Monday, 14 February 2011

Which is the Greatest Seaside Resort?

In the year 2000 the British government announced that it would be launching a drive to rejuvenate the British seaside resort. The setting for  many British childhood holidays  was about to get an update.

There can be no doubting that the increasingly affordable foreign holiday has had an impact on British seaside resorts. In the 1950s virtually every family looked forward to a week or two at the seaside to liven up the summer. The attractions and shortcomings of different resorts were earnestly discussed, before a destination was settled on.  But by the 1990s the visits to the British seaside were more likely to be for a quick day or weekend when it looked as if the sun might shine. The British weather has driven many Britons to holiday abroad. It remains to be seen if the government can reverse the trend.

The oldest of the resorts is Brighton, which rose to fame when the Prince Regent started visiting it in the 1780s. Conveniently placed for the capital, Brighton became the resort of choice for the dashing young blades who made up the social set around ‘Prinny’. The popularity of the town made Brighton one of the first places to be linked to London by rail. With the journey time down to an hour and much cheaper than before, Brighton became the target for reasonably prosperous working families looking for a day out, a weekend away or a week’s holiday. Brighton, however, always managed to retain its original fashionable air and catered mainly for the gentry and middle classes.

London’s poor, on the other hand, flocked to Southend. Easily accessible from the East End by train, this resort stands on the north side of the Thames Estuary. It lay just far enough away for the beaches to be free of the pollution from Victorian London, but not so far that it was difficult to reach. Again, the railway made the journey cheap and quick. The rise in popularity of Southend is mirrored in the size of the pleasure pier. First built in 1830 as a relatively modest wooden structure on which visitors could take the sea air, it was extended in 1846. In 1889 the wooden pier was torn down and replaced by the present iron structure over 2.15km long, which has a narrow-gauge railway to carry holiday-makers to the far end. So far out to sea does the pier reach that it has been accidentally hit by passing ships on 14 occasions, fortunately no serious damage has been done.

Noting the successes of seaside resorts near London, towns close to other large cities set to work. One of the most successful was Weston-super-Mare, which lies south of Bristol and boasts a fine beach. Before the railway came Weston-super-Mare was a little village of 100 people. Forty years later it had 20,000 permanent inhabitants and many more annual visitors. The rapid growth was matched by a planned layout of wide seafront roads, public gardens and broad streets which Brighton and other older resorts could only dream about.

Further removed from major cities is Torquay in south Devon. A product entirely of the railway and clever promotion, Torquay has never allowed itself to suffer, as some other resorts did, from milking the tourists without reinvesting in new attractions. Nor has the town spared much sentiment on nostalgia. Torquay moves with the times. When donkey rides were popular, there were donkey rides. When donkey rides fell from favour, the donkeys left. As a consequence Torquay has modern hotels, modern attractions and large numbers of modern visitors.

But the most successful, brashest and most ambitious of all the seaside resorts was built to cater to the working families of the great northern conurbations. It was created as a location for sheer populist pleasure, and has never failed to live up to its reputation. It is Blackpool. The town does not feature much in books aimed at foreign tourists, but that has never bothered Blackpool residents too much. Their town and its attractions are aimed fair and square at the British. So successful has the town been at this that one British guide book recently proclaimed “If there is a form of holiday entertainment that Blackpool cannot provide, it is difficult to think of.”

The resort rose to fame in later Victorian times, though it had been attracting visitors to its pretty, sandy beaches since the 1760s. The great landmark of Blackpool is its famous tower, a half size copy of the Eiffel Tower. The complex of buildings at the base of the Tower contains sumptuously decorated holiday attractions, including a massive ballroom, an aquarium and a famous organ. The seafront stretches for 11km with beaches on one side and an almost unbroken succession of hotels, pubs, fish and chip shops and amusement arcades on the other. During the winter season, the Front comes alive with the famous Blackpool Illuminations - bright electrically lit figures and designs. At the southern end of the Front is the Pleasure Beach which thrills visitors with the world’s tallest roller coaster - The Big One, with a height of 71 metres and a maximum drop of 63 metres and top speed of 128km/h.

The seaside holiday has developed a long way from the royal ostentation of Prinny’s Brighton to the cheerful escape-from-the-factory fun of Blackpool. But however much foreign sunshine calls, and however wet British summers manage to be, and whether the British visit their own resorts for brief weekends or longer stays, the British seaside holiday resort grits its teeth and Carries On, just like those films.

An extract from Everything You Need to Know about the British

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