A small tourist train passing along Brighton seafront.

Volk’s Electric Railway in Brighton, the oldest electrically- driven railway service still in use in the world, got its power from the third rail running between the main rails. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Peter Williams, image reference DP153079.
Volk’s Electric Railway in Brighton, the oldest electrically- driven railway service still in use in the world, got its power from the third rail running between the main rails. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Peter Williams, image reference DP153079.

The Serious Business of Holidaymaking

How tourism helped to transform the British Isles.

Historic sites ranging from Blackpool Tower and Buckingham Palace to Stonehenge and a cottage in the Cotswolds all play a part in one of Britain’s most important industries, namely tourism. A new book published by Historic England about tourism in the British Isles describes some of the places that have welcomed visitors over the centuries and in the process were transformed by their presence.

The origins of tourism

Tourism in Britain can trace its origins back to the Middle Ages, when Britons travelled to pilgrimage sites such as Canterbury and Walsingham.

Travel was necessary to rule the country and to manage the estates of religious orders. A by-product of this was some inquisitive tourism, the most famous example being Gerald of Wales (about 1146–1223), who travelled on royal and church business in Wales and Ireland during the 1180s. His curiosity led him to visit churches and castles, but he also described the landscape, natural wonders and the habits and behaviours of the people he observed or was told about.

William Worcestre (about 1415 -1485) was an antiquarian with an interest in history, topography, geography and botany. However, during his travels around England he was principally concerned with architecture and was able to draw and describe complicated mouldings using detailed technical terms, suggesting a professional interest.

A black and white view of Canterbury looking towards Cathedral. W. & Co.
Canterbury Cathedral, seen here in about 1900, was England’s leading pilgrimage site during the Middle Ages. Source : Historic England Archive, image reference OP00525.

Georgian holidaymaking

The Reformation largely ended pilgrimage to religious sites and holy wells, but in place of spiritual healing came an interest in physical well-being through using mineral waters.

During the 16th century, Bath, Buxton, Knaresborough and Harrogate were the main destinations, but during the 17th century a growing interest in spa waters led to the development of new sources, including at Epsom, Tunbridge Wells and Scarborough.

By the 18th century Bath was being transformed into the spectacular Georgian city we enjoy today, with public and commercial buildings catering for visitors and high status residential developments to house those coming to take the waters. Smaller settlements such as Buxton, Cheltenham and Harrogate were also being embellished with grand terraces and crescents to accommodate visitors to their spas, assembly rooms and theatres.

Exterior of Georgian Spa buildings at Tunbridge Wells.
The Pantiles at Tunbridge Wells where Georgian visitors could enjoy drinking the water and visiting the assembly rooms and luxury shops. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Peter Williams, image reference AA011846

The spa town served as a model for the initial development of seaside resorts.

By the early 18th century medical writers and scientists had recognised that the sea could act as Britain’s bath and soon ordinary, if usually wealthy people were heading to the coast to wash away their ills. Scarborough already had the infrastructure of leisure in place as it had welcomed tourists to its spa since the 17th century, but other coastal towns, including Brighton, Hastings, Margate and Weymouth, had more basic facilities serving their resident population. Nevertheless, these proved sufficient initially to attract growing numbers of wealthy people to the seaside, ostensibly due to its health benefits but also because it was becoming the fashionable thing to do.

Where aristocrats led, royalty followed; George III and his son, the Prince Regent, both became seasonal residents, at Weymouth and Brighton, respectively by the end of the 18th century.

The humble houses once endured by early sea bathers seeking lodgings were replaced in these and other resorts by grand terraces and crescents, as well as the first hotels. Visitors expected to be entertained as well as accommodated, and as in spa towns a range of increasingly large and opulent assembly rooms, theatres and circulating libraries were built, a testimony to the popularity of the seaside.

An elegant Georgian crescent of buildings with a later pool.
Hesketh Crescent at Torquay, built in 1845-8, was the brainchild of the local landowner Sir Lawrence Palk. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Mike Hesketh Roberts, image reference DP001355.

Transport and tourism

By the early 19th century a limited form of mass tourism was beginning to appear as a result of more affordable travel.

This was initially by travelling on steamers to towns reached by heading down the Thames such as Margate and Ramsgate, as well as ‘doon the watter’ from the fast-growing city of Glasgow to resorts in the Clyde Estuary.

With the coming of the railways, Britain’s seaside resorts came to be open eventually to almost everyone. Affordable rail travel, in combination with increasing free time and emerging paid leave, would stimulate both the growth of seaside resorts and access to sports, the early development of professional football particularly benefiting from the new circumstances.

Technological improvements in transport went alongside new ways of marketing and packaging tourism. The modern package holiday owed its existence to pioneering ideas employed by steamship operators, as well as most famously by Thomas Cook.

