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The return of the great British seaside

We will delight them on the beaches! Down in Planet Thanet, we take a look at how the kiss-me-quick thrills of the great British seaside resorts are making a comeback

The return of the great British seaside
Brighton Pier. Image: Alamy

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A searchlight mounted on the deck of a yacht in Britain’s only Royal Harbour scours the sky. Amid myriad sailboats festooned with fairy lights, it rises like a bat-signal on a blanket of clouds. Directly below, on Ramsgate’s King Street, the illuminations are more muted: the dim flicker of fruit machines and fluorescent strip lighting emanating from kebab shops.

A maelstrom of rubbish swirls around the feet of a teenage scooter gang outside KFC, whose leader is inexplicably fiddling around inside his tracksuit bottoms with one hand, while choking chicken down his neck with the other, and dropping greasy bones on to the pavement. Two minutes’ walk away, a much more orderly queue of telecommuters and yummy mummies forms outside Shakey Shakey Traditional Fish Shop, as faithful patrons collect paper-wrapped portions of vegan fish (tofu encased in a layer of seaweed, then battered), soya sausages, and what must surely be some of Britain’s best chips.

The hipster shops of Margate’s diminutive old town — peddling kitsch kitchenware and veritable meadows of Edison bulbs — are coloured in Farrow & Ball’s leaden hues, from Mole’s Breath to Down Pipe, while a stone’s throw away, concrete shopping arcades and long-term locals’ ashen faces are painted Morrissey grey, and every day is like Sunday. Come sunset though, the horizon over this corner of Kent — Ramsgate, Margate, and Broadstairs — bursts into such varicoloured vibrance that it caused JMW Turner to claim: “The skies over Thanet are the loveliest in all Europe.”

Such is the dichotomy of this district’s seaside towns in 2018, where hipsters coexist with the hapless; shabby chic sits directly beside plain old shabby; and day trippers sidestep pot smokers taking their own internal excursions. Formerly-glorious-but-now-run-down British resorts such as these have reached a turning point, clawing back from England’s white-cliff precipice, right as they reached the brink of extinction.

Britons’ love of the seaside can be dated back to the latter half of the 18th century, when Doctor Richard Russell published his Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Affections of the Glands, which extolled the virtues of bathing in, and even imbibing, seawater as a preferable alternative to fashionable inland health spas. His paper was widely acclaimed and he’s been credited with helping to establish Brighton as the resort we know today.

The British coast was suddenly on-trend, and across the country, the seaside holiday became a ritual of upper class Londoners who came to march the promenades in their finery. King George IV was so enamoured with the hospitality he received in Ramsgate’s port that he decreed it the unique status of ‘Royal Harbour’. Queen Victoria was also particularly fond of the town after regular visits throughout the 1820s, and when painter William Powell Frith exhibited his seaside panorama, Ramsgate Sands, at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1854, it was snapped up by the monarch herself.

Frith’s painting depicted an altogether more chaotic beach scene, as by the 1840s the seaside was no longer the preserve of the rich. The development of the railways in the 1840s, which offered affordable fares to these expanding seaside resorts, brought trips to the beach within reach of the working classes. Back when Nevada was still practically deserted, the small seaside town of Blackpool was transformed into the Las Vegas of the north, when a new railway branch line connected it to Poulton. Lancashire cotton mill owners would close their factories for a week each year in order to service their machinery, and during these periods workers would descend on Blackpool in their droves. As the promenades, piers — and Blackpool Tower, of course — went up, so too did the number of visitors, leading to a sustained boom throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

Tides turn

By the end of the 19th century, the English coastline was home to more than 100 large resort towns. The music hall classic, I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside, was penned in 1907, and that remained the case through the era of kiss-me-quick hats, donkey rides, and ever-increasingly long piers, right up until the 1960s, when air travel became affordable for many and everything changed.

With the advent of package holidays to European sun, our domestic seaside economy was sunk. Benidorm replaced Blackpool; Majorca usurped Margate; Corfu killed Clacton. Express train routes that used to ferry the cities’ factory workers to the British seaside were axed, businesses shuttered, and battalions of B&Bs were left empty.

At their peak, British seaside resorts received over five million visitors per year but, while Chas ’n’ Dave might have insisted in their 1982 single, Down to Margate, “You can keep the Costa Brava, I’m telling ya, mate, I’d rather have a day down Margate with all me family,” by the mid-80s many guesthouses had been divided into cheap flats and were offering spots to the unemployed instead of families on holiday.

As the Spanish coast was overrun with Brits abroad, our own became downtrodden, and the tabloids dubbed our seaside resorts the ‘Costa del Dole’. Coastal communities fell far behind inland areas, with some of the worst levels of deprivation in the country. For decades, TS Eliot’s line from landmark poem, The Waste Land, rang especially true: ‘On Margate Sands I can connect nothing with nothing’.

Amy, a 29-year-old musician and waitress at Addington Street Kitchen, which sells excellent flat whites and vegan sausage rolls, was born in Margate and has lived in Ramsgate for six years: “When I was a kid, all the people I knew who grew up in Thanet couldn’t wait to get away,” she says — an unwitting embodiment of the area’s new-found hip vibe, with her Bettie Paige make-up, do-rag and red-and-black check shirt. “It was one of the roughest places in the UK, so it still seems weird to me that so many people are suddenly moving here from London and raving about the place.”
But raving about the place they are, and it seems the tide is finally turning for these washed-up seaside towns. As usual, it was the artists who led the charge towards regeneration. The Turner Contemporary opened on Margate’s seafront in 2011, sparking some major gentrification, in the forms of craft breweries, cupcake stalls, and Red Or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway’s 2015 refurbishment of dilapidated theme park Dreamland.

