Punch and Judy, penny slots and Pontins: why the great British seaside continues to hold our imagination

<span>A girl plays on the beach at Weymouth in 1998, as shot by Martin Parr.</span><span>Photograph: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos</span>
A girl plays on the beach at Weymouth in 1998, as shot by Martin Parr.Photograph: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Anyone who has read him will know that the historian Nikolas Pevsner was not a man much given to excessive praise. But even he was inclined to sigh at the sight of the Grand Hotel in Scarborough. In his series of architectural guides, The Buildings of England, he describes the hotel, which was completed in 1867, as wondrous, a “High Victorian gesture of assertion and confidence”. Believing no other building in Britain had as much to say about a certain kind of 19th-century ambition, in his perambulation of the Yorkshire town, he instructed readers on no account to miss the magnificent view of the hotel from the harbour.

And it’s true. Stand on the beach below and look up – perhaps while eating a choc ice – and the Grand really does look marvellous: a gigantic confection of towers and balconies that recalls a French chateau. From this vantage point, it isn’t hard to imagine the poet Edith Sitwell drinking cocktails in its ballroom (the Sitwells owned a holiday villa in Scarborough); to picture Winston Churchill, who once stayed in one of its suites, lighting a cigar at the bar.

But if its exterior is ever splendid, its interior, by contrast, is now a sorry sight. Since 2004, the Grand has been owned by the budget chain Britannia, and its reputation in the town – as well as on Tripadvisor – has become so woeful the Conservative mayoral candidate for York and North Yorkshire, Keane Duncan, vowed during his ultimately ill-fated election campaign to use public money to buy and restore it if he was elected. Once the height of luxury, its baths furnished with two sets of taps, the better that guests might be able to recline in both fresh and health-giving salt water, in 2024 it is shabby and neglected, with corridors that smell vaguely of baked beans. Some rooms cost as little as £37 a night.

It was the English who invented the seaside resort – the Scots and the Welsh followed later – and Scarborough, arguably, is where it all began. Indeed, we may think of it as the bucket and spade holiday in all its long history in microcosm. In the 17th century, people began making therapeutic claims for a spring in the cliffs of what was then a fishing town, a development that would lead, in turn, to the invention of sea bathing as a curative, and on the back of this it eventually became the very grandest of spas, the destination of choice for mill owners and steel and coal magnates in need of a holiday (the Sitwells made their money in iron and coal). When the Grand was built, on the spot where Anne Brontë died (she visited Scarborough in the hope of easing her tuberculosis), it was the biggest hotel in Europe, if not the swankiest.

In the 20th century, its popularity grew, though its demographic changed somewhat, workers now mingling with the middle-classes (they stayed in the North Bay rather than the genteel South Cliff). More employers had begun to make paid holidays available to their workers, and on their precious days off those who could afford to headed for the coast. Here were fairgrounds, warm-hearted (or not) landladies, and formal gardens. When it rained, there were plenty of places to shelter – in 2020, the Victorian pergola-style shelter in South Cliff Gardens was listed by Historic England. When it was sunny, there was swimming – or, for those who preferred it, the chance to watch other people swimming. According to the historian of the English seaside, John K Walton, in 1926, a newspaper reported that in a single morning at Scarborough’s South Bay Pool, about 3,500 people had paid sixpence each for the privilege of merely “spectating”.

So what changed all this? It’s a truism that inexpensive foreign holidays did for places like Scarborough in the late 20th century, and in the late 1970s, many resorts did indeed begin to decline. By 1981, the cost of package holidays had plummeted and more main holidays were taken abroad than at home. But we need to be cautious here. The deprivation we see in seaside towns – 12 neighbourhoods in Scarborough are among the 20% most deprived in the country – has multiple causes, not all of them connected exclusively to the decline of domestic tourism. Ten million people still visit Scarborough every year (for comparison, Blackpool is the third most deprived local authority in England, yet in 2022, it had 20 million visitors, an increase even on pre-pandemic years). We continue to love to be beside the seaside – and as some resorts focus on regeneration, this is set more and more to be the case. In Hastings and Margate, among other places, culture has been deployed in an effort to achieve this; Arts Council England recently awarded Blackpool a grant of £225k a year to develop its famous illuminations.

