An exhaustive exploration of the British seaside’s delights
Originally published in June 1947, this piece was republished online in September 2016
We have not in Britain that regular strength of sun under which plain white walls give dazzling, holiday gaiety, but the iron lace and crochet of a really good pier are uplifting to the spirit in almost any weather, and our coast-line is ringed about with the most admirable cast-iron ones.
If the seaside is to be considered as a source of fine architecture, we must sadly admit everything to be an anti-climax after that incredibly successful and exquisite fantasy, Brighton Pavilion (I was once fortunate enough to visit it when several of the rooms were being used to display a collection of fretwork by Richard Old, who carried that curious minor art to soaring Gothic pinnacles of achievement that could be nowhere better housed than in what is surely Europe’s most magic building.) But the Pavilion reached heights which coast architecture never touched again; the Regency stucco terraces with their bow-windows are certainly charming, and this century may have its own Pavilion at Bexhill, but there is no other work of genius. The splendour of the mile-long piers and the blowsy beauty of the bandstands is in a different class, and we have yet to see what arts and architecture will emerge from the Butlin camps.
Nevertheless, the Pavilion gave to the whole seaside a feeling which has persisted till today, a taste for the Oriental, a feeling that thus and thus only could maritime enjoyment be perfect. It produced a feeling of exoticism, a breath of foreign travel, very simply and cheaply, in an age always ready to admire imports as such (and to stuff anything that seemed suitable for display in the drawing-room).
Barbara Jones’ drawing
Even London had all this brought to her doorstep, for a trip in the Golden Eagle from Tower Bridge took you (and still can; a good day, this) to Southend, where the familiar Thames becomes the always amazing sea, and the paddle steamer ties up at the head of the longest pier in England. On a hot, crowded Bank Holiday, the walk must be far too long, but on an ordinary day it gives one a feeling of pleased surprise that so complicated a machinery should have been created for one’s enjoyment - the steamer trip with the river banks to look at, the long walk over the bleached boards of the pier, and, at the end, the rich lay-out of promenades and pleasure-domes.
Immense intricacy would appear to be a very important part of seaside planning; clearly it is most fascinating to the inland city dweller, accustomed to streets going more quietly to and fro, to find them here going not only beside the sea but constantly up and down and through groves of palms as well. The Isle of Wight, the climax of the nineteenth century excursion, has a good example of this at Ventnor, and also has much romanticised scenery, especially a series of Chines - there are some of these near Bournemouth too - which are really only natural ravines made by landslide or water and emerging on the sea. These have been most bewilderingly bedevilled, and scattered with Swiss Chalets, Honeymoon Cottages and Fisherman’s Huts. A good Chine is as hard to get out of as Hampton Court Maze.
So one might imagine the ideal situation of a resort to be on the mouth of a river with the land rising to high, dramatic cliffs within a mile of it on each side. But a long level coast does just as well (witness Blackpool), while sands are not essential (Brighton has pebbles, Westonsuper- Mare quite a lot of mud). A southern aspect means nothing (Scarborough and Cromer are bleakly exposed to the east). Cheerful natural surroundings carry no weight (look at the Romney Marsh resorts), dangerous cliffs are no barrier. A seaside town can grow up in any place where there is access to the shore and even this can be artificially created.
The front at Brighton
As the object of all such towns is to get the inlandman into close contact with the fascinating sea, let us start our consideration of seaside structures with the pier. This started its career as a useful stone extension of the land that could be used by boats when the tide was out, and then as engineering skill increased, became iron, and grew longer and longer. The best of them are very thin and tenuous planks walking on skeleton iron legs out to sea. A railing runs for safety along each side and usually against this are curved and fancy iron seats. At the far end, the pier will swell out laterally, and the plank walk will enclose a pavilion for pierrots. At the end of an exceptionally long pier this pavilion may instead be a whole railway station, a steamer stop, or a fishing house. In this case there will be a supplementary swelling (or perhaps two) half-way down the pier to take the concert hall. A railway station can only be justified where the tide goes out a very long way and there have to be trains to meet boats.
Some piers have at the end, in addition to the thin iron legs, elaborate outworks of massive seaweedy timbers, again on many levels, which can be fished from, used for boats or just to sit on. Floral cast-iron gantries near water level lead in the darkness under the pier from one wooden platform to another; it is always cold, and seems remote from the hot sands.
