New book looks back at Britain and Kent’s seaside towns
PUBLISHED: 16:21 19 August 2019
Kent resorts are well represented in a new book on the development of seaside towns from the earliest days to the present upturn
People have been forecasting the death of English seaside towns for decades. Yet as, Allan Brodie, senior investigator of Historic England and author of an attractively illustrated new book The Seafront points out, they are still there, still popular, and still intriguing.
Note the book title, however. This is not a history of seaside towns. Brodie has chosen to focus on the not always easily definable area of an English coastal resort that lies between the seaward end of the pier, if it has one, and the first line of buildings on the promenade, in effect the frontline.
This is the face these towns put on for the visitor, and those of us more familiar with them are rather inclined to take for granted.
Seafronts are places associated with fun and leisure, vibrancy and happiness. Yet there can be something melancholy about them, too. They can stir up memories of the carefree days of youth, or of times spent with people not with us any more.
A sense of the past, or time passing is somehow mirrored in the environment of the seafront; the peeling paintwork and rust of buildings and structures in such locations the result of their exposed situations. People who visit the seafront therefore are often a combination of those in pleasure seeking mode, and others just daydreaming. At different points in our lives we will probably have fitted into either category.
Brodie describes the seafront as: "Familiar, yet unfamiliar, predictable but exciting, natural but artificial, relaxing and exciting, busy and quiet."
It's no surprise that a maritime county like Kent should feature prominently in the author's tracing of a phenomenon that has been part of our popular culture for more than 200 years.
Of course, to begin with the earliest resorts had only the most basic of facilities, and they catered almost entirely for the wealthy.
The Ship Inn at Herne Bay, with its weatherboarded assembly room, added to the side of building in the 1790s, is a survivor from the days when it was described as 'a public house, with good decent acommodation for private families' who came in summer to take in the perceived health benefits of sea bathing.
Herne Bay's lavish promenade floral gardens, with their carpets of colourful annuals, came later.
By the 1840s, increasing national and individual prosperity meant working people could also contemplate a seaside break, and the coming of the railways speeded the process up.
Margate had a head start, as it was easily reached from the Thames by boat. Cheap berths on large steamers meant that, whereas at the start of the 19th century around 20,000 people arrived in Margate by sea, by the 1830s the numbers exceeded 100,000.
The legacy of the steamer was the creation of the pier, since large vessels were unable to disembark passengers in existing landing facilities in shallower water.
These early piers were jetties or landing stages rather than the ornate affairs that would come to be known as pleasure piers. Margate was in the vanguard with the 1,000ft jetty which opened in 1824 but was replaced by a cast-iron jetty in the 1850s.
This was designed by the greatest pier designer of all, Eugenius Birch, famous for Brighton West Pier, as well as those at Eastbourne, Blackpool North and Weston-Super-Mare.
Margate, however, was his first, and it was also the first iron pier in the country. An Aerofilms picture in the book shows the pier still standing in the 1920s, beside the original harbour. Sadly, the pier was almost entirely destroyed in a storm in 1978.
Ramsgate, another of Kent's earliest resorts, was so popular by the 1830s that Charles Dickens was writing about a typical day on Ramsgate Sands. By 1863, it even had two railways, one to serve the main town, the other to serve the seafront. The latter station, which closed in 1926, was located just above the beach so that in summer passengers alighted from trains to be greeted by Punch and Judy shows, ice cream and souvenir sellers and bathing machines.
Folkestone's front developed around its harbour, but by the 1840s developers had started to use its cliff, creating a crescent, and building a large hotel and amusement park. In the 1920s an aerial shot by Aerofilms caught the dramatic location in the Leas area, with the old pier below. A local guidebook in 1925 described it as "one of the finest marine promenades in the world."
Broadstairs' attractive front was well established by the 1930s, when its long bathing station was built to nestle beneath the cliffs, gardens and promenade above.
Deal has always been proud of its key part in maritime history, and a photograph from around 1900 shows strollers along its broad, though plain, promenade, with working boats drawn up on the beach.
The pier in the background of the picture, designed by Eugenius Birch, was demolished under Winston Churchill's orders in 1940 to give a clear sight of enemy guns after a Dutch vessel crashed into it. Deal got a new pier in 1957, but the tall seafront building now known as the Time Ball Tower Museum, dating at least as far back as the 1820s, once served as a semaphore tower.
As the 19th century wore on, seafronts developed their own architectural vocabulary. Piers became more ornate, but so too did kiosks and shelters. Margate has arguably the most celebrated of them all, the Nayland Rock shelter at the east end of the beach, under which TS Eliot reputedly sat in 1921 and wrote some lines for his The Waste Land.
Margate's part in the history of seaside holidays is impossible to exaggerate. It was at Margate that the first description of the use of sea bathing machines was written, as far back as 1754, and it was at Margate that the most famous seaside amusement park, Dreamland, was opened in 1920, including the incorporation of a striking Edwardian ballroom. The amusement industry's trade newspaper The World's Fair hailed the opening of "the largest scenic railway in Europe" the same year.
Dreamland's subsequent decline came to symbolise the post-war decline of seaside resorts across the country. Yet in recent years there has been an upturn, helped by the Coastal Communities Fund, and Margate has become a symbol of that too. By 2013, the Turner Contemporary art gallery was celebrating its one millionth visitor, just two years after opening. Kent's resorts may not be attracting the numbers of long-stay holidaymakers they once did, but they still have great appeal for those looking for weekend or day breaks.
"The seaside is alive and well, but changing, much as it has been doing for the last 300 years," writes Brodie. "There is no reason to believe that future generations will not also create lifelong memories there, of sunshine and storms, romance and laughter, and fish and chips!"
The Seafront by Allan Brodie is published by Historic England