Where steamers and trains had opened up towns to tourists, the bicycle, the motor car, the charabanc and the bus, increased access to the countryside.

Towns faced new pressures to adapt to forms of transport that did not concentrate visitors near railway stations. Instead they spread tourists throughout a settlement, prompting suburban and seafront development towards the edges of existing towns.

The popularity of the car soon led to congestion in resorts and the notorious bank holiday traffic jams on roads heading to the coast.

 During the interwar years it also led to the provision of the first purpose-built parking facilities.

A flat-roofed 1930s car park building.
The Talbot Road car park at Blackpool was constructed above a ground floor bus station in 1937-9. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Steve Cole, image reference DP119494.

Discovering Britain

Improved transport and increasing amounts of leisure time encouraged growing numbers of tourists to discover their home country, informed by affordable, portable guidebooks.

Growing numbers of intrepid travellers who once admired the nation’s agricultural achievements, by the 18th century they increasingly went in search of romantic, wild landscapes and picturesque natural beauty. These ranged from the Lake District of England and the Highlands of Scotland to curiosities such as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and Fingal’s Cave off the Scottish coast. A growing number of travellers also went in search of ancient and modern, man-made sites, ranging from Stonehenge and Avebury to contemporary architectural gems, such as Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth House.

A view of a harbour, with smaller boats and a ferry.
The harbour at Hugh Town on St Mary's in the Isles of Scilly connects the archipelago to the mainland via the Scillonian III, which is moored by the quay. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Mike Hesketh-Roberts, image reference DP085176.

People who might be intrigued by castles and ruined abbeys could equally be found recording visits in their diaries to the latest country houses, industrial sites and even to military barracks and prisons, an early manifestation of ‘dark’ tourism reflecting an interest in how the nation was changing in a period of rapid development.

An aerial view of a historic textile mile in a rural setting.
This 1947 aerial photograph shows the rural setting of Sir Richard Arkwright’s highly influential Cromford Mill in the Derwent valley, Derbyshire. © Historic England (Aerofilms Collection) Image reference EAW011494.

Initially these visits were on an ad hoc basis, the site being visited through negotiation with a prison governor, the gardener or the housekeeper. However, by the 19th century increasingly formal arrangements were being put in place for the growing number of visitors, and by the end of the century the National Trust had begun to collect sites to preserve them as well as to show them off. The Trust’s first purchase was a clifftop site in Wales in 1895, and in 1896 it bought its first house, Alfriston Clergy House in Sussex.

An aerial view of Dover Castle.
The Inner Bailey of Dover Castle has buildings that were used as barracks. The central Great Tower housed French prisoners of war during the mid-18th century. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Damian Grady, image reference NMR 27304/036.

The seaside for everybody

Although many people roamed the countryside or travelled to visit places of interest and attractions in towns and cities, the vast majority of people’s holiday time was spent at seaside resorts.

A black and white archive photograph of Blackpool seafront with the tower.
Blackpool Tower, which opened in 1894, was Britain’s tallest building when it opened in 1894. Soon after, the Alhambra opened beside it, seen to the left of the tower. W. & Co. Source: Historic England Archive, image reference OP00480.

By the early 20th century, seaside holidays began to come within the reach of almost everybody.

To cater for this demand, huge entertainment complexes and new forms of accommodation became necessary, particularly through the provision of holiday camps. Resorts exploited new technology and new materials to create buildings such as winter gardens, cinemas and rollercoasters.

A small tourist train passing along Brighton seafront.
Volk’s Electric Railway in Brighton, the oldest electrically- driven railway service still in use in the world, got its power from the third rail running between the main rails. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit Peter Williams, image reference DP153079.

Tourism today

Since the 1970s the number of people taking their main holidays at British seaside resorts has decreased. The reason most often cited is that holidaymakers deserted Britain and fled to the sunnier shores of the Mediterranean.

An Art Deco style airport terminal building.
Shoreham Airport Terminal Building, ( East Sussex), built in 1936 using contemporary Art Deco forms in 1936, brought tourists to the south coast but also took them abroad. © Historic England Archive, photographer credit James O. Davies, image reference DP054459.

This is undoubtedly true, but other reasons include the growing complexity of people’s lives, leading to greater flexibility in how they spend their disposable income on a growing range of activities and leisure pursuits: People can now visit theme parks or heritage sites, enjoy shopping trips, or be pampered at spa hotels. They may also attend sporting events, go on a retreat or perhaps try a parachute jump.

Britain has something to offer for every taste. Now the problem is often how to cater for huge numbers of visitors without ruining the very thing they came to see.

About the author

Allan Brodie FSA

Senior Investigator at Historic England

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 2019 Tourism and the changing face of Britain. Swindon: Historic England

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