The decorative pleasure steamer which plies between pier and pier
For reasons doubtless connected with the effect of sea air on paint, the prevailing colour of the pavilion roofs is brown or green, and white. The brown fades pleasingly to plum, and the green, of course, to that lovely blue which may be obtained only by weathering green.
The pavilion interiors, decorated in any style from Moorish to Modern, house concert parties, strange little shows which are still sometimes to be found in period costume, with a gay pierrot, and a comic one, and a columbine or two and even one sad pierrot retaining a last, fading glow of moonlit sorrow-mime dying out in England at the end of the pier. At the beginning of the show, a pianist-pierrot plays a tune which the troupe uses as its theme-song, while the other members of the company lean alluringly over the footlights, each with one hand on his knees and head to one side, and, with wagging forefingers introduce themselves and conjure the audience to rejoice. Then follow solos and sketches, contemporary in content, perhaps, but so mannered in presentation that even jokes about atom-bombs have quite a Co-Optimist flavour; at the end, the opening number is repeated with altered words and even madder abandon. The largest holiday resorts bring down from London huge shows with household-name comedians, but these are rarely in the Pier Pavilion because there is not enough room.
The derivation of “pavilion” from Latin through French, and the altogether different origin of “kiosk” from the Turkish, might lead a visitor to expect that the two would be utterly different. But no; here the kiosk is merely a smaller pavilion, equally Oriental but with fewer Kremlin-domes. In it are sold cigarettes, newspapers, comics, and sweets in all normal varieties, as well as special souvenirs, rock and postcards which are only to be found in a narrow belt about half a mile deep all round the coast. The souvenirs are varied; Goss china, with the city arms in colour on one side, is still popular, though the great days are over-days when every town in England had its Goss, and one could find many a room with a proud collection of one or two hundred specimens, bearing witness as much to the travels of the family as to its artistic taste.
A souvenir to eat instead of to put on the mantelpiece is rock, which used always to be red-tape pink outside, very gay. The stick is wrapped in transparent paper and a photograph of the pier is tucked inside. On the white end, the name of the resort appears in crimson. When you bite a bit off, the word remains, though the lettering is elongated and distorted by the bite. It used, I say, to be always pink and likewise always peppermint, but during the nineteen twenties and thirties a softer age approved the introduction of pineapple flavouring and an orange coat.
Another particularly marine sweetmeat is called “Pebbles from Plymouth” (or wherever), and is a softish paste formed into stone-shapes and coloured in pink and grey streaks. Big scallop shells are filled with them and tied with ribbons. Mint humbugs grow to enormous size by the sea, even to such dimensions that they may cost sixpence each, though they are beautifully striped and very large indeed for twopence.
There are dolls for sale on the pier, too, Kewpie or cuddly or fashionable. There may be a shooting gallery, or skittles, with more dolls for prizes. And there are paper sailor hats with current cracks printed in front.
Barbara Jones’ drawing
The most charming display of sea-food, though, is off the pier and along the promenade where the whelk-stalls stand. Many of them have sheets of artificial grass instead of tablecloths, and there on the brilliant green are mussels, eels and whelks, pink shrimps and black winkles, arranged on little round white plates in individual helpings. Elegant glass flasks with sprinkler tops provide vinegar, and there are saltcellars and pepper-pots at regular intervals. No exclusive restaurant ever had its side-tables more alluringly garnished than a good whelk-stall. And it’s all so easy to eat; the visitor, who really is not hungry at all, has only to pay a copper or two, pick up his saucer, shake on a dash of this or that, and eat it all effortlessly up with a little flat wooden spoon.
Back on the pier are the slot-machines, to provide a cold breath of horror to the sunny afternoon. This horror does not lie in the unpleasantness of the subject, though these indeed are either physically grim, as executions, or spiritually grim, as peep-shows. Rather the horror lies in the dusty, weather-beaten sorrow of the little machines themselves. Most of them are cast-iron, glass-fronted boxes standing at eye level on a single iron leg. This framework, in any case thickly ornamented with baroque mouldings, is painted emerald-green or scarlet, picked out with gold lines. The paint is kept very fresh and bright, but inside the sealed glass case the insidious creeping fingers of the dust and the salt air have stained the satin clothes of the automatic fortune teller and soiled the white surplice of the priest at the hanging.
