Westward Ho! In praise of seaside towns and the English hinterlands

12 Jun

Coming into Margate, the first thing I see as we pull into the car park is a dilapidated rollercoaster, the centrepiece of a defunct amusement park. Its name could hardly be more apt – Dreamland.


This metaphor for English seaside townswas just too tempting to ignore. The song ‘What became of the broken hearted’ suddenly sprang into my mind, with its unexpectedly and perhaps unintentionally political opening line ‘As I walk this land of broken dreams’. It was difficult to take a photo of the rusting edifice without getting other over-enthusiastic amateur photographers, equally poetically inclined, in shot. The image is striking but perhaps misleading.

The narrative of decline of the seaside town, with its colourful lights and sounds of the arcades rebounding through the endless dull, quietly desperate, English days is one that is oft-regurgitated. But is it really a true representation?

The rest of Margate on a sunny bank holiday felt like a different story. Whilst I can’t really comment on the much heralded Wayne Hemingway and Mary Portas inspired high street regeneration and whether this has been successful, the new Turner Gallery, with its glass frontage that makes the sea a glorious gigantic exhibit in itself, helps make it feel a vibrant place. Perhaps the notion of seaside town decline, the hollow end of pier (if still standing) joys, the closed shops, fading guest houses, are now just all part of the required spectacle in these places, in the same way Punch and Judy shows and donkey rides were in the past.


In the same week work took me to Ilfracombe, now beyond the train network, despite boasting two lines in pre-Beeching days. You really feel you have reached the end of the mainstream country here, similar to Cornwall. Damien Hirst’s Verity statue stands watch over the harbour, an eviscerated female Colossus of Rhodes for our times. There is something ingrained in the place which is deeply compelling. The beautiful, ragged coast. Walking through the site of an old iron fort where, in essence, little has changed since the days when they fought off the rival tribes. There is something primal about living by the sea. I watched the waves rip into the rocks from my hotel window, gradually winning a battle of erosion the land can never escape from. And watching the ghost of Betsy Gammon patrolling the hills with her drum, imploring the women of the town in the eighteenth century to wrap themselves in red petticoats to fool the French sailors patrolling the coast that it was defended by Red Coats, when in reality there was no such thing; the men were all away at war. On the way home I pass through Westward Ho!, a seaside village created in the mid-nineteenth century. It was based on a novel of the same name. How very post-modern.

Like many people of my age and background these seaside towns have contradictory resonances for me. Having had childhood holidays where ABROAD consisted of a solitary daytrip toLe Harve by ferry, the seaside holidays of childhood reek of limited means and conservatism. Yet as an adult I find myself visiting similar places with my own family, teaching my daughter to make sandcastles, scratching my head about the right consistency needed to make them shapely and stable. All very reminiscent of that supreme drama of thwarted aspiration Steptoe and Son, where Harold spends the entire episode imploring his reluctant father to go to France instead of the perennial holiday to Bognor only to bailout himself at the last minute for a joyful clandestine dirty weekend in ‘bloody Bognor’.

These towns often display pictures of their Victorian and Edwardian heyday, which seem as distant as it must have been brief. The Bank Holiday Act of 1871 meant workers could enjoy some leisure time, a beano with the family. As I wait for the train at Acton Central in London each morning I often look at a display of old photos at the station, which is over 150 years old, and once had no end of connections and allowed the ordinary people their first taste of the summer exodus, albeit on modest excursions. Such excitement and communal joy is unimaginable on this barren commuting route now.

This annual getaway eventually morphed into the cheap holiday in the sun for the masses, a cultural odyssey documented in the oddly depressing Carry on Abroad, with foreign holidays equating to unfinished hotels, diarrhoea and beer that tasted like ‘gnats’ piss’. ‘We should have stayed at home’ is a refrain that was probably frequently used by such pioneers. A far cry from the aspirational cultural jaunts for the middle-classes documented by E.M. Forster 60 years or so before, at a time when their working class compatriots were still looking at saucy postcards at Margate. Of course, staying at home now to holiday, often more expensive than overseas expeditions, has been given the preposterous label ‘Staycation’. Because how can anything have any value if it does not have an ironic label to make it palatable, indeed justifiable?

Ah, self-conscious irony. Bohemian and thriving Brighton itself has gleefully documented the running sore that is the West Pier in all its rotting, sometimes burning, glory. A leaden but easy accessible metaphor for seaside decline and failed regeneration. But it’s part of the cultural landscape there; photos and paintings featuring the carcass of the pier or of it aflame are available from numerous kiosks nearby, readily available as sticks of rock, although rarely is there a view of what the pier looked like in its heyday on offer. This is a town that long ago found a new life beyond straightforward, unironic, postcard tourism. As attractive as it is, I feel, for the first time in many years, that it pales in comparison with some of those places that have yet to be reimagined or rebooted, where people with less freedom and narrower horizons used to have their day or perhaps even week of unbridled fun before returning to the schoolroom, factory or kitchen. Foreign holidays are vital for cultural enrichment or, if you’re that way inclined, tans and heat. Let’s just hope there is still room for the occasional visit to the English seaside, with the sound of the laughing policeman automaton, literally the sound of a madman apparently, echoing after you down the esplanade…

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