Imagination is key to the revival of Britain’s seaside towns

Gaby Hinsliff argues that British seaside towns excel at: surprises. They’re all about the unexpected, the quirky, even the subversive; places for mooching around and stumbling across things, boasting a certain indomitable spirit born of constantly having to think of stuff to do in the rain. And that makes them natural wellsprings of creativity.

Gaby Hinsliff www.theguardian.com 

A couple dance on top of a bus shelter to the music of a nearby accordion player. Children play in a boat, on a wall in a Lowestoft park. And by the beach huts in Cromer, a hermit crab with a placard reading, “Luxury rentals only” guards a pile of empty whelk shells from a huddle of homeless crabs.

A string of artworks that may or may not be by the pseudonymous graffiti artist Banksy have been discovered scattered along the East Anglian coast, raising the tantalising prospect that like everyone else who couldn’t get abroad this summer, he just went to Norfolk and hung around in bus shelters instead. “Is Banksy in Great Yarmouth?” ran the dream August headline, after a miniature cottage with his name sprayed on one side and “Go big or go home” on another was mysteriously added overnight to the resort’s Merrivale model village. Maybe it’s real, and maybe it isn’t, but it’s absolutely the sort of thing the British seaside is for.

Coastal towns get a miserable rap. Regardless of all that bracing sea air, they’re notorious hotbeds of poor health and low life expectancy (England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, is making tackling health inequalities in impoverished seaside towns a priority, post-Covid) and lagging educational performance. I last went to Yarmouth on the eve of lockdown, to see a school serving a deeply deprived neighbourhood that had been transformed from chaotic to thriving; but the kids still needed more decent local jobs to move into. And while some coastal towns are struggling with the loss of both a once booming industry – fishing in Lowestoft or Grimsby, bucket-and-spade tourism in Skegness or Scarborough – for others, it’s prosperity itself that is the problem.

“Don’t feed the locals; they bite,” read the handwritten sign by a pretty Cornish cove this summer, where holidaymakers were spreading towels around fishing boats drawn up on the shingle. A joke, though only just; second homers and wealthy retirees have long monopolised the prettier bits of Devon and Cornwall, and this year’s holiday feeding frenzy saw reports of landlords evicting long-term local tenants in order to cash in on renting to tourists via Airbnb. A post-Covid exodus of Londoners realising that remote working allows them to earn a city wage from the seaside, meanwhile, risks breeding resentment among priced-out locals along the Kent and Sussex coasts. But these tales of loss aren’t the only ones to be told, as a staycation summer gives fading seaside glories one last chance to reintroduce themselves.

Recently I had some time to kill in Bangor, Gwynedd, although that’s a story for another day. Someone kindly showed me around its botanic gardens, a hidden delight known only to local dog walkers, where luscious fresh passion fruits grow under glass. The town’s high street has arguably seen better days, but it has a lovely pier reaching out towards Anglesey, and for 50p you can spend as long as you like watching the tide come in through the gaps in the boards beneath your feet. There’s a cafe serving rhubarb crumble ice cream, but I was drawn to a line of plaques along the railing, mostly marking departed loved ones, including one for “Florence Magdalen Feasey, who swam the Menai Strait in 1929 aged 15 years.”

There is no mention of a spouse or children; either Florence never married, or rather thrillingly, that one great adventure was the way she chose to be defined. (The crossing from the Welsh mainland to Anglesey is less than a mile but notoriously dangerous, with fast running tides and swirling whirlpools.) Whoever she was, Florence must have been fearless.

And that’s what British seaside towns excel at: surprises. They’re all about the unexpected, the quirky, even the subversive; places for mooching around and stumbling across things, boasting a certain indomitable spirit born of constantly having to think of stuff to do in the rain. And that makes them natural wellsprings of creativity. (It’s probably no coincidence that the maybe-Banksys have appeared just as Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are jointly bidding to become the 2025 UK City of Culture; art’s role in economic regeneration is not to be underestimated, given the Tracey Emin effect in Margate further down the east coast.)

British seaside towns may never realistically trump the Med as places to spend a sun-soaked fortnight. But they could make perfect short breaks for Britons in a climate-conscious era in which jetting off to Rome or Paris for the weekend feels too wanton, and their residents deserve better than a future oscillating wildly between unsustainable property booms and crumbling neglect.

Two years ago, a select committee report on regenerating seaside towns highlighted the success of Seaminster, a once-shabby resort that learned to make a virtue of its “romance and its grit”, after recognising that behind the tatty amusement arcades and stink of seaweed lay a place of “creativity, unconventionality and misrule”. A journalist who had grown up there was enlisted to promote it. A music festival, film-making co-operative, fast broadband and sustainable energy projects did their bit. Someone even built a sauna on a beach. The only snag, the committee admitted, was that Seaminster was fictional; it had completely made it up. But like the maybe-Banksys, if it was fake it was strangely convincing; a glimpse of what could happen given enough imagination. And who doesn’t long for them both to be real?

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