The peep-shows promise all the naughtiness of a mythical Paree for a halfpenny, and provide faded photographs much less exciting than the cover of a True-Life magazine. Other machines sell you something for a penny; a fortune or your weight on a card, a cigarette or two, matches, chocolate or caramels, a spray of perfume for your handkerchief or a paper strip of aspirin tablets. Some machines are pure spectacle, and present for your penny in the slot a house on fire, with mechanised iron firemen jerking up ladders. The grisliest of these is the aforementioned execution.
Amusement arcades on the shore house the more recent automatics, horizontal glass-topped boxes on four wooden legs, where the penny releases a number of balls which can be projected by means of a spring through a series of illuminated hazards to score many thousands of points. For really high scores there may be prizes.
The garden at number 1 Myrtle Cottages, Cambridge Rd, East Cowes, 10W
We have already seen along the promenade the whelk stalls and the amusement arcades. Before looking at any other minor adornments, let us consider the general arrangement of the sea front. As we walk off the pier through the turnstiles set under a delicate arch of cast-iron tracery the promenade runs to right and left; the form of it varies with the beach and the tides; on the tamer parts of the coast the concrete is almost at sea level, or there may be a stretch of lawn, then there will be a roadway and beyond the further footpath are the hotels and boarding-houses facing the sea. If the winter sea rises wildly, then the promenade will be built up high above the beach and a railing will provide security, and flights of steps give access to the beach.
If there are suitable sands, these high promenades make a grandstand towards which the sandsculptor displays his art, Britannia or a lion in high-relief, a Victory from whichever is the Last War at the time, or portraits of statesmen or ships; although the colour is so severely limited and the scale so extended, the subjects chosen have often a noticeable similarity to those of the pavement artists. A big subject may take hours to finish, may be twenty or thirty feet long, but the tide will take it away next time it rises, and all is to do again. The height of the promenade governs a great deal of the entertainment given on the sands, so that a lower one, while making big sculptmes less profitable, is good for the Punch and Judy show ; there are some beautifully elaborate and squeaky versions of this sadistic play regularly given at many seaside towns.
The trade-mark of the passing epoch on the seaside promenade
If the natural structure of the land has given the district cliffs, wonderful mazes of stone steps and rustic stairs zig-zag up and down them. Then the town and the beach will be quite separate, joined by the endless stairs and by at least one richly ornamented lift or even a funicular railway. These changes of level of course provide opportunities for complicated gardens, winter gardens and wildernesses, in at least one of which will be a bandstand with its attentive circles of green folding chairs. Here at eleven and three o’clock the band will provide martial or sentimental music with an occasional concession to those who like something Good. But the bandmaster’s regular selection is a wise one ; he chooses tunes most perfect for their setting under the sun beside the sea, and leaves serious music for the pier pavilion’s Sunday concerts and for wet afternoons in the winter garden.
As compensation for the loss of cliffs, the resorts on the flatter coasts have more scope for municipal flower-beds, in tight patterns with dracena-trees and agaves at the corners. A popular colour scheme is red, white and blue, as geranium and lobelia flower together; the white is not so easy and sometimes lags behind.
Between the gardens and the sea is a road usually dosed to through-traffic, but allowing standing-room for bath-chairs, goat-carts, and donkeys for the children to ride on. If the sands are firm and the breakwaters do not run out too far, the donkeys leave the promenade and stand waiting on the sand by a breakwater, which has become by long custom so much the property of their owner that he may have almost made them a second stable there, and will in any case have a scroll-painted nameboard, nose-bags and spare saddles.
Another sensation of the Turf can be enjoyed at the Jockey Scales, whose huge brass frame is a lovely ornament on the sands. Here you can be professionally weighed for twopence.
On flat stretches of sand or pebble near the pier stand the photographers, with joke backgrounds. These are large boards, crudely painted with a fat woman, or a man falling off a donkey. In place of the painted head is a hole through which the living head of the client is protruded. The finished photograph is mounted on an embossed card, sometimes with such a legend as “Falling on my feet at Brighton,” or “Here’s one of the girls at Blackpool.” Other photographers take potshots of passing visitors with little cameras on tripods and press yellow papers into their hands; these tell them that the results (natural, unposed, care-free) can be collected in a few hours at a kiosk near-by.