Holidaying at the British seaside is still, of course, an unpredictable business, and the weather and bad hotels are only the start of it. The news is full of reports of the raw sewage being dumped in the sea at popular beaches – in 2023, there were 31,000 such discharges across the UK’s designated bathing sites, the equivalent of 228,000 hours – and the climate crisis is wreaking its own destruction, buildings sliding from cliffs, and cliffs sliding into the sea. Thanks to heavy rainfall, erosion is a growing problem. Last Easter, part of the cliff at West Bay in Dorset crumbled like a sandcastle, 4,000 tonnes of rockfall disappearing into the water below (it is lucky no one on the beach that day was killed).

But against such things we must set the fact that by staying in the UK, we don’t contribute to global heating (no need to fly) – and the special beauty and joy of the British seaside. People returned to it during Covid, when they had no other choice, and many remembered then how much they liked it. Though things were already shifting: new hotels; new restaurants, some run by those escaping from London and other cities; the sense that not all resorts need resemble a photograph by Martin Parr – even if we are still a long way from the days when Wallis Simpson chose to visit a smart hotel in Felixstowe to escape the abdication crisis (the hotel in question, I learn from Madeleine Bunting’s book, The Seaside, is now converted into flats).

Thirty-six per cent of the British population lives within 5km of the sea, and 63% within 15km – and this is (or it should be) our great, good fortune. I’ve taken to hopping on the train to Eastbourne, having bagged a deal on a bed at another Grand Hotel (this one, wrapped in white stucco, resembles a wedding cake, and it’s where Debussy wrote La Mer). Eastbourne has a modern art gallery, The Towner, where you can see good paintings by Sussex artists such as Eric Ravilious, and lots of hipster bakeries. But it also maintains its more traditional attractions: a gold-domed pier, a turquoise-topped bandstand, a promenade with candy-coloured beach huts (my only sadness is that its old, family-run ice-cream bar, Fusciardi’s, has been sold).

Our Victorian and Edwardian resorts are an extraordinary legacy, and I’m always surprised by how little they’re valued by some. If we were a different kind of country – less snobbish, more proudly confident – Blackpool would be more akin to, say, Deauville, in Normandy, France, which is to say, deeply treasured and considered rather chic. Everyone in Britain would know about the circus below the ballroom of the Blackpool Tower, the tiled ring of which fills with 42,000 gallons of water in less than a minute for its finale (this is thrilling).

People want change, if not gentrification precisely; but they also want some things to stay the same. As Travis Elborough writes in Wish You Were Here, his fond history of the British seaside, because most of us first visit the seaside as children, Fab ice lollies and penny slots tend to have a powerfully Proustian effect on our adult selves. As a child, my granny took us to Withernsea, on the Lincolnshire coast, to Bridlington, and to Morecambe, where we stayed at Pontins (RIP) and played a lot of crazy golf. They were happy times – though happier, perhaps, in memory – and thanks to this, whenever I’m at the coast now, some small part of me is always hoping to recreate them, even as I moan about white bread and crab sticks. I want to eat my fish and chips outside; I will have a Flake 99, not a Magnum; I gaze longingly at helter-skelters, wondering if I’m too old to have a go.

A few years ago, I dragged my husband to Filey, Scarborough’s traditionally more genteel neighbour (in a desperate effort to make it sound alluring, I told him it was where Margaret Drabble and her sister A S Byatt holidayed as children). It was off season. The day was grey, and the wind howling. The only possible thing to do was to find a caff, order tea and toasted tea cakes, and to listen in to the Alan Bennett-style conversations that were going on all around us. Naturally, I loved every second.