Wednesday, 1 August 2012

I do like to be beside the seaside...

On Monday, the BBC reported that public transport in London was less crowded than had been anticipated during the Olympics. Many people are working from home, or have rearranged their journeys.   But there would in any case have been fewer people travelling to and from work in London this week. This week is traditionally the beginning of the peak holiday period in England. In the past many families went away for a week or two weeks at the seaside.

The seaside became fashionable in the eighteenth century, competing with spa towns such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells. Sea bathing was recommended as a remedy for a variety of ailments, including scurvy, jaundice, the King's Evil and leprosy.  Initially, visits to the seaside were for the aristocracy and the well to do. Royal favour contributed to the rise of  Weymouth and Brighthelmstone.

However, costal towns which could be easily reached by water from London soon became popular with people from all walks of life. First by sailing vessel, then from the 1820s by steamer, Cockneys went in ever increasing numbers to resorts such as Gravesend and Margate. By 1850 steam boats were carrying over 87,000 passengers a year to Margate. Fares were as low as one shilling on some boats.

Steamers also took holidaymakers from Merseyside to North Wales and from Bristol to North Devon.

The spread of the railways from the 1840s brought the seaside within reach  of every part of England. A holiday in a quiet, respectable seaside town was considered a highly suitable way for a Victorian middle class family to spend its leisure time. There were opportunities for healthy pursuits such as walking and sea bathing, and educational activities such as collecting seaweeds and seashells.

Resorts competed to attract visitors. They  promoted their natural attractions such as sunshine or sandy beaches.  They provided promenades and piers, regattas, concerts, libraries and gardens. Developers bought land to build houses for visitors and permanent residents. The population of Folkestone, the fastest  growing resort in Kent, increased from about 4,500 in 1841, just before the railway arrived, to 31,000 in 1901.

Most Victorian and Edwardian seaside holidaymakers stayed in boarding houses, where meals were provided by the landlady. After the First World War new types of holiday became popular - camping, caravanning and of course the holiday camp.

In fiction, especially historical fiction, sending characters on a trip to the seaside can be a means of developing character and moving the story along by placing them in an unfamiliar environment.

Charlotte Bronte’s first sight of the sea at Bridlington was a highly emotional experience. Her friend Ellen Nussey wrote that  'she was quite overpowered ... she could not speak till she had shed some tears ... for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued and exhausted.'

Charlotte wrote later to Ellen 'have you forgot the Sea by this time? Is it grown dim in your mind? Or can you still see it dark blue and green and foam-white and hear it – roaring roughly when the wind is high or rushing softly when it is calm?'

And to Ellen's brother Henry she wrote 'I will not tell you what I thought of the Sea – because I should fall into my besetting sin of enthusiasm. I may however say that its glorious changes – its ebb and flow – the sound of its restless waves – formed a subject for contemplation that never wearied either the eye the ear or the mind.'

In Persuasion, the trip to Lyme produced drama, heightened Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth’s regret at their estrangement, yet placed further obstacles in the way of their reconciliation.

There is scope for conflict between visitors who have come to the seaside for pleasure and those for whom it is their place of work.

And, especially before modern technology, the seaside presents many opportunities to place characters in danger; cliffs, caves, tides, shipwrecks, even smugglers and wreckers, all offer the possibility of drama and peril.

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