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Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK
Wish you were (back) here?
Donkeys in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, date unknown (Seasides of the Past, English Heritage)

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News

During the bank holiday, millions are heading abroad or to the countryside. But what of the UK's seaside resorts? After years in the shade, they're making a comeback.

Ah, the smell of fish and chips, the squawk of seagulls and the splash of bracing briney waves. Few childhood memories are as evocative as that of the British seaside holiday, which holds a unique place in the national psyche.

Yet while domestic tourism is in rude health - with walking, camping and caravanning enjoying a revival - and flights to the Mediterranean cheaper than an inter-city train fare, bucket-and-spade breaks seem to have been left behind.

For 30 years there have been repeated predictions that the British seaside holiday is doomed. MPs are currently investigating what action can be taken to save coastal towns gripped by deprivation.

BournemouthNewcastleRhylNew BrightonWhitstableWeston-Super-MareBournemouthScarboroughRothesay
But are there stirrings that the UK's love affair with the seaside may be rekindled? In the first of a week-long look at beach resorts, we examine the evidence.

Today's seaside economy is rather overshadowed by its extraordinary past. Building on the gentry's favoured health regime of the spa resort, which began in Scarborough at the end of the 17th Century, the creation of the railways helped Blackpool claim to be the world's first working-class seaside resort in the late 19th Century.

Expansion and consolidation of the country's 100-odd coastal resorts continued, despite the interruptions of two world wars, until changing tastes and cheap flights in the 1970s signalled a decline.

The lack of investment since then is plainly evident, with architectural gems such as grand Victorian hotels and Art Deco pavillions unloved and unrepaired.


But despite the gloom, there are strong reasons to believe the future is bright. For a start, people are heading to the seaside in large numbers - it's just that they don't stay as long, says Stuart Barrow of Visit Britain.

Three sisters on a beach
We've definitely had the bottom and we're going up - there's a renaissance in the seaside tourism market
Stuart Barrow

"The seaside town economy is remarkably resilient, given the rise in foreign package holidays and how suited the international market is to short breaks," he says. "The fact it's still a major factor in the visitor economy is remarkable."

Growth in the mini-break, day trip and business markets have helped. In 2005, there were 25m overnight trips to the seaside, according to Visit Britain. That figure has been stable in recent years - about half what it was in the 1970s.

"We've definitely had the bottom and we're going up," says Mr Barrow. "There's a renaissance in the seaside tourism market.

"In local government planning circles, there's been a realisation that the style of architecture of the 60s and 70s didn't work. If everything looked the same then why go there? So councils are developing local identities and a sense of place."

Water quality, blue flag beaches and warmer summers have also helped, and there is a small but growing reluctance to fly, for environmental and security reasons. And those with fond memories of childhood beach breaks in the 1970s are now taking their own offspring to the seaside.

Razorlight in Brighton
Razorlight rock Brighton
People are as likely to head to the sea to find fossils, bird watch, shop for antiques, enjoy modern art or have a stag weekend as to lie in a deckchair or play the penny arcades.

This means Newquay sells itself as a surfing town, Southport as a classic resort and Brighton as a hip place to hang out.

And while tastes have changed, that doesn't mean the end of pier entertainment and donkey rides. Blackpool Pleasure Beach, in a town which embraces all the traditional seaside ingredients, is still the most visited attraction in the country.

Heading upmarket

"Regeneration" is the buzzword among coastal town planners dealing with hundreds of redevelopment plans, many of which try to restore the grandeur of the past. In Morecambe, the Midland Hotel is undergoing major refurbishment and will reopen in 2007.

And in Scarborough, the Spa Complex where it all began is being cleaned up inside and out, one of half a dozen multi-million-pound projects in the town.

In a typical move away from tourism - what one writer described as "brushing the sand out of the hair" - the town will build a creative industries park to attract enterprise.

"Instead of being a seaside town, we want to be a town by the sea," says Scarborough's urban renaissance manager Nick Taylor, who believes a more upmarket cafe culture is wrestling in on the seafront's predominance of amusement arcades.

But change can be problematic. Many older people who retire to the coast for a quiet life resist moves to attract new hordes of tourists.

And in some quarters there's the prevailing belief that 1950s holidays were the "good old days". Yet that ignores the evidence of better customer service, more food choices and cleaner beaches.

Blackpool in 1948
Bring back the good old days?
While seaside holidays of old were a welcome escape from urban poverty, they were not always fun. In BBC Two's Grumpy Old Holidays, actress Sheila Hancock says: "We went to Ramsgate and it was the usual - as it was in those days - dreary seaside town. Even as a child I realised it was fairly dreary.

"And the bedsit place or boarding house which you stayed in turned you out after breakfast and you were not allowed to go back until the evening."

While it's fun to reminisce about such long-lost privations, the seaside holiday is fast evolving.


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