The winkle barrows we have already seen, but there are many other ways of providing the visitor with tasty little snacks; ice-cream barrows flower at their handsomest by the sea, with home-made ices kept under brass lids with thick handles. Across the road, though, competition has set in, not only from the tricycle ice-vendors but from the Ice Cream Parlours which have filled up many of the spaces between the hotels. Here can also be bought sundaes, splits, sodas, waffles and shakes. And sometimes ten as well.
Whelk Stall, Brighton
Very few of the things we have been looking at are made of cast-iron and yet it is visible everywhere, making, indeed, the skeleton framework of the whole pleasure shore. Neatly contemporary with the nineteen century’s invasion at strength of the coast-line of Britain, cast-iron was able to provide not only almost the entire new range of necessities, the piers, pavilions and bandstands for the sun, the shelters and winter gardens for the rain, but to provide them cheaply and most richly decorated. It makes the piers, lifts, pavilion, bandstand, kiosks and information bureaux, but above all it makes the endless railings, the lamps which rise regularly above them, the seats in their infinite variety of scrolls and grotesques, and the shelters and fountains which punctuate the promenade. The shelters are interesting ; occasionally a large one is built out over the sands and totally enclosed (very sensibly) in glass, but the little cast-iron shelters which stand so prettily all along, and hold so few in such discomfort, can only provide real shelter for a quarter of their temporary inhabitants, since they contain four separate compartments, each open in front to north, south, east or west. But if you go to the sea for a week-end and it rains all the time, these shelters stand to show that sometimes the sun comes out.
‘Neatly contemporary with the nineteen century’s invasion, cast-iron was able to provide not only almost the entire new range of necessities.’
Along the row of hotels on the front and sometimes even on rows and squares a little back from the sea, there may appear some beautiful verandahs of cast iron; these are at their best on the stuccoed bow-windowed houses which held the visitors until about the middle of the nineteenth century. But magnificent specimens occur on buildings of much later date. Many are glassed-in, as a concession to our climate, but in the vilest weather they still manage to convey a feeling of oriental warmth, or suggestion that to-day is only cold by a very curious accident. Inside the more expensive hotels is another, though smaller, variant on the same theme; when the visitor leaves, the porter pastes upon his luggage, as propaganda, brilliantly coloured labels bearing a picture of the hotel standing in lush foliage under a tropic sun.
Behind the First Class, many-starred hotels and boarding-houses on the front, run streets of lesser ones (“one minute from sea”), and here also are rows of shops, which almost all show signs of the tourist trade; some have only such minor manifestations as the draper’s display of bathing things, but others exist solely for the visitor and well repay study. Many things are for the children only, delightfully shaped wooden spades or shoddier metal ones, enamelled tin pails with transferred gilt decorations and little moulds like pastry-cutters for the embellishment of saud castles. And there are all the ordinary toys as well. Souvenirs abound here as on the pier, Goss china, cups and saucers with a view on one side and “A Present from Skegness” on the other and so on. A favourite seems to be a china shoe which the recipient will fill with earth and grow ferns in.
Barbara Jones’ drawing: 3 shies a penny
Other souvenirs are in a different taste; for example, a little cardboard box printed in gold with the numbers and dials of a wireless cabinet has inside two tiny china jerrys; “The Smallest Twin Receiving Set in the World.” Best of all the licensed obscenities of the seaside are the postcards, designed in a style to be seen hardly anywhere else, a complete new world peopled on a heroic scale by Mr. Donald McGill with enormously fat women who are subjected to the most appalling indignities, bald men escaping from the fat women to ogle disdainful bathing belles, young slickers who get ogled back, donkeys, tents which conceal nameless orgies, shiny faces, red noses and endless little black bottles of beer. The jokes are graded, so that almost everybody feels safe with some of them, while others could probably not be sold inland without trouble. There are some other postcards in great favour which have no jokes at all but which instead are threedimensional; they are made double, with a flap that lifts, and out of the hollow inside of the card falls a zig-zag strip of views. A good one to be bought in most places shows a large crab with the flap made in the shape of his shell. More views, photographed with unbelievable badness and flatness can be bought bound into books. They have a peculiar charm of their own, but it would be nice to be able to buy some really fine photographs taken with skill and love.
The specialities of certain parts of the coast give scope for special souvenirs, such as the empty glass containers (lighthouses, bells or mice) which can be bought on the Isle of Wight for the visitor to fill with the different coloured sands from the striped cliffs.
I have left shells to the last, as these, the most exquisite of the natural objects peculiar to the coast-line, have been used in the construction of the most beautiful and strange of the man-made objects-shell grottoes.
Small children use every opportunity to create architecture from dust or sand and ornament it with such scraps and sticks as they can find, and this desire to build survives more strongly in some adults than in others.
Our examples are as widely separated as the Isle of Wight and Scotland; it would be too much to say that every seaside town has its grotto, but there are a lot of them to be found, and part of their charm is their utter inconsequence, their unpredictability. You are walking along a dull street of boarding-houses, noticing that “Balmoral” has pebbles bordering the geraniums and that “Conway House” has cast-iron palms in the urns flanking the door, when suddenly one house breaks the spiritual uniformity of the slight variations with a burst of shells; they cover all the ground-floor walls, encrusted thickly round door and windows, they replace flowers in the beds, and their chalky radiance shines over the garden walls.
Broken pieces of china and mirror embellish the already complex texture of the surface, producing that effect of decoration overlaying decoration which is so characteristic of vernacular art. (Indeed, it might almost be stated as a rule that the less educated, or sophisticated, the artist is the more richly piled-up will be the decoration.) It is, of course, easy to give these grottoes an eighteenth century, aristocratic ancestry, but as most small children use every opportunity to create architecture from dust or sand and ornament it with such scraps and sticks as they can find, it would probably be more accurate to argue that this desire to build survives more strongly in some adults than in others and that the seashore offers the best free materials. Even within the limits of a fortnight’s stay, the visitor will find an opportunity of kindly amusing a child, thereby gaining for himself a bucket.
Barbara Jones’ drawing
STREET FURNITURE AND PARLOUR TROPHY
The utilitarian nature of so much nineteenth century thinking wrought great changes in memorial architecture; whereas the eighteenth century exhibitionist saw no reason to justify the statue, trophy, or column which he intended to keep lively his memory among his fellow townsmen, his grandson similarly inclined was forced to provide a utilitarian reason for his gesture. Thus the majority of the monuments erected by private benefactors, and a large number of those paid for by public subscription, will be discovered to tell the time or to conceal behind cast-iron cupolas and granite columns a drinking-fountain or a horse-trongh. The fountain shown here is an especially good example of another nineteenth century trait-the desire to be all-inclusive; it presents a digest (like the literary ones of to-day) of at least six European styles, Oriental· via-Brighton Pavilion for the arches, rope for a nautical touch, a text with a municipal exhortation enclosing and annihilating it, and, inside, some natural history. It is a liberal education in the arts. The less tractable materials of the earlier epoch would have given no such scope, even if eighteenth century taste had tolerated it; all the honour goes to cast iron. The parlour trophy, on the other hand, has remained through all, delightfully purposeless-a mere symbol of travel or of a passing fancy. The coronation mug or jubilee bust, the Goss china or the teapot “after Wedgwood,” all may be found displayed with artless confusion in the most alive of museums-the seaside bazaar.
Drinking fountain, Cowes Green - The gift of a yachting gentleman
Cast iron clock
Inside the Whale’s skeleton, Blackgang Chine Bazaar. Isle of Weight
Bazaar at Backgang Chine
PROVIDING AN OBJECTIVE
One of the most crying needs felt by visitors at the seaside is “an objective for a walk.” Some places are well supplied by nature with dramatic cliffs, interesting rock formations, or even caves with stalagmites; others are rich in historic associations symbolized by ruined keeps and thatched cottages. A larger number, however, were poorly equipped in this respect and were forced to set about creating, as it were, their own traditions. Hence such surrealist objects as the Swanage sphere and the various pillars marking spots where possibly took place heroic encounters about the exact location of which history bas been conveniently vague. Once the initial inducement bad been provided for a promenade it was only a matter of time before the need for a whole paraphernalia of benches, shelters, and bath-chair parks was felt and satisfied. Everywhere these structures display a uniformity of style and a pleasing consistency in their decoration, which bas now become as much a part of marine landscape on certain parts of our coasts as the windblown ilexes and straggling fuchsia hedges.
Willow Seat, Cowes Green
Esplanade Shelter. Shanklin
Pillar on Duston Road
Pillar on Duston Road.
Iron Seat. Cowes Green.
THE CONVALESCENT STYLE
Since children like to play with sand and the tide twice daily obliterates their works, and since those in charge of the children must necessarily stay also on the sands to watch, seaside architecture caters very little for its juvenile visitors. Instead, it has been devised for the employment of leisure and the cosseting of convalescents. It was universally acknowledged that the mere sight of the sea was almost in itself a source of sufficient pleasure and excitement for the reasonably constituted. Almost but not quite, and it was the brilliant idea of some anonymous genius that this pleasure might be increased and the faint sense of insufficiency wholly eliminated if it was accompanied by music. Once established, band concerts became so popular that regularity of performance was essential. Unfortunately the climate rendered this an almost impossible achievement if the musicians were left unprotected. As a solution to a problem that was more complicated than might be supposed, with considerable ingenuity of design, the bandstand was evolved. Its roof cunningly acts as both shelter and sounding board, while, in the example below from St. Andrews, it also supports an iron ornament suggesting an oriental cupola. An exotic tour from the Bosphorus to Egypt is outlined by the obelisk behind. Their leisure thus occupied by walks and music, the visitors’ infirmities were overcome in a variety of ways.: winter gardens, glazed, palm embowered and over-heated, bringing an illusion of the Riviera to the less favoured coast of Sussex, lifts to whisk the no longer nimble up the face of the admired cliff, and a whole fleet of bath chairs and pony carriages for visiting, the more far-flung sights.
Evolved bandstand shelter from St. Andrews.
The lift. Shanklin.
Royal Spa Hotel. Shanklin.
THE EVOLVING PIER
In the whole range of architecture no better example of a complete change of functional purpose is afforded by any structure than the seaside pier. Originally a prosaic jetty thrown out across the shallows to meet the ineoming boats, by providing an additional objective for a walk its whole raison d’etre was completely transformed. An admirable illustration of the way in which the transition took place is provided by that little landscape of Boudin showing the Empress Eugenie and her ladies taking their daily constitutional the length of the still austerely utilitarian pier at Trouville. As soon as the morning promenade was well established the shelters and seats which bad already spread the length of the front automatieally advanced up the pier. Soon they were followed by a handstand, which on arrival at the seaward end turned concert ball, and in their train soon came the slot machines, peep-shows, and photographers’ booths of a scientific age.
Dance-half roof, Ventnor.
THE PURPOSELESSNESS OF POPULAR ART
Unaccompanied by any decorative sense the acquisitive instinct leads naturally to the philatelist’s album or Black Gang Chine Bazaar. Fortunately, perhaps, it is seldom found unalloyed. In most cases the desire to acquire an immense number of objects of a particular kind-shells, match-boxes or china dogs-is sooner or later followed by an urge to arrange them. At this point Art enters in and as a result one finds tucked away among the stucco villas extraordinary fantasies created by the necessity of disposing and displaying some recordbreaking collection of individually valueless objects. The prime favourite at the seaside is, not unnaturally, shells; beautiful in themselves and easily to he obtained in unlimited quantities their employment as a decorative medium was to he expected and had indeed been foreshadowed by the rocaille grottoes of the eighteenth century. But the nineteenth century seaside development of the art was characterized by a far greater naivete and considerably more haziness of purpose, so that such things as this motor-bus covered with cockles display, not shells in their natural environment artificially created, hut shells used in the most senseless possible way, thus fulfilling one of the essential conditions of fantasy. The bullock’s head is larger than life and reminds one forcibly of folk-lore monsters, and those horrid heads and masks preserved in many English churches for use on those pagan occasions which pass as Church Festivals; it was, however, constructed about twenty-five years ago from bricks, chicken-wire and cement.