Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Monday, 4 May 2009 10:58 UK

Sun, sea, spade, maypole, cheese rolling?


BBC Archive footage

The Magazine delves into the archives

When we think of bank holidays we think of trips to the seaside and chaotic car journeys, as well as eccentric customs, but the release of a series of BBC Archive films gives an insight into the history of this leisure institution, writes Stephen Dowling.

It used to be the spur for Britons in their millions to don a Kiss Me Quick hat and set off on crowded trains or traffic-clogged roads to the seaside.

Child at Blackpool in gusty weather
There are articles in newspapers and records of people from Bolton walking all the way to Blackpool, drinking a gallon of the seawater - as well as the gin - and then going back home
Daniel Smith
Museum of Bolton

In the days when time off was a luxury, the four bank holidays - when banks and many shops shut their doors and the working populace got a day off - allowed Britons to bask in seaside sunshine and forget the troubles of the mill, the shop floor or the office for a day.

In the 20th Century, they were days for deckchairs and ice cream, sticks of rock and hats made of newspapers, donkey rides and fish and chips. But these traditions were also harking back to harvest festivals and seasonal celebrations stretching back to Roman times. Even the bank holiday crowds thronging coastal resorts are not, it seems, a modern tradition.

Recently released material from the BBC Archive shows snapshots of how Britons spent their day off work - depicting London's Victoria Station as a hive of activity in 1949 as daytrippers head to Brighton, two families in the 1960s piling into a minivan from east London to Southend, and the crowning of a May Day queen in 1950s Devon.

But how do we spend our bank holidays now? Are we more likely to spend it in a traffic jam or at home doing DIY?

Have we forsaken the idea of bank holidays as a hard-won luxury and let them become an excuse to spend another day in shopping centre? And even if we have, is it any different to what earlier generations were doing?

Some "traditional" customs like cheese rolling may have always been a fringe activity on bank holidays

Bank holidays, like the British tradition of celebrating Christmas, are a Victorian reinvention of seasonal celebrations. But their roots go back a long way.

The May Day Bank Holiday, for instance, comes from traditional celebrations marking the end of the first half of the year in the northern hemisphere - an excuse to eat, drink and be merry. In Roman times, May Day was associated with Flora, the god of Flowers, while Gaelic communities called it Beltane - a festival to protect the harvest from unwelcome spirits.

Before 1871, holidays marked saint's days in the Christian calendar. Then banker John Lubbock - a lover of cricket and an avowedly anti-religious man - campaigned for the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 which allowed workers four days off work (hopefully to take part in village cricket games). These, in England and Wales at least, were Easter Monday, Whit Monday, First Monday in August and Boxing Day.

Seaside invasion

As railways developed, bank holidays became inextricably linked with the scene of thousands of manual workers leaving cities en masse to spend a day at the beach.

Daniel Smith, local history curator at the Bolton Museum, says the bank holiday invasions of seaside resorts such as Blackpool were apparent even before Victorian times.

Cartoon of women bathing in the sea in 1825
Even in days long gone some would have headed to the beach

"The idea of going to Blackpool for the day, for example, was something dating back to at least the 1790s - Bolton weavers would go there.

"There are articles in newspapers and records of people from Bolton walking all the way to Blackpool, drinking a gallon of the seawater - as well as the gin - and then going back home."

Mr Smith says the roots of the bank holidays come from rural celebrations suddenly transplanted from the country to the city as the population urbanised during the industrial revolution.

"The industrial revolution was invented in this part of the world and there was no prototype to work from. There were a lot of people moving into industrial areas and they were bringing their rural ways with them."

Quaint customs

One such custom was of bank holiday walks - communities would walk en masse, carrying banners and parading through the town and its locales. It's a pastime that has dwindled to the point of almost dying out, Mr Smith says.

Some still use the days to indulge old, quaint customs - with May Day seeing Britons dressing a maypole, and Whit Monday (the end of May) seeing the ancient "art" of cheese rolling celebrated in rural Gloucestershire.

In the 20th Century bank holidays and rising affluence meant more could go to the seaside

Mr Smith says that these fringe bank holiday events may have always been eccentric pastimes. The fact they were recorded does not mean they were mainstream behaviour, just something that caught a chronicler's interest. They have survived as curios, something to indulge in once a year.

Peter Marsh, the co-director of social research think tank the Social Issues Research Centre, says bank holiday behaviour has been tempered by economic prospects.

Not so long ago, it wouldn't have been unusual for people to zip off to Bruges, Barcelona or Biarritz to spend the three-day weekend. Now, as people tighten their belts, we're more likely to spend our time at the local DIY superstore, he says.

"At the moment we're going through a nesting stage," he says. "DIY superstores are doing very good trade. I speak from experience, because the last few bank holidays, I've been doing DIY."

Holiday boozing

And if you thought the era of the holiday camp was over, think again. "Rather than shooting off to Barcelona, people are going to Butlins," Mr Marsh says.

"I don't think what we did with our own children was much different when I was a child."

People dance around a maypole in 1912
Maypoles are an English tradition less practised today

Bank holiday behaviour is also an excuse to do things that you could not get away with at work, he says. Bank holiday boozing is another tradition with a long past.

Research undertaken by the Mass Observation archive in the 1930s at Blackpool described streets on the evening of a bank holiday.

"There are accounts of people falling about in the streets from being drunk, fighting," Mr Marsh says. "It would transpose almost exactly with what you'd see there now - apart from the fact that in those days they were dancing foxtrots."

Retail analyst Robert Clark, of the Retail Knowledge Bank, says shopping has become one of the major pastimes of the bank holiday. But purists who try and criticise it as recent development of our consumer culture are wrong.

"You think of the old days, people used to get on to the trains and go to the seaside, and they were buying things while they were there - it's just evolved."

The movement of people by train to a seaside resort - and the kind of communal spending that went on - has been replaced. Many more working people are able to afford a car, so they are not limited to destinations served by rail stations.

"We have the ability to take out own transport now. Some of the elements [of bank holiday traditions] have declined, and they have been replaced by not dissimilar elements of increased affluence, and different ways of getting around."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Aye, when I were a lad we'd be off to Redcar on't train for our annual gallon o'seawatter and and a bucket of winkles. O'course, that were in't days when we lived in a rolled up newspaper at 't bottom of t'lake. Seriously though, our own bank holiday weekends haven't changed much in my lifetime. A long weekend isn't for travelling about, its for relaxing at home with the family. In the fifties, when we only had a back yard, we would go for a picnic in the park. Today we have a family BBQ in the garden.
Frank Bowron, Hatfield

This May bank holiday (on Friday 1st in France), I threw the kids in the car and returned to the village where we used to live. A traditional fete was taking place, but with bull-running instead of Maypoles in this part of the world. The kids found their old friends, I found mine (around the bar), we all had a great time. It makes me sad that so many Brits think shopping or DIY are ideal pastimes for a bank holiday. Keeping up old friendships, or a family outing, are just as important as "nesting".
Sarah Hunt, Apt, France

I work for the National Trust at Devil's Dyke high on the South Downs behind Brighton. Monday was bitterly cold and blowy with spots of rain but families were out having picnics, flying kites and buying ice creams. The great British Bank Holiday is alive and well!
Stephen Mattinson, Steyning, West Sussex

As a child we would go on a day out to the seaside, usually on a works outing using a local coach company (The charabang as the coach was affectionally known as). When we arrived it was off to the pier for an ice cream (no matter what the weather was like) and a candyfloss. If I could to talk my mom and dad nicely, it may even have stretched to a hotdog. Then off to the pub, and early evening back on the charabang to return home. This was in the early 60s and we looked forward to this annual event. It was some years later that we actually managed to purchase a car and go out on bank holidays, then it would be to Stourport-on-Seven for a picnic and a ride on the fair.
Colin, Wolverhampton, UK

We spent the damp bank holiday catching up on the week's laundry, doing revision and watching TV. We thought about going to Harrow's May Day revels but knew it would be grim, enforced entertainment, so will have a Chinese meal at home instead.
Jessica, Harrow

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