Fond memories: an old photographic postcard taken in Weymouth in the early 20th century. Image: Infinity Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A literary walk through England’s proud, poverty-stricken seaside towns

From Orwell to Beryl Bainbridge, from Ishiguro to—now—Madeleine Bunting, writers have drawn great inspiration from these coastal edgelands
July 7, 2023
The Seaside: England's Love Affair
Madeleine Bunting (RRP: £20)

“The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently,” declares Mr Stevens, a London office clerk on his annual summer holiday to Bognor Regis with his wife and two children, in RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September (1931). “All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect.” When, in spring 2020, Kazuo Ishiguro was amongst writers asked by the Guardian to recommend a book to inspire, uplift or offer an escape from those dark days of the first Covid lockdown, he chose Sherriff’s novel. “The Great English Seaside Holiday in its heyday, and the beautiful dignity to be found in everyday living, have rarely been captured more delicately,” Ishiguro surmised of this unassuming but charming story.

The Great English Seaside Holiday, as Ishiguro puts it—both its reality and the role it plays in our collective national imagination—is the topic of Madeleine Bunting’s The Seaside: England’s Love Affair. As she explains in her prologue, “part of being English is an emotional tie to the seaside and a collection of shared experiences: caught by a downpour, sand in the sandwiches, cold seas, sheltering from the wind, and then the opposite, those precious days when the sun is high in a perfect blue sky, the sea is sparkling and the pleasure is all the more intense for being unexpected.” She’s right. As I read the book, my own memories were roused. Weymouth, for example, which a close schoolfriend of mine nicknamed “Wey-hey-mouth” because she always had so much fun there. The time when, as an already all-too-easily-embarrassed pre-teen, I underestimated the reach of the incoming tide on an out-of-season beach at Dawlish in Devon, and had to spend the rest of the day walking round the town in soggy wellies and no trousers. Childhood daytrips to Morecambe Bay when we were visiting my grandfather who lived nearby. And, most recently, trips my partner and I have taken to Cornwall.

There’s something levelling about the English Seaside Holiday. That equality to which Mr Stevens refers is also implied in Ishiguro’s own Booker Prize-winning masterpiece The Remains of the Day (1989), in which another hardworking Englishman (incidentally, also named Stevens) finds escape from the strict social hierarchies that govern his world. The novel’s concluding chapter—set on Weymouth pier, where Stevens finds himself in quiet companionableness with the other holidaymakers who’ve gathered to watch the evening lights be turned on—offers what Bunting describes as “a rare moment of warmth in the book’s chilly portrayal of the corrupt English elite and the crushing class system.” The seaside, she continues, “was one of England’s few democratic spaces.”

Note the important use of the past tense, though. The decline that began in the 1960s, with the advent of accessible cheap package holidays abroad, and then continued through the recessions of the 1970s and 1980s, has been further advanced by post-Brexit privations, the cost-of-living crisis and the escalating climate collapse. Yet still the Great English Seaside Holiday holds sway; or the nostalgic idea of it does.

Drawing on both her own memories of seaside holidays through the years and various pilgrimages that she made between Covid lockdowns to coastal holiday towns around England—from Scarborough in Yorkshire, down through Lincolnshire, and along the coasts of Essex, Kent and Sussex, jumping from Paignton in Devon across to Padstow in Cornwall, then up the south-west coast before skipping Wales for the resorts of Lancashire—Bunting delves into these once busy, popular destination towns’ histories, examines their various representations through the years in art and culture, and pokes around in them today, scrutinising the reality of 21st-century life therein.

Her modus operandi is relatively straightforward. She arrives in each, strips down to her swimming costume and takes a dip in the ocean—no matter if the water’s icy cold or an off-putting mucky brown—then she finds somewhere to have a mug of tea and a plate of fish and chips, where she ends up chatting to the staff or other patrons. Early on, she makes a jokey apology about just how many portions of this most stereotypical seaside fare she consumes in the course of the book—“if the theme becomes repetitive, so was the experience”—but it’s not the only thing on repeat here. What her more journalistic investigations uncover is a recurrent story of poverty, social deprivation and high rates of mental illness. Remember Banksy’s pop-up art exhibition Dismaland, A Bemusement Park, which opened in Weston-super-Mare in 2015, and critics and punters alike accused of being just too depressing? Well, compared to the reality of life in so many of the towns Bunting writes about, Banksy’s tongue-in-cheek version sounds positively hilarious.

Today, the English seaside is awash with nostalgia, both individual and collective, but these resorts were once synonymous with “modernity and progress”. Take the once-grand Victorian and Art Deco edifices that dominated these seafronts and used to draw visitors in their thousands. The LMS Midland Hotel in Morecambe, for example, brought untold elegance and sophistication to the area when it opened in 1933. Coco Chanel famously paid it a visit, arriving in her private plane, which landed on the sands of Morecambe Bay. It’s not simply that these buildings have either been demolished or left to wrack and ruin, contributing to the broader physical decline of these resorts. The knock-on effects for the local community have been catastrophic.

