A 21st-century view of a beach, with seas defences, a promenade with tall sculptures in the shape of dune grass and Blackpool tower.
The stepped sea defences at Blackpool and new promenade protect the town, but also entertain visitors with accompanying giant blades of ‘dune grass’. © Historic England Archive, photographer comment Steve Cole, image reference DP154540
The stepped sea defences at Blackpool and new promenade protect the town, but also entertain visitors with accompanying giant blades of ‘dune grass’. © Historic England Archive, photographer comment Steve Cole, image reference DP154540

The Seafront: Exploring the Seaside's Shop Window

Millions of people will visit the seafront of a favourite resort this summer, where they can relax, play and perhaps over indulge.

A new Historic England book discusses the familiar buildings, activities and sights of seaside resorts, but it also explores the mundane, the unnoticed and the unseen dimensions of the seafront, a space that is both familiar, yet also waiting to be discovered.

Sea bathing

Although we were often taught that the Victorians invented the train, and set out to create the seaside resort, in fact our love affair with the seaside originated a century earlier.

During the early 18th century Scarborough was at the forefront of the new fad of sea bathing, alongside Margate, Brighton and Liverpool. The initial reason for going to the seaside was in search of improved health by sea bathing, taking the air and drinking sea water, much as people were already doing when using mineral waters at spas, including the one on the seafront at Scarborough.

To make money from the sea, doctors and local businessmen came up with the bathing machine. This was a wooden cart with a canopy behind to hide bathers from public view; it was dragged into the sea while the bather was undressing. This remained the most common way to gain access to the sea for almost 200 years, but over time the etiquette of sea bathing changed as did the facilities. During the 18th century many seaside resorts also offered seafront bathhouses, which contained small individual baths. The oldest survival at the English seaside is Quebec House near the harbour in Portsmouth, which dates from 1754.

By the late 19th century many resorts also provided swimming pools and by the mid-20th century lidos and open-air pools were commonplace at seaside resorts, where sitting around enjoying the sun, relaxing and being seen was as important as trying to improve one's health by bathing in the sea.

Tourism on the seafront

Scientists and doctors recommended that sea bathing was most effective if it was carried out during the morning, but this left the rest of the day free for people to enjoy themselves.

In the 18th century the social life of seaside resorts was based largely around circulating libraries, assembly rooms and the theatre.

By the 19th century pleasure piers and the music hall had been added to the mix and by the early 20th century new technologies were allowing visitors to enjoy cinemas and hair-raising rides on rollercoasters. While sea bathing inevitably had to take place on the seafront, entertainment facilities were also focused there as this was where most visitors congregated.

The advent of mass tourism during the 19th century, after the arrival of steamers and particularly as the railway network grew, saw seaside resorts adapting and expanding to cater for hundreds of thousands and, in the case of the largest resorts, millions of visitors every year. The modest-sized seafront facilities of 1800 had been almost totally transformed by 1900. The polite, intimate and sociable Georgian entertainment facilities were replaced, or in some cases dwarfed by, industrial-scale entertainment complexes such as winter gardens and the literal pinnacle of the English seaside , the Blackpool Tower complex.

As well as being the focus for health and entertainment, the seafront was a place to stay and live. Lining it in the 18th century would have been a series of small, haphazard houses, the homes of local people, fishermen and seamen. These were gradually superseded by larger houses in which holidaymakers took lodging rooms, as well as by hotels and flats, while at the periphery of resorts, holiday camps and caravan sites sprang up.

The practical life of the seafront

Seafronts have to be practical places, allowing access to the sea yet at the same time preventing the sea from engulfing the resort town behind.

At Blackpool, in the central part of the resort, a stepped form of sea defence with projecting headlands was chosen to replace the town’s outdated Victorian seawalls. The steps reduce the energy of the waves while also providing a great place to sit and look out to sea. Contoured earth banks and long concrete seats seek to prevent most overflows from the sea reaching the new tramlines.

The practical dimension of the seafront also includes everyday things like the provision of sewers, electricity, roads, a tram line in the case of Blackpool and sometimes a railway line to bring visitors to and from the resort. To cater for tourists, a wide range of mundane facilities have to be provided, including benches, bins and toilets.

Seafront shelters offer welcome respite from rain and wind and it was in one such shelter at Margate in 1921 that while recuperating, TS Eliot wrote lines for his epic poem ‘The Waste Land’.

While we primarily think of the seafront as a place for leisure and pleasure, it also has to work for a coastal town's wider economy, and not just its tourist economy. For instance, it has to support fishing through the provision of lifeboat stations, lighthouses and coastguard stations. As well as being the base for beach-launched fishing fleets, seafronts are sometimes the home to large harbours, working facilities that also serve as colourful destinations for a tourist stroll.

Over the centuries, easy access to the sea was a vulnerability at times of war.

Many seafronts are still home to military defences created to protect the country from continental foes, ranging from the substantial fortifications constructed by Henry VIII, through Martello Towers designed to deter Napoleon, and World War II pillboxes.

A civic and cultural space

The seafront is also key to the identity of a seaside resort and it is often the town’s main civic space.

It offers an area for events and provides a home for memorials to people lost at sea and commemorations of the townspeople who gave their lives to defend this country. At St Annes in Lancashire, a tribute depicting a lifeboatman looking out to sea was placed in the gardens on the seafront close to the pier, while on the seafront at Weymouth there is a series of war memorials, including the town’s main Cenotaph.

In recent years artists have found the seafront to be an inspiring space for new and challenging artworks. There is perhaps none more iconic than Antony Gormley’s atmosphericAnother Place’, on the beach at Crosby, where over 300 years ago the local landowner Nicholas Blundell and his family first bathed in the sea, one of the earliest recorded examples of this in England.

Most iconic, unless you include Eric Morecambe’s statue at Morecambe, a site of modern pilgrimage for fans.

The seafront today

The original natural form of the seafront has been transformed by the construction of defences to deal with rising sea levels and storms resulting from climate change. In the wake of enlarged sea defences are coming new facilities and novel attractions. In some resorts beaches have been replenished with sand and some have new and rejuvenated gardens that discretely incorporate walls to defend the town behind from the sea.

The seafront is complex and expensive to create and maintain; it has to meet many varied demands and it has to cater for many different types of user and customer.

To do this, it has had to evolve constantly over the past 200 to 300 years as the tastes and the interests of visitors have changed. It has had to adapt to new technologies, and while this has undoubtedly been a challenge, it has also provided new reasons for visiting the seaside.

About the author

Allan Brodie FSA

Allan investigates buildings ranging from Roman forts through medieval churches and Georgian prisons to Art Deco airport terminals. He is a leading historian of tourism in Britain and has published many books and papers on the subject.

Further information

Brodie, A 2018 The Seafront. Swindon: Historic England