For decades, Britain’s holiday seekers flocked to the coast. Air travel changed that – but, asks Jonathan Glancey, could these crumbling towns be coming back?

On 5 May 1962, the first fare-paying flight of new British airline Euravia took off from Manchester’s Ringway Airport. It was full of working-class families on an all-inclusive tour – one taking them far from traditional seaside holiday destinations like Blackpool, Cleethorpes and Skegness. Their destination: Spain’s Palma de Mallorca.

Until that moment, the British coast had been the ultimate summer destination for most working-class families. In 1949, five million holidaymakers crowded Britain’s boisterous seaside piers. For those unable to afford a week in kiss-me-quick Hastings (never mind a lobster-skinned fortnight in the Iberian sun), there were cheap day return trips to be had to the coast, courtesy of British Railways.

From the 1960s, though, Britain’s seaside towns slid into a breathtakingly fast decline. Many have yet to recover. There had been package tours before the 1962 Euravia flight: as early as 1950, Horizon Holidays had flown 11 holidaymakers from London’s Gatwick Airport to Corsica. But with new large, fast aircraft, rising wages and higher rates of employment – not to mention a collective desire for something aside from grim seaside guesthouses with limited hot water, crowded roads, stuffy trains, uncertain weather, cold seas and chilblains – the package holiday business boomed. After all, how could holidaymakers jetting to Corfu or the Costas turn again to Canvey Island, Cleethorpes or Clacton-on-Sea?

Missed trains

Partly as a result of this new form of holidaymaking, express trains that had long taken working-class holidaymakers from northern and Midlands industrial cities to the south coast vanished in a puff of smoke. No more would the Pines Express steam from Manchester to Bournemouth; nor would The Devonian chatter from Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Derby and Birmingham to Paignton (in summer only).

At the same time, the infamous ‘Beeching Axe’ – a blunt, cost-cutting instrument shaped by the 1963 report written by British Railways’ business-minded new chairman, Richard Beeching – hacked apart Britain’s railways. It caused not just the end of the line for such famous holiday trains as the Atlantic Coast Express, which ran from Waterloo to Devon and Cornwall, but the wholesale closure of the lines themselves. Once-thriving resorts like Ilfracombe and Padstow, and their fishing trade with London, were suddenly cut off from the national railway network. Their economies were hard hit.

Far harder hit, though, were seaside towns whose fortunes were intimately connected with major cities and working-class holidays – among them the Kent coast towns of Margate, Ramsgate and Hastings and the east coast resorts of Clacton, Cleethorpes and Skegness. In 2013, a government report issued by the Office for National Statistics designated Skegness the country’s most deprived seaside town, followed by Blackpool, Clacton, Hastings and Ramsgate. Although these towns are still dependent on tourism, along with a declining fishing industry, numbers are very low compared to the 1950s: today’s aspirational British holidaymakers prefer Phuket to Prestatyn and Sharm el-sheikh to Skegness.

Jaywick, an outpost of Clacton, may be the most deprived of all British towns. Founded by socialist developer Frank Stedman in 1928 as a holiday settlement for London’s working class, by 2011 many of its houses had been torched. So had the Mermaid Inn, a local 1960s pub. Of working-age residents, 62% claimed benefits.

This year, just a quarter of a million people are expected to promenade along Britain’s 55 surviving piers – a twentyfold drop since their immediate post-war heyday. Many of the structures, including Brighton’s once-opulent West Pier (stage set of Richard Attenborough’s 1968 film Oh! What a Lovely War), have burned down since 1949. A litany of once-grand seafront hotels has disappeared, too, having closed and turned into cheap rental housing.

Hope on the horizon

Still, although the economic and social problems of many seaside towns remain real enough, their story is not all gloom and doom. A loathing of today’s intensely crowded and sometimes demeaning air travel, the rise of ‘staycations’, the low cost of the seaside’s faded yet elegant Regency and Victorian homes and an increase in the number of self-employed people working flexible hours have all been helping to revive officially deprived towns – among them Margate, Ramsgate and Hastings.

The largest boon to the coast, though, may be something else: nostalgia. Today, there is the sense that, in all the hectic and complex rush to holiday abroad, we have forgotten the simple pleasures of picnics, rock-pooling and ice-creams in British resorts – pleasures seen more, perhaps, through the lens of old railway posters or the windscreens of refurbished VW Camper vans than experienced in reality.

Still, that nostalgia has meant that some resort towns have come into their own again in recent years. In 1998, Canvey Island’s early 1930s Labworth Café designed by Ove Arup, whose firm engineered Sydney Opera House, was restored and reopened as an upscale restaurant. Avant-garde director Derek Jarman and other artists moved to exquisitely ramshackle Dungeness on the Kent coast. Then there are the fish restaurants of celebrity television chef Rick Stein at trainless Padstow, the popularity of surfing on the Cornish coast, Margate’s new Turner Contemporary gallery

While some towns have had to struggle back from decline, though, others appear to have been immune to begin with. When, in 1967, the Pines Express train stopped at Bournemouth West for the last time, Dorset’s largest town blinked, but carried on.

Bournemouth’s different fate from the rest may have had to do with its pedigree. Founded around 1810 as a health resort for the well-off, Bournemouth was laid out by distinguished architects, among them Decimus Burton – who was responsible for some of the finest Regency villas in London as well as St Leonard’s-on-Sea, the once-posh part of Hastings. From the outset, Bournemouth attracted a prosperous middle class. An artistic one, too. This is where Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, is buried along with the heart of her husband, Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. From his home here, Robert Louis Stevenson penned The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and most of Kidnapped. For 30 years, JRR Tolkien took the same room every summer at the Miramar Hotel; he retired here, too.

And while air travel had, initially, seemed the death knell of Britain’s seaside towns, airplanes have boosted Bournemouth’s economy. From 1996, the Bournemouth airport has hosted upmarket, champagne-fuelled flights around the Bay of Biscay. Today, Bournemouth Airport is owned by the Manchester Airport Group.

The recovery of many British seaside towns is still paddling rather than swimming along. Even so, the tide might just have turned.

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