Did you know that wherever you are in the UK, you’re never more than 70 miles from the coast? Britain’s love affair with the seaside goes back over 300 years. Early resorts boasted of the health-giving properties of the sea air, and bathing in the mineral rich water was purported to be “good against diseases of the head, as the Apoplexy, Epilepsy, Catalepsie, Vertigo,” according to a 17th century doctor from Hull. Several places lay claim to being the UK’s first seaside resort including Weymouth, Brighton, Scarborough and Southend.
Seaside holidays became popular during the 1800s, and royal patronage accelerated its popularity during the Regency period and beyond. What’s more, the coming of the railways in the 1840s made trips to the seaside affordable and accessible. Much of Britain’s distinctive architectural heritage on the coast stems from this era in resorts that still welcome millions of visitors every year.
Of course, the British seaside is more than mere bricks and mortar – it’s a cultural institution full of national quirks that may well baffle foreign visitors. Let’s take a closer look at some of these well-loved traditions.
The pleasure pier is a key feature and tourist attraction for many British seaside resorts, dating back to the 19th century. Southend has the longest pier not only in the UK but in the world, jutting out from the shore by a staggering 1.34 miles. Brighton’s West Pier was the first to be Grade I listed but today Clevedon Pier in Somerset is the only surviving Grade I listed pier in the UK.
Most pleasure piers have amusement arcades, fairground rides, shops, restaurants or theatres to attract visitors of all ages, providing traditional entertainments that epitomise the charm of the British seaside. Some piers are more pared back, providing nothing more than a place to dock boats, do a bit of fishing or simply contemplate the beautiful scenery.
The British seaside experience wouldn’t be the same without the iconic beach hut. These are little wooden sheds with pitched roofs that are traditionally painted in bright or pastel colours. With an almost toy-like quality, you’ll see them lined up on the beachfront where they’ve been capturing the hearts of holiday makers and local residents up and down the coast. Apparently, even the Queen had a beach hut at Holkham beach near Sandringham!
These dainty little huts are highly coveted and the sale of private beach huts has rocketed in recent years as people are clamouring to own a little bit of British seaside and a handy base from which to enjoy their hard-earned leisure time. Be warned: getting one in a good location can be expensive!
Fish & Chips
Ask any Brit and they will agree that nothing beats eating takeaway fish & chips on a shingle beach – it’s as much part of the British seaside experience as singing ‘Oh I do love to be beside the seaside’, the classic song from 1909. There’s even a Guinness World Record for the largest serving of fish & chips, which was set in February 2018 at a whopping 54.99kg.
Fresh battered and fried fish (typically cod or haddock) is served with chunky fries sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar, wrapped in paper and eaten with a little wooden fork. Until the 1980s, newspaper was commonly used for wrapping the serving, but the practice is now banned for hygiene reasons.
99 Ice Cream
Talking of special treats, of course no trip to the beach would be complete without an ice cream. But not just any old ice cream – it has to be a vanilla flavoured soft-serve ‘99’ in a wafer cone with a Cadbury’s Flake in the top! Interestingly, the name has nothing to do with the price of the ice cream, though perhaps it did many years ago.
There are many theories surrounding the ‘99’ name. These span from the Italian ice cream maker whose Scottish premises were at 99 Portobello High Street to Cadbury’s own explanation that “in the days of the monarchy in Italy, the King has a specially chosen guard consisting of 99 men, and subsequently, anything really special or first class was known as “99” – and that is how “99” Flake came by its name.”
We all know that the British weather can be unpredictable, and that goes for coastal regions as well as further inland. For Brits, the changing weather conditions are always a good, safe topic of conversation, whether they’re speaking to a complete stranger or a member of the family. And when summer is threatening to break out, the country goes bananas.
Since summer weather is in short supply (or at least that is the perception), you need to make the most of it while you can. This usually entails long traffic jams to coastal resorts as everyone heads to the beach, donning shorts and flip flops, carrying portable BBQs and refreshments. But even if the weather is not on side, it takes a lot to dampen the British seaside spirits. As someone once said, ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.’ The British holiday maker can often be found in waterproof jackets, determined to enjoy their seaside sojourn come rain or shine!