Imagination is the key to the revival of British seaside towns | Gaby Hinsliff
A a couple dance atop a bus shelter to the music of a nearby accordionist. Children play in a boat, on a wall in Lowestoft park. And near the beach huts at Cromer, a hermit crab with a sign that says “Luxury Rentals Only” keeps a pile of empty whelk shells from a pod of homeless crabs.
A series of works of art which may or may not be by pseudonymous graffiti artist Banksy have been discovered strewn along the East Anglian coast, raising the tantalizing prospect that like everyone who hasn’t been able to make it to the stranger this summer he just went to Norfolk and hanged in bus shelters instead. “Is Banksy in Great Yarmouth?” Headlined the August dream title, after a miniature cottage with its name sprayed on one side and “Go big or go home” on the other was mysteriously added overnight to the Model Village of the seaside resort of Merrivale. Maybe it’s real, and maybe not, but it’s absolutely the kind of thing the British seaside is intended for.
Coastal towns have a miserable blow. Regardless of all that bracing sea air, these are notorious hotbeds of poor health and low life expectancy (England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, tackles health inequalities in seaside towns impoverished a priority, after Covid) and late educational performance. I last visited Yarmouth on the eve of the lockdown, to see a school serving a deeply deprived area that had gone from chaotic to prosperous; but the children still needed more decent local jobs to move in. And while some coastal towns grapple with the loss of a once-booming industry – fishing in Lowestoft or Grimsby, dinghy tourism in Skegness or Scarborough – for others it is prosperity it – even that’s the problem.
“Don’t feed the locals; they bite, ”read the handwritten sign of a pretty Cornish cove this summer, where holidaymakers spread towels around fishing boats moored on the pebbles. A joke, although fair; secondhand residents and wealthy retirees have long monopolized the nicest corners of Devon and Cornwall, and this year’s binge eating has seen reports of landlords evicting long-term local tenants in order to make renting to tourists through Airbnb profitable . A post-Covid exodus of Londoners realizing remote work earns them a seaside town salary, meanwhile, risks sparking resentment among budget residents along the Kent and North coasts. Sussex. But these stories of loss aren’t the only ones being told, as a summer vacation gives waning seaside glories one last chance to reintroduce themselves.
Recently I had some killing time in Bangor, Gwynedd, although that’s a story for another day. Someone kindly showed me around its botanical gardens, a hidden delight known only to local dog walkers, where succulent fresh passion fruit grows under glass. The town’s main street has arguably seen better days, but it has a lovely pier that stretches out towards Anglesey, and for 50p you can spend as long as you like watching the tide rise through the interstices of the planks under your feet. There is a cafe that serves rhubarb ice cream, but I was drawn to a row of plaques along the railing, mostly marking deceased loved ones, including one for “Florence Magdalen Feasey, Who Swam the Menai Strait in 1929 at the age of 15 ”.
There is no mention of a spouse or children; either Florence never married, or rather in an exciting way, this great adventure was how she chose to define herself. (The crossing from the Welsh mainland to Anglesey is less than a mile but notoriously dangerous, with fast tides and swirling whirlpools.) Whatever it was, Florence had to be fearless.
And this is where British seaside towns excel: surprises. They are all about the unexpected, the eccentric, even the subversive; places of weasel and stumble, endowed with a certain indomitable spirit born from having to constantly think of things to do in the rain. And that makes them natural sources of creativity. (It is probably not a coincidence that the Maybe-Banksys have appeared just as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are jointly bidding to become the UK’s City of Culture in 2025; the role of art in the economic regeneration should not be underestimated, given the Tracey Emin effect at Margate further down the east coast.)
British seaside towns might never realistically trump the Mediterranean as places to spend a fortnight of sunshine. But they could make perfect short breaks for Brits in a climate-conscious time in which flying to Rome or Paris for the weekend seems too blind, and their residents deserve better than a future hovering wildly between property booms. unsustainable and crumbling neglect.
Two years ago a report from a select committee on beach town regeneration highlighted the success of Seaminster, a once shabby seaside resort that has learned to make a virtue out of its “romance and grain”, after recognized that behind dilapidated playrooms and the stench of seaweed create a place of “creativity, nonconformity and mismanagement”. A journalist who grew up there was hired to promote it. A music festival, a film production cooperative, fast broadband and sustainable energy projects have done their part. Someone even built a sauna on a beach. The only catch, the committee admitted, was that Seaminster was fictitious; he had completely invented it. But like maybe Banksys, if it was wrong, it was strangely convincing; a glimpse of what could happen with enough imagination. And who doesn’t want them both to be real?