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The Financial Times has been looking at British icons in the aftermath of the referendum - including the seaside:
August 5, 2016 1:04 pm
his is the fifth in a series of sketches in which the Financial Times examines the markers of British visual identity after the UK’s vote to leave the EU.
The seaside resort is one of the most readily identifiable markers of British identity, a cocktail of High-Victorian taste and perennial aesthetic poverty.
It arrived in the 18th century — Brighton being the pioneer — and thrived in the 19th century and early 20th centuries.
In the 1930s, 15m people were taking their annual week of holiday by the British seaside. Even in 1968, UK resorts still accounted for 75 per cent of all holidays. The resorts’ slow decline began around the same time that package holidays arrived to fly people affordably to where the weather was better and the beer cheaper.
That left once opulent towns stuffed full of cheap hotels and B&Bs, which were used by councils who had sold off local authority housing and needed cheap overspill. Since the 1980s, seaside towns have been in a spiral of decline halted stutteringly by optimistic attempts at gentrification through culture and consumption. They largely voted for Brexit, with some blaming immigration, rather than national and local government policies, for their decline.
Nostalgia for the seaside keeps it inscribed in our collective imagination. Its symbols — the stripy deckchairs, windbreaks and beach huts, the piers and promenades — are uniquely recognisable, a visual language accompanied in our heads by the sounds of seagulls, lapping waves and the smell of frying chips.
There are the bathing huts, promenades, bandstands and municipal flowerbeds but there are also the saucy postcards, amusement arcades, greasy paper packets of fish’n’chips and sticks of rock. Nineteenth century municipal notions of taste mingle with commercial bad taste to create a celebratory cocktail of kitsch.
On top of all this is an architecture of impermanence, a language of design that is a celebration of the temporary: deckchairs, Punch and Judy booths, fun fairs, beach huts, shellfish stalls and ice-cream vans. It is a temporary layer of urbanity that can be cleared away in a day leaving only the infrastructure of incongruously pompous and rusting Victoriana.
And then there is that most poignant of British seaside symbols — the pleasure pier. A strange mixture of heavy Victorian engineering and filigree architecture, the pier is a cruise ship for people who cannot or do not want to leave the land. Over the water yet attached to the shore, the pier is an in-between world, an indeterminate zone, thrusting towards countries beyond the horizon, but tethered to British shores.
The burnt-out shells of piers — Brighton’s West Pier is the most famous example — with their ghostly, charred iron frames, are a reminder of a serious infrastructure of leisure gone the way of the heavy industry that manufactured them.
What then is the future of the British seaside? The attempt to resurrect Margate’s Dreamland as an ironic retro-hipster amusement park has gone into administration. The Dismaland theme park — a month-long show by artist Banksy that was a success — was a parodic reflection of Britain’s inability to match the permatanned cheesy grin of US theme parks and resorts.
Perhaps the British seaside’s appeal is partly that whiff of decline. It is a nostalgic, half-remembered place, never quite as good as it once was — a revelling in English entropy and a view from the pier out to sea — an elegiac glance towards a Continent that is slowly drifting away.
British by design
An FT series on the markers of British visual identity after the UK’s vote to leave the EU
British by design: the seaside - FT.com