Sunset over Ramsgate. Image: James Draven

Move over, Margate

Margate may hog all of seaside Thanet’s attention, but just five miles away, Ramsgate is an architectural wonderland, with Regency townhouses lining crescents on the East and West Cliffs, cottages huddled in laneways, and mews houses a few seconds from the magnificent Royal Harbour. Here, between scuba clubs, nautical hardware stores, and the seafront Sailors’ Church, ornate former fishermen’s arches have been transformed into art galleries and vintage motor museums. Bric-a-brac caves flog antique objets d’art at junk-shop prices, while Scandi cafes sell hipster homeware and avocado on sourdough toast to all the European yachties whose boats fill the marina.

Up on Addington Street, retro Vinylhead Cafe peddles 12-inch LPs, seven-inch singles, and four-inch chunks of gluten-free chocolate brownie along with its fantastic coffee. Ramsgate Music Hall was voted Britain’s Best Small Venue by NME in 2016. It’s clear that for those in the know, Britain’s coastal resorts have reclaimed their cool.

“There’s been an 84% growth in creative businesses and a 71% increase in artist studios over the past four years,” says Cllr Chris Wells from Thanet District Council. “This influential creative cluster, attracted by the area’s collaborative community, its affordability, and its proximity to London has put Thanet on the international map.”

Thanet’s not the only area reporting a resurgence in tourist numbers. Samantha Richardson from the National Coastal Tourism Academy (NCTA) says: “In 2016 there were 70,000 overseas visitors to Blackpool, compared to 2015 when there were only 44,000.” According to the NCTA, seaside tourism has also recently regained its position as the largest domestic overnight holiday sector.

The resurgence in the north seems to be progressing more slowly than down south, but Blackpool’s fans don’t come for sun. Anne Cutler, a data protection officer at The University of Sheffield, has visited dozens of times and says Blackpool offers what overseas holidays never could: “Proper tea, proper pubs, and sitting in the front room of a boarding house with the rain lashing down outside. Nowhere abroad has Blackpool Tower, the Ballroom, or three piers. Any hipster enterprises in Blackpool would have to be adopting an extremely postmodern ironic stance — it’s the most working-class place I have ever been — but it’s always had a big, tremendously camp, gay scene.”

And the seaside is not just reliant on staycationers. Tracey Edginton from VisitBritain says, “August 2017 was the highest month for inbound tourism since records began in 1961. There were 30.2 million overseas visits to the UK in the first nine months of 2017 — an increase of 7% on 2016.”

Dr Anya Chapman, a senior lecturer in tourism management, explains what’s driving this upturn: “The main spike for 2017 would be Brexit and the resultant weak pound. This has caused a recent rise in staycations and international visitors. Combined with the terror threat in major cities, the UK coast is perceived to be a ‘safe’ destination. Flagship attractions have also helped: the regeneration of Hastings Pier has helped the resort become a much more appealing weekend break.”

Six years ago, Carly McAuley, a former care manager-turned children’s fashion designer, moved from London to start a family in Hastings. “For us the big draw was being able to double the size of our property, halve our mortgage and live off one salary. My husband can work anywhere we have a wi-fi connection. Hastings has a proper cultural mix, not unlike where we lived in London. There are loads of trendy bits, and quite a few scummy bits, but that just makes for an excellent balance.”

Towns such as Hastings, Ramsgate and Blackpool may be relics of the global seaside tourism phenomenon invented by the British centuries ago but after years of neglect, artists, designers and visionaries forced out of the big cities by rising prices are giving them the much-needed lick of paint they deserve. Our traditions — grand old dames of Punch & Judy shows and striped deck chairs — are being preserved, or at least reimagined as an outpost of urban chic.

Britain’s seaside towns are still places of division, with the rich buying properties formerly the preserve of council tenants, but in many ways we’re uniting to regenerate our coastal resorts. While liberal arty types are dolling up our promenades, Brexit has given the British pound such a bashing it looks like we’ll be enjoying home soil a little more than before. 

Seaside stars

Ramsgate
Ubiquitous pub chain JD Wetherspoon has leased formerly derelict concert hall and casino The Royal Victoria Pavilion from the council, and lavishly restored the Grade II-listed building from an eyesore into a seafront focal point. It’s now the biggest Wetherspoon pub in Britain.

Hastings
In 2016 a £14.2m regeneration project saw the reopening of Hastings Pier, which had been closed since 2008, and practically destroyed by fire in 2010. To restore the pier rather than demolish it makes a bold statement about the town’s future.

Blackpool
Blackpool has a major roller coaster set to open in 2018 on the Pleasure Beach, a new conference centre next to the Winter Gardens, and a crop of hotels are currently being built.

Margate
After a disappointing 2015 relaunch, which sadly retained the funfair-in-a-car-park vibes of yesteryear, Dreamland was reopened again in May 2017, adding a 15,000-capacity music venue and lots of much-needed landscaping.

Scarborough
Alpamare water park finally opened in July 2016, after a seven-year development hiatus, boasting 35C-heated outdoor infinity pools, a spa, and four state-of-the-art water slides.

Published in the May 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)