Bunting’s descriptions of these towns form a valuable portrait of the country’s failures in microcosm: high levels of health inequality, fuel poverty and incidents of people self-harming and suffering from depression. In Blackpool, the head of the local Citizens Advice Bureau pulls no punches, telling Bunting that the benefits system is simply no longer fit for purpose. Blackpool has the lowest national life expectancy—38 per cent of its residents die before the age of 75; in four wards it drops as low as 67 years. Over a quarter of the town’s children under the age of 16 live in households on absolute low income (that’s below 60 per cent of the median income), and the average weekly wage there is £445, which is a third below the national average. Meanwhile, the number of children in care is three times higher than the country’s average. “Most of the work we do is the dustpan and brush at the bottom of the cliff,” says Ian Treasure, who runs a drug rehabilitation project in the town; “we need to get better at not letting people drop off the cliff.” It’s a grimly pertinent metaphor.

Bunting’s analysis is heavily data-driven, and this strong empirical foundation sets the book apart from other, less substantive, works of psychogeography. But at the same time, she is writing into a strong and distinctive tradition that blurs memoir, reportage and history. Books like Paul Theroux’s The Kingdom by the Sea (1983), George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1936), Beatrix Campbell’s Wigan Pier Revisited (1984), Beryl Bainbridge’s English Journey (1984) and its predecessor, JB Priestly’s English Journey (1936), even film-maker Andrew Kotting’s feature-length documentary Gallivant (1997), in which he, his daughter and his mother travel the perimeter of the British Isles. As is the case with all of these, Bunting’s portrait merges the personal and the political, the intimacies of memoir and the broader strokes of a sociological approach. Her intended audience is a broad church.

Her potted history of Blackpool—England’s “quintessential” and very first mass working-class seaside resort—includes a fascinating explanation for the town’s reputation as a hotbed of vulgarity and tackiness. “Blackpool’s history lies in the Lancashire mills,” local artist Tom Ireland tells her. “People were punished by their boss for fifty weeks of the year, and then for two weeks they came here where there were no rules at all. That had a social value—and it still does now. It allows people to be base. Blackpool is a political tool; it’s smart to allow such spaces to exist.”

England’s coastal edgelands as sites of anarchy and deviance is a topic that’s endlessly fascinating, and I wish Bunting had perhaps leaned into this more. I couldn’t help but wonder what she would have made of literary beachcomber David Seabrook’s sui generis All the Devils Are Here (2002), a creepy, corpse-strewn journey through the seaside towns of Kent that begins with the tale of the painter and patricide Richard Dadd and ends with the supposed true story that inspired Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant.

Instead, her peregrinations through the Isle of Thanet and its surrounds bring up narratives of invasion. Julius Caesar landed near Deal, the Kentish art historian Jacqui Ansell reminds Bunting: “We can see France—it’s nearer to us than London—and it sits there, glinting on the horizon, either threatening or tantalising.” Unavoidably, this area has become the frontline of today’s refugee crisis, and Bunting brings the book bang up to date with an account of the Napier Barracks scandal, the dilapidated former army site that, in September 2020, was turned into a short-term hostel for asylum seekers despite failing to meet minimum health and safety standards. The coast around Dover, she argues, “is turning into a form of militarised zone.” Scenes from Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men (2006) spring to mind, but also those from Rosa Rankin Gee’s excellent recent novel, Dreamland (2021)—which is set in a near-future Margate ravaged by heatwaves, rising sea levels, political extremism and an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Aptly, Bunting explains, the entire concept of the English seaside resort was “a product of the imagination,” and it lives on today “in part in the amalgam of visitors’ memories, dreams, fantasies and escapism.” The very process of metamorphosis that, back in the late 18th and through the 19th century, saw these once run-down, dirty, labour-intensive communities be transformed into sites of ease, pleasure and luxury was as much an act of imaginative revolution as it was a physical transformation. Before they existed in reality, they had to be imaginatively conjured into being.

I’m reminded of the opening of the little-known writer Frances Bellerby’s short story ‘The Cut Finger’—originally published in her 1948 collection The Acorn and the Cup—in which five-year-old Judith’s mother asks her daughter if she would enjoy a winter trip to the coast (Judith’s ailing father has been prescribed the restorative sea air). Judith replies in the affirmative, calm almost to the point of disinterest, but, really, she’s “astounded and overwhelmed” by what’s more a revelation than an invitation: “It was too new to be accepted with equanimity, too far outside her experience actual or imaginative. It had never been realised by Judith that the seaside continued beyond the golden stretch of summer holidays.”

In a recent article for Prospect, Madeleine Bunting explained how “England’s impoverished seaside towns became both a trap and a refuge”. Her book also inspired an episode of our podcast.