Alec Marsh

Why the British seaside still reigns supreme

There’s nothing quite like it

  • From Spectator Life

It’s the time of year to revisit one of life’s great imponderables. British seaside holidays. Why do we do them? Which other experience – save perhaps attending a British boarding school in the past – does as much to remind you of the essential unfairness of life? Forget the costs involved (if Marianna Mazzucato wants to get Britons worked up about ‘rent-seeking’ she should start with holiday cottages) we have the weather to contend with.

Like gazpacho, the British seaside holiday would be idyllic if the whole thing were only 20 degrees warmer, but it just wouldn’t work

There you are on the beach, having spent 15 minutes viciously applying suntan lotion to your protesting children, only to complete the task at very the point that it starts to rain. Out come the cagoules; meanwhile people continue their games, novels are read but now under umbrellas, paddle boards are inflated regardless, and bathers bob about in the waves. The beach moves on and so does the rain, eventually. The British seaside holiday is where equanimity and sand meet – somehow in your sandwiches too.

Where else in the world would people in their millions willingly swim in water that is patently too cold to be enjoyed unless you’re swathed in half an inch of neoprene? ‘Isn’t it lovely?’ we bellow as our lips go blue. All of which – even before you start on the sewage – makes swimming on the coast of the British Isles an object lesson is collective masochistic self-denial. Psychology papers should be written about it.

If Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then you can bet that every major military engagement since has been advantaged by our annual inundations in the balmy waters of places like Bognor, Bangor, Barmouth and Broadstairs. Not for Brits the namby-pamby lukewarm somnambulistic bathtub of the Med – where turds, tampons and Germans bob in murky, polluted waters. No, for hundreds of years, we have been opting for the cold shock of the Solent or the bracing brine of the Thames estuary. It’s fostered a certain resilience in us.

And where else would you part with £17 for a frankly inedible supper that you would send back under normal circumstances? Yet at the seaside you don’t, thereby turning your holiday into a sustained personal act of economic redistribution – your own voluntary top-up to the Barnett formula. It’s like the lottery but all you can win is a touch of heartburn – if you can stomach the food in the first place. (This presupposes that you get served. Some of the staff I recently encountered in Cornwall were so monosyllabic and downright taciturn that they’d struggle to pass the Turing test.)

And yet, we still go on holiday to the seaside. And here’s why: it’s sheer authenticity. Like gazpacho, the British seaside holiday would be idyllic if the whole thing were only 20 degrees warmer, but it just wouldn’t work.

Nothing beats the authenticity of a place that was built as a fishing village by the Saxons, where the Normans added a motte and Bailey – before the usurping Tudors came along and slapped a proper castle overlooking the bay. Where better to walk to when the sun has disappeared yet again? And failing that, there’s a manor house left by the Elizabethans, (which will charge you £15 to enter plus £7 for a tea towel), one remodelled by the Stuarts, before the Victorians expanded it and then got bored and built the railway station and the theatre instead.

All this and a beach and cove redolent of wrecks, pirates and smugglers – where the rocks are razor sharp and the seaweed looks like jellyfish and your kids can spend hours gazing at pebbles.

Compare this to a modern resort hotel in the Med, where you can swim to your room or drink at a bar in the middle of the pool; a place where you breakfast, sweating, at 30 degrees centigrade in a teeming canteen after queuing for toast, where there are 500 rectangular white-washed rooms in blocks cluttered around pools and where nothing is real except the stench of chlorine. Chances are you’ve experienced something like this and you’ll know that it has all the authenticity of a McDonald’s happy meal.

That’s why we love the British seaside holiday; because for all that it is an opportunity – one that’s egregiously exploited – to redistribute dosh from the centres of wealth to the corners of the nation, it also abundantly authentic.

A plaque at the jetty in Fowey, Cornwall, where I’ve just come back from holiday, announces that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert arrived at these very steps on 8 September 1846. At the charming aquarium nearby you can stroke a star fish to your heart’s content, you can even buy bait to go fishing, or better still gaze upon brown-looking, indigenous fish and a sad-looking single-pincer lobster. The pub around the corner, you discover, was once the haunt of a pirate, John Carter – nicknamed the King of Prussia – after whom the establishment is named. Would you change any of it? Not for a second. The British seaside is where culture, history, amateur meteorology and the sea meet – and for all its petty indignities, for all its exorbitantly expensive ice creams and priced-to-the-point-of-pain parking, it’s absolutely unbeatable.