It's been a summer of staycations. Sticks of multicoloured rock in sticky cellophane wrap, burning hot chips and the steamy tang of vinegar in the cold salty air, sandy feet and dripping ice creams and the tinny music of the arcades, warming up with a hot cuppa from a polystyrene cup and dodging the swooping seagulls; there will be very few British adults with whom these quintessential seaside memories fail to resonate.
Or perhaps I should specify; there won’t be many adults over the age of 35 with whom that doesn’t resonate - because for many of those fortunate, flexible, energetic souls who sit below that line, a normal family holiday was maybe something a little more exotic. Nowadays we call it a ‘staycation’- choosing to stay within our home country rather than travel abroad - but in the 1950s a relatively local seaside break was really the only kind of holiday on option for the vast majority of families; and a very good one it was too. During our research for the Solent and the Limited Edition Dart, we delved into both our own and the nation’s memories and experiences of not just the open ocean, but the shorelines which mark the boundaries between land and sea.
Whether it was an occasional trip to Brighton or a yearly pilgrimage to Margate, a white-sand beach in the Outer Hebrides or a school trip to Morecambe, the Great British seaside holiday has been part of most Brits’ lives since the conclusion of WW2. And by jove, it’s made a comeback. Just last week, Cornwall put out a plea for holidaymakers to seek out an alternative holiday base, with its beaches, restaurants and streets swarmed with post-lockdown sunseekers desperate to recapture that ‘holiday feeling’ without navigating the convoluted Covid travel system required to escape the UK. Pale, weary individuals, burnt-out couples, exhausted families and buzzing groups of friends have booked up just about every hotel, B&B, cottage and caravan along the diverse coastline of this beautiful island we call home, desperate for some sun, sea air and a change of scenery.
While people have, of course, holidayed by the sea for many generations, the British seaside holiday phenomenon truly took off in the 1950s. Nearly half-a-million British people had died in World War II, so many families had been torn apart or altered forever, with no community left untouched. Many survivors bore the physical and mental scars of war, and rationing and basic living conditions had taken their toll on everybody. The early 1950s saw a period of fresh hope for the British people; the NHS was formed, revolutionising and transforming public health, and there was a focus on improving education, transport and quality of life for all. In addition, the Holiday Pay Act 1938 meant that people could take paid leave and go on holiday. Never before had everyone needed a break quite so badly; and we think we had it bad with a couple of lockdowns.
So it was with huge excitement that people began to venture outside of their homes and towns once more; to come together on windswept boardwalks and golden sands, to eat and drink and be merry, to laugh and relax after a particularly dark period in our people’s history. It wasn’t long before holiday parks such as Pontins and Butlins were springing up. Families would travel by coach to the camp and be greeted by staff (red coats for Butlins, blue for Pontins) and would be served three good meals a day in a communal dining hall filled with chatter. All activities, including a swimming pool, fairground, cinema and roller skating, were free - and you can imagine what utter heaven this would be for a child (and, indeed, an adult) who had endured years of wartime fear, rationing and sadness. Families were able to laugh together, to rebuild bonds, to begin to heal and to reacquaint with relatives from around our shores.
Seafood shacks sold cockles and whelks in paper cones, cafes with Formica tables served fish and chips with bread and butter and hot tea, while children clamoured for ice cream and candyfloss. There were donkey rides on the beach, crazy golf, dodgems and strings of shops selling buckets and spades, plastic windmills and flags with which to adorn one’s sandcastle. It was the Golden Age of the British seaside. There are, of course, some quintessential seaside towns and resorts which remain to delight their visitors to this day, but more recently - for the families fortunate enough to be able to afford them - a true ‘beach holiday’ has often come to mean boarding a flight to a foreign country; perhaps to an all-inclusive resort in Spain, or to the glamour of the Maldives, or to sip from coconuts in Thailand. For my generation, the thirty-somethings, it was very common for us to holiday with our gaggles of friends in beachside resorts, sunbathing the days away and clubbing the nights away (a long distant memory, as I type with a toddler on one knee). The holiday options are as diverse as the people taking them; and, for a while, the British seaside became a ‘second choice’ destination for many. Perhaps it was too cold, too grey, too wild, too rocky; or just too normal. The lure of tepid turquoise waters and beachside cocktails was too strong for many of us, and the travel industry boomed like never before as we jetted off around the globe.
So long as we were beside the sea, we were happy - but it sure was nice to get a good tan and be able to swim for more than two minutes without turning blue too. Then came Covid, and with it, a total lockdown on all non-essential travel for the British people. Holidays were cancelled and the nation hunkered down at home, through winter and spring until a brief, glorious and very temporary release for those fortunate enough to not be shielding in the summer of 2020. Then back we went, in a slow decline, into another lockdown. The vaccine was many people’s ticket out of isolation and home imprisonment once again, and slowly but surely we are now seeing the nation beginning to reopen; we can eat inside, we can visit friends and family, and we have just this past week returned to work in offices. But our holiday plans have, for the vast majority of people, stayed firmly domestic. Our enforced time spent on British soil, primarily in our houses, has for many reawakened an appreciation and love for the diverse array of holiday destinations that sit just a few hours’ drive from our own front doors; and our favourite location for such a break, by far, is beside the sea.
