It has recently come to my attention that everyone down South is frequenting, and if not frequenting, holidaying in, and if not holidaying in, actually moving – to Margate. What was once a faded Victorian seaside town somewhere past Whitstable, where Tracey Emin once lived, with a curious Shell Grotto, a sandy beach and not much else, is now a burgeoning hotbed of creativity and entertainment; it is the place of Dreamland, of Turner Contemporary, of cool shops, nice cafes and antiques emporiums. My Instagram feed is chock full with sandy sunset beach shots, oyster platters, stealthy sea swim boasts and Grayson Perry exhibits; my Twitter timeline riddled with headlines involving the keywords ‘Shoreditch-On-Sea’ and ‘hipsters’ paradise’.
If there’s one thing I get, it’s the lure of the Great British Seaside. I moved to Brighton in my early twenties on a whim (the Margate of the early 2000s?) and lived there for a few salty years. Commuting to London every day was quite honestly nightmarish, but I still think about the feeling of stepping off the train on a Friday evening, slightly high on canned G&T, seeing seagulls wheeling in the sky, sniffing the tangy seaside smell, and letting the stress-mantle of the city fall off and the sea air seep into my brain.
I was calmer when I lived at the seaside, I think. On weekends I took my hangover to the beach for windswept pints of shandy, poked around Snoopers, or sauntered along the promenade with a bag of hot doughnuts, gazing out into blue upon blue upon blue. I liked the peeling-paint, faded glamour, seediness to the seaside; the ancient pubs; the Regency architecture; the grand, green squares – even in the middle of November, when freezing sideways rain moving in droves off the Channel meant the only suitable garment was an enormous anorak worn zipped right over my head Who Killed Kenny? style. Because even then, there was still fish and chips and pubs. Lots of lovely pubs.
The seaside has obviously long been A Big Thing in UK culture. Before foreign travel lured us to the continent, it was to Blighty’s coasts we Britons flooded for summer holidays with hankies on our heads: to Blackpool and Bournemouth, Great Yarmouth and Skegness for donkey rides and sticks of rock and Punch & Judy shows. In the 18th and 19th century, people flocked there in droves, clad in stripey swimsuits and ribboned boaters to bathe in the sea, (beneficial to the health, of course) and to convalesce; the early 20th century saw the hey-day of end-of-the-pier amusements in the form of the music halls and dance halls. During the Mods V Rockers days of the mid ’60s, Britain’s beaches were battlegrounds.
Nowadays our shores are the site of art happenings and festivals, but the seaside retains a special place in British hearts. It’s the place you go for proper Bank Holiday days out; hen dos; minibreaks; dirty weekends. The good old fashioned fun of pier amusements; ventricular railways; windbreakers; ice creams; dodgems; changing into swimwear under a towel; losing all your money at amusement arcades; sandcastles; candy floss; roller coasters – it’s all still there. It’s all still fun. It’s still the place to be beside.
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