There are few things as quintessentially British as the seaside! It is a purely British phenomenon – the closest U.S. comparison probably being the Jersey Shore. You see we all know Britain doesn’t have the greatest climate, but what we do have is miles and miles of shoreline each with its own distinct landscape and topography. Dotted along the shores of the North Sea, the English Channel and North Atlantic coasts are charming, picturesque towns which have evolved into “seaside resorts”. The majority of the U.K. population lives in large, urban, stifling big cities (such as London, Manchester and Birmingham) and when each bank holiday comes around these city-dwellers flock to the coast in the fleeting summer months, for a day of sea, sand, sun (maybe, if you’re lucky) fish and chips, and ice cream.
The history of the British Seaside resort dates back to Victorian times and catered to the rapidly expanding working class of Britain, who now had disposable income to spend for leisure purposes. The seaside resort quickly overtook the popularity of the traditional hot spring spa resorts such as Bath spa. This, along with the expansion of railways in Britain made coastal resorts more accessible and boosted existing small settlements. The bigger Victorian resorts of Blackpool and Southend boasted ‘Pleasure Palaces’. They combined music hall dance halls, along with opera houses, gardens, zoos and exhibitions. Incidentally, it was at one of these Pleasure Palaces in Blackpool that my maternal grandparents first met on the ballroom dance floor circa the early 1940’s! So, you could say, without the seaside resort, I may not be around.
Some of my earliest memories as a child involve being at the seaside, usually Littlehampton, or Brighton on the South coast. I remember my Dad sitting on the pebbles eating cockles (small, mollusc-like shell-fish) out of a brown paper bag. He would scoop out the flesh with a pin. To me, it looked like he was eating snails and it turned my stomach. Later, we would build sandcastles at Littlehampton and have tea and fish and chips in one of the small cafes. We’d also ride the bumper cars and sweep down the huge slide at the beachside amusement park.
Even with the beginning of the cheap charter flights in the 1970’s to more exotic destinations of Europe, such as the Costas in Spain and the islands of Greece, the British seaside resort is still thriving. Head to any of the dozens of seaside resorts in the U.K and (once you have navigated the traffic) you will find the following for your relaxation and pleasure:
The pier and promenade: These are what would be known in the U.S. as the boardwalk. The pier juts out into the ocean at each resort; some piers have amusement arcades, viewing areas to look out to sea, and teashops or fish and chip vendors.
- Deckchairs: A folding, collapsible chair; the frame usually made of wood, the seat being made of fabric or vinyl. Deckchairs are usually positioned along the promenade, although their original use was on an ocean liner or cruise ship. Great for taking a break and looking out to sea.
- Fish and chips: Nothing says ‘seaside’ more than this dish. The fish is usually cod (although plaice and haddock are popular too), it’s battered and deep fried, then served with think cut potato chips (fries) and then smothered with salt and vinegar. It’s usually eaten wrapped in paper, but it also available on plates in more formal establishments.
- Rock: Not literally rocks, but candy rock. A delicious type of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar confectionery most usually flavored with peppermint or spearmint. It is commonly sold at tourist (usually seaside) resorts in the United Kingdom. Often the letters of the resort are stamped into the candy. Similar to U.S. candy canes.
- A “99” ice cream: An ice cream cone with a Cadbury’s chocolate flake inserted into it. They are usually made with vanilla soft serve ice cream and can also be topped with strawberry or chocolate sauce. These are most often sold from ice cream vans (trucks) or ice cream ‘parlors’ at the seaside.
- Donkey rides: The tradition started in Victorian times, but is now much less popular. Children are allowed to ride donkeys on a sandy beach for a fee in summer months while on holiday, normally led in groups at walking pace.
- Punch and Judy Shows: a traditional, popular puppet show often associated with traditional British seaside culture featuring Mr. Punch and his wife, Judy. The performance consists of a sequence of short scenes, each depicting an interaction between two characters, most typically Mr Punch and one other character. The show is performed by a single puppeteer inside the booth and has its roots in 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte.
- Amusement arcades: Games and fun for kids and adults alike. Often stuffed animals, souvenirs, or cash can be won.
- Sandcastles: No trip to the seaside would be complete without making a sandcastle! British kids bring their “buckets and spades” and make the most artistic castles they can muster, until the tide comes in and washes them away!
If you ever find yourself in the United Kingdom, I recommend visiting a traditional seaside resort. They are located all around the British coastline and most are within easy reach of the large cities by road or railway. One of the most famous seaside resorts, Brighton, is located a mere 60 miles or a 1 hour train or car ride away from London. It’ll be a day you won’t forget and you’ll be participating in a centuries old British tradition!
*This post is in memory of my Mum, Joyce Patricia Mary, who always loved to be beside the sea!