A new talk remembers the British seaside in its heyday. But, says columnist Colin Drury, it’s still a glorious place
I was just six weeks old when my parents took me to the British seaside for the first time. It was a family holiday in Minehead.
We still have my granddad’s cine footage somewhere showing that trip in silent, jerky reels. It charts the usual stuff – kids paddling in the sea, dad being buried in the sand, mum looking seriously narked at not being in Spain. Good times.
I thought about those long gone holidays when we, me and her, strolled around Cleethorpes recently.
We’d woke up bored and decided since it was a nice day – that is to say, since it wasn’t raining – we’d go to the seaside.
And, naturally enough, it was kind of awful; gaudy, windy, cheap but expensive.
In particular I was disappointed with Fantasy Land which, unless your fantasy is a dingy room filled with 10p slot machines. doesn’t live up to its name. Similarly, one can’t help feeling somewhat fearful when the first beach hire service you see lists windbreaks above deck chairs.
And yet here’s the thing: I love the British seaside with all my heart. I love the peeling paint and the run-down fish and chip shops, the big dippers which are so small and the art-deco dance halls where the music died around 1965. I love the faded glamour and the hint of broken glorious.
For these towns are surely at their best when the modern world recedes and the silver past shimmers through those huge half-empty hotels and civic buildings. Because, ultimately, the likes of Skegness and Scarborough are surely really nothing if not the most romantic symbol of that most lonely of truths: that time waits for no-one, that all is surpassed in the end, that everything is forever until it is no more.
For just a brief moment – between the invention of mass rail and mass air travel – geography meant such resorts were suddenly places crowded with people in search of good times and (mildly) bad behaviour. And then, just as abruptly, history meant they fell almost silent again when those same people realised the sea, sangria and sun of Spain was more exciting than the sea, stewed tea and stinging winds of the English coast.
And now those ballrooms and arcades, pleasure gardens and promenades? They still get busy but not like then. There’s no turning that clock back. The British seaside is a museum now, I think. And it’s glorious that way.