It's the place people dream of, an oasis at the end of a long, hot drive. It's a place where many spend their precious vacation days, somewhere one can forget about their troubles and just be a kid again. Many of us have memories of a seaside holiday and while the location is the same, trends, attire and snacks have changed over the years. Welcome to the Seaside!
With the invention and availability of the private motorcar, the concept of ‘day tripping’ became reality for millions of people. Vastly increased mobility made the enjoyment of a ‘day at the beach’ no longer dependent upon train schedules and heavy suitcases laden down for a week’s stay.
Seaside piers have a checkered history. In England, many piers were first seen as garish monstrosities, overbearing forms that cluttered the landscape. Today, people look back at the Victorian era developments and appreciate the fancy ironwork and nostalgia associated with such man-made structures. A few centuries ago, doctors started touting the benefits of sea air and waters for personal health. It was well known in the seventeenth century, for example, that ‘taking the waters’ from natural springs was apparently the cure-all for malaise, infection, infertility and a host of other unpleasant ailments. Once a pleasure reserved only for the wealthy, the seaside pier later encouraged people of all classes to come and enjoy a day by the sea, away from the grime and soot of industrial air pollution that clogged so many large cities.
The Victorians were straight-laced people, with decorum and modesty being at the heart of everything they did. As such, they developed bathing machines, wheeled carts akin to miniature covered wagons pulled out into the sea by burly men, strong horses or cables powered by a steam engine (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bathing_machine). Inside these contraptions would be the self-conscious women who changed into their bathing costumes inside the privacy of the bathing machine. When the door was opened, they only had to take a couple of steps down and they were in the sea. Needless to say, the bathing costumes in the Victorian and Edwardian eras were far different from those we see on beaches today. Back in the early days, women wore head to toe woolen suits which inevitably got quite heavy after an excursion into the water. As times progressed, swimming costume sleeves and trouser legs got shorter, until we ended up with the bathing suits of today that tend to leave an astonishingly paltry amount to the imagination.
Entertainment and Food
By 1910, England boasted nearly 100 ‘pleasure piers’ on its coast. Entertainment was in great demand and even more rides, arcades, snack stalls and other adornments appeared on them. Some piers even had concerts and shows; one 1880s location showcased a switchback railway that ran the length of the pier. Today it’s not uncommon to walk along modern piers and see some form of ferris wheel, retro arcade, umpteen snack kiosks, acrobats, clowns and more. Walking along the pier will undoubtedly be scented by an array of holiday snacks: candy floss, flavored shaved ice, sweets, soft-serve ice cream with a thick stick of chocolate, colored marshmallows and gummies, corn dogs, nachos with mega toppings and more. This fair-like atmosphere is all consuming, including the apparent call to leave diets at home while enjoying the sights and sounds. Enterprising sea gulls know how to steal an ice cream from an unsuspecting tourist. Sneaky con artists know how to scam money out of visitors with the latest trickery. Hold onto your purse; pickpockets often ply their trade after dark when colored lights distract enthralled holiday makers.
Those seeking a cheaper holiday don’t use the pier’s amusements. Free fun is always plentiful in the form of sandcastle building, collecting shells, arranging seaweed and watching sand crabs dodge father’s feet. Super lucky children get a donkey ride along the beach plus a sugary treat to keep them awake during the drive home. Today’s beaches are filled with brightly colored umbrellas, toys and store-bought sandwiches, contrasting sharply with the later 1940s when somber black bathing costumes along with homemade toys and food were brought along in the boot of every family’s car.
Regardless of budget, the word ‘pier’ and ‘seaside’ bring to mind the sights and smells of the vast ocean. All holidayers imagine those long, hot days of summer when the waves crash into the sandy shore, delighting tiny toddlers under the watchful eye of their weary parents. Millions have fond memories of day trips to the beach with their families After becoming teenagers, they sat beside beach bonfires at night with other young adults from the local college. As adults, they’d bring their own young families to the seaside for some much needed R&R, thus bringing the seaside holiday full circle.
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Collyer, D.G., “Taking the Waters at Deal and Walmer”, Bygone Kent magazine, Volume 22, Number 7, Meresborough Books, Kent, England, 2001.
Easdown, M., “Kent’s Forgotten Pleasure Pier”, Bygone Kent magazine, Volume 22, Number 6, Meresborough Books, Kent, England, 2001.