By the Seaside
"Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside, I do like to be beside the sea...”, so goes the opening lyrics of a popular British musical hall song from the early 1900s. At the time it was penned, annual trips to the seaside by the British working classes had become a thriving industry. All thanks to the advent of the railway system and the legalization of mandatory public holidays. It hadn’t always been that way though.
The Liverpool and Manchester Railway
Time once was, when the 11,000 plus miles of British coastline was quite possibly taken for granted. Evidenced by the fact that the oldest buildings in some of what are now Britain’s most popular seaside resorts, run perpendicular to the seafront. They face each other. Nowadays of course you’ll pay a premium for the privilege of having a sea view and for the privacy of not having those staying across the street peeking into your window. All of which won’t matter when you voluntarily draw back the virtual net curtain and post feet selfies on Facebook.
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
Imagine if Facebook had been around 400 years ago when, in 1626, Yorkshire woman Elizabeth Farrow discovered the healing properties of an “acidic stream pouring down a cliff into the sea” in Scarborough’s South Bay. Mrs. Farrow spread the word best she could, but it remained known only to locals until 1660, when a Dr. Witte published Scarborough Spa, in which he touted the benefits of Scarborough’s seawater. Among other things, he claimed it could “cure epilepsy, apoplexy, vertigo and catalepsy, cleanse the stomach, and put an end to scurvy, asthma, and black and yellow jaundice.” Witte’s claims were questioned, refuted and publicly ridiculed. All of which of, course, drew more attention to what would become Britain’s first seaside resort.
The Grand Hotel, Scarborough
For the next two hundred years the privileged classes flocked to the "Spa" to partake of the restorative powers of its waters and to enjoy all that Scarborough offered, which by 1826 included assembly rooms, a bathing house, and a new clifftop promenade. In 1867, Scarborough became home to the world’s first "Grand Hotel." It was the biggest brick building in Europe and its bedrooms came equipped with two sets of faucets – one to deliver fresh water, the other "magical" seawater.
Over time, more and more seaside towns sprang up. All with many of the same features. Wooden piers that jutted out into the sea and had been built as a means of accessing boats became a focal point for providing entertainment to tourists. They had rides, penny arcades, theatres, cafes, and an abundance of fresh air. Pleasure piers are still a popular attraction in British seaside resorts, the most famous of which is the 1.34 mile long pier in Southend, Essex.
Beach huts, or "bathing machines" as they were called in the 19th century, are also still around. Initially they were simple wooden shacks, which acted as protective covering for the Victorian "ladies" who would be wheeled out into the sea to "preserve their modesty." Today Britain’s 20,000 wooden huts sit in rows along the top of the beach, providing protection from the inclement weather for their fortunate owners. For those who don’t have a beach hut to shelter in when it rains, there’s always the town’s covered amusement halls.
Slot machines, bingo, video games, mechanical rides for the kiddies. The noise is deafening. The atmosphere stifling. As one waits out the rain - and that could take a while, after all we’re talking about England - inside a seaside amusement hall, it’s hard to imagine that the first resorts came about to create a sense of well-being and relaxation. I always thought that’s what fish ‘n chips were for?