Beaches are giant blank spaces, washed clean every day, on to which all sorts of hopes are projected. But they do not transcend politics?in fact, they represent a third way between market and stateby Charles Leadbeater / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
Along with football and cricket, railway travel and the public library, it is an enduring British innovation, still enjoyed every year by millions of people: the beach holiday.
Most of us carry a store of memories and hopes of beach life, from rockpools and sandcastles to romantic encounters walking along the silver sands on a desert island. Beaches are locations of childhood adventures from the Famous Five to Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. Properties overlooking beaches are our preferred sites for retirement. Adolescents go to beaches to lose their virginity. Adults go to become children again.
What explains the beach’s appeal across generations, eras and cultures? Much of what surrounds beach life has come and gone – piers and bingo halls, art deco hotels and candyfloss. The location of Britons’ favoured beaches has shifted from Scarborough and Southend to Spain and the Seychelles. Yet despite these changes in taste and commerce, the idea of the beach as a hallowed space has endured. Why?
The answer is that beaches are places where normal rules and authority do not apply. Beaches are ordered without being controlled. There is no one in charge. They rely on mass self-organisation. They are also largely beyond the reach of corporations, the mall and the market: shifting sand does not support billboards and branding. Beaches are a model civic space: tolerant, playful, self-regulating.
The idea that going to the beach was good for you was a creation of 18th-century Britain. Entrepreneurs keen to promote an alternative to the spa hit upon the idea that immersing people in cold salty water might be healthy. One of the first recorded bathing expeditions took to the North sea at Scarborough in 1627. A century later, a string of seaside alternatives to the spas at Bath and Buxton were well established. Before that, beaches had been regarded as hostile places, at best a working space for people who made their living from the sea: fishermen, smugglers, wreckers. Swimming for pleasure, and sunbathing, were unheard of.
By the mid-19th century, the beach had become an aspirational destination, helped along by Byron and Shelley, aristocratic tourists to the Mediterranean and colonists in the south seas. By the early 20th century, despite its chilly waters, Britain had the most developed beach economy in the world. It was spurred by the rising wealth of an expanded middle class; an upper working class with more…