated at Scarborough’s North Bay.37 

Regeneration of the built environment and of spaces of pleasure and relaxation, residential as well as recreational, thus has to tread carefully lest it treads damagingly on people’s dreams. We need to resist the notion – which is propagated by the enduring influence of the ‘tourism area life-cycle’ – that British coastal towns have come to the end of the inexorable working out of the ‘product cycle’, are now overdeveloped and tired, and need either to be abandoned to their fate, to be converted into something else, or to regenerate themselves completely according to the currently favoured recipes. That would of course leave everywhere looking like everywhere else and destroy the essential element of contrast and distinctiveness.38 Many of the most successful English coastal resorts have not run through all the imagined phases of the cycle, but have settled comfortably and successfully as small and middling places with renewable niche markets, loyal regular visitors and retired residents, and attractive natural and built environments. This is not to be disparaged: it is the fate of many of the smaller resorts which have performed well both on the demographics and in terms of recognition as desirable destinations. Here as elsewhere, regeneration needs to be piecemeal, carefully considered, sensitive and interdisciplinary.

A corollary of this is that many coastal problems are not new. Low wages, precarious small businesses, extended working hours, unemployment, part-time work and seasonal economies (the last of which should be recognised as more of an issue than the present statistics make it look) have been staple problems of English coastal towns since the beginning of their tourism industries. They have also affected the older maritime industries, compounded by the difficulty of organising labour to protect its interests and defend its working conditions. Women’s work has been particularly exploited, not least by small employers.

Schooling has always been problematic for those who fell outside the orbit of the private schools which made their own contribution to the particularity of the more up-market resorts, and attendance levels were disrupted throughout the twentieth century by the demands and opportunities of summer work. The distortions of the age pyramid, as retirement to the coast became attractive, were already becoming apparent in places like Budleigh Salterton, Grange over Sands, Hove and Hastings before the First World War, to be amplified and extended considerably in the inter-war years and especially in the 1960s and 70s.39 Sewage pollution of beaches and bathing water was already a problem in many coastal towns by the late nineteenth century, and is perhaps closer to resolution than it has ever been, although other problems of the coastal environment remain more intractable.40 But the identification of bird- and dolphin-watching, and walking coastal paths, as significant income generators for coastal businesses and communities, is a recent and promising development. This, together with a growing appreciation of seaside architectural heritage, should remind those who protected sites as barriers to development that, viewed positively, they are assets with tremendous potential.

It is tempting to argue that novelty resides not so much in the issues as in their visibility: it sometimes seems as if the most effective role of the Welfare State has been to generate statistics, although this does not prevent some problems from remaining invisible to those who do not want to take responsibility for them. But there is no doubt that new and persistent challenges did emerge alongside the old during the last third of the twentieth century. Houses in multiple occupation are the heirs to the Victorian common lodging house or tenement of one- and two-roomed dwellings; but their multiplication at the seaside, in areas that previously provided holiday accommodation, has been disruptive and sometimes catastrophic, as in Morecambe’s West End or parts of Margate or St Leonard’s. The transferability of benefits has worsened this trend, which has filled the gap in property revenues that arose from the decline of the old working-class holiday market. The advent of so-called ‘care in the community’, with the decline of the asylum and other ‘total institutions’ since the 1970s, has fuelled this development: some seaside streets have become dumping-grounds for those who were previously in segregated, controlled accommodation, as well as for children and adolescents ‘in care’. Alcohol has always presented problems, but the growth of new kinds of drug abuse has heightened the impression of ‘inner city’ problems exported to the coast, helping to generate significant pockets of crime and fear which, like other localised problems, tend to be lost in broader averages.

Here we see a downside of the idea of the coast as ‘liminal’ space as mentioned above, a gateway between elements, experiences and life-cycles, a place where the usual inhibitions and constraints can be cast aside.

A key theme here, which is not peculiar to the coast but finds its own expression there, is a loss of the security and predictability which matter a lot more to people than the ideologues of choice, consumerism and individualistic competition would have us believe. Until, perhaps, the 1970s there was a regular rhythm to play as well as work. The holiday seasons were quite precisely defined, based on Easter, Whitsuntide, and a summer that largely coincided with school holidays, but was inflected by the (by then) traditional industrial holidays that brought particular towns to particular places in designated weeks. These patterns fragmented with the collapse of the old industries and their holiday schedules, which coincided with the opening out of private transport and new holiday destinations, and shattered the security of recurrent visitors coming for predictable blocks of time. Generational differences in leisure preferences also came to the fore, in step with the invention of the teenager and the rapid expansion of seaside retirement. It became much more difficult to plan ahead, whether as a boarding house keeper, an entertainment company or a local authority, and it has proved very difficult to adjust to the new unpredictability. Effective regeneration policies will need to take account of these frailties. They are not crippling, but they need to form part of the equation.

For the time being, too much of this analysis remains speculative. We still do not have an adequate framework for analysing the complexities of coastal towns, and we conspicuously lack a set of convincingly reliable tourism statistics for any English coastal resort. We have a range of local studies, conducted for differing purposes and using contrasting methodologies. These and related points will be developed in Chapter 8. A genuinely holistic approach to regeneration, working in a steady and measured way along a broad front, is capable of making a tremendous positive difference. That said, we do need to be aware of the richness and variety of what coastal towns have to offer, and of the perspective provided by a longer view of the communities and practices in question.

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