What is it that keeps us humans flocking to the nearest ocean, generation after generation? What is that pull that we feel? Of course, there are some who are scared of the ocean; of its vast depths, or perhaps what lurks beneath the surface, but most of us - most of humanity, in fact, since the dawn of time - are drawn to the water’s edge. Indeed, we came from the water; our ancient ancestors evolved from swimming to crawling to walking upright. Even now, human foetuses have gill-like structures called pharyngeal slits which, in fish, go on to develop into gills, and in humans form the jaw bones and ears. We spend on average 9 months growing in our mothers’ wombs, suspended in a watery embrace which echoes with the whooshing, rhythmic sound of her blood flow and her breathing. Perhaps this is why we feel so soothed by the ocean; by its weightless embrace as we float, by the unending swoosh and rumble of waves on the shore. It makes sense that we should have a natural connection to the water beyond just an embryonic fondness; our planet is largely composed of water. Ocean plankton provides more than half of our planet’s oxygen. Water covers more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface; more than 95 percent of those waters have yet to be explored. From one million miles away, our planet resembles a blue marble. “How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean”, author Arthur C. Clarke once commented. It’s estimated that 80% of the population lives within 60 miles of the coastline of an ocean, lake or river. Two thirds of the global economy is derived from activities that involve water in some form. Approximately a billion people worldwide rely primarily on water-based sources of protein; and it’s very likely that consumption of Omega-3 oils from eating fish and shellfish played a crucial role in the evolution of the human brain.
Our relationship with water runs deeper than facts and figures and economics. There exists a controversial and developing theory- that early humans were ‘aquatic apes’. Many, including David Attenborough, have supported this. The theory says that early man lived near and in food-rich water bodies ,and this is why we learnt to walk upright, to keep our heads above water. We lack fur, have big brains and subcutaneous fat layers, common traits among aquatic animals, but traits which set us apart from other mammals. Our large sinuses we have means larger spaces between our cheeks, nose and forehead, which contributed to our buoyancy. Also, without Omega 3 rich fatty acids found only in seaweeds, we couldn’t possibly have developed the brains we have. Humans’ sea-centric existence also served as a means of avoiding predators. Coastal dwellers managed to see enemies or predators approaching from a distance. This is how early forms of kayaking came into existence; instead of moving across land, humans simply learnt to build simple structures to move across water bodies, able to avoid marine predators by moving onto shore, and to avoid dry-land-based predators by sticking close to the sea; truly embracing the best of both worlds.
Harvard University biologist Edward Wilson coined the term “biophilia” in the 1980s, describing the hypothesis that humans have a genetic and instinctive bond with nature. Because we have spent the vast majority of our history - three million years and over 100,000 generations - living outside (before we started forming communities of houses and building cities) we are accustomed to being in nature. When you consider all of these factors together, it’s no surprise that, when we want to de-stress and reconnect with ourselves, many of us choose to do so at the seaside.
And it’s not all pastel beach huts, waltzers and chips; many of the nation’s favourite seaside spots are far wilder, and up until recently, remained the guarded secret of the locals. One of my favourite places is on the North East coast of Scotland; a beach accessible only via a steep scramble down a treacherous hillside, littered with rock pools which bristle with life and often a seal or two for company; all set beneath the magnificent ruins of Dunnottar castle. The rocky outcrop itself was formed 440 million years ago, played host to Pictish settlers in the 3rd century, with the castle and its generations of occupants surviving Viking attacks in the 9th century and being captured by William Wallace in 1297. There’s a huge, black-mouthed cave filled with bats who swoop out en masse with no warning at twilight each night. Another favourite of mine is a spot up in Findhorn, where the North Sea meets the River Findhorn with a clash of duelling, swirling currents, surrounded by beautiful golden sand formations carved by the waves and towering lines of pine trees. The resident clan of seals can often be spotted dipping and diving off the shore, their songs echoing across the bay when it’s quiet and still. It’s a magical place, and though I have been fortunate to travel across the globe and to set foot on many beautiful beaches, I don’t know anywhere else like it; to the point that my daughter’s middle name is Selkie, named for the mythical Scottish seal-woman whose song could be heard from the shoreline - or so the story goes. Fanciful, perhaps, but that’s the effect that the sea has on me, and many. Gazing out at the vast expanse of water, towards the horizon, it’s easy to forget all sense of time and place; you could be anywhere, at any point in history, and thousands if not millions of people have stood and taken in that exact same view; taking in lungfuls of sea air, taking a moment, just as you are.
Post-lockdown travel has seen many beauty spots become overcrowded, marred with litter and the remains of campfires, as previously remote and pristine natural pools and beaches have been discovered by water-lusting Brits. It used to be that, if you were lucky enough to find yourself at the Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye for example, you’d be alone to enjoy the crystal clear pools and waterfalls in peace. Now, crowds of tourists gather there daily, to swim and ‘dook’ and share their delight on social media, luring more and more visitors in with every click. The North Coast 500, the 500+ mile route around the North coast of Scotland, has seen more traffic than ever before over the last couple of years, with locals dismayed at the amount of damage which comes with such heavy footfall on the riverbanks and beaches which make the route so stunningly beautiful. But can we blame these visitors? Should we resent those who live in landlocked towns and cities for answering the call of the wild, for falling in love again with the magnificent shorelines of Great Britain? My short answer is no. While I, of course, wish that every visitor would be respectful of the environment and leave without a trace, I will never resent people loving this beautiful country as much as they do and wanting to visit it; because it’s only natural. Our nation’s coastlines and oceans have offered us space to breathe, to unwind, to regroup and reflect during an incredibly challenging time during this pandemic - just as they did for early man, for generation after generation as we shaped and moulded this planet, after the war, and just as they will time and time again.
I am sure, as Covid becomes a more manageable part of everyday life in the UK, we will board planes once more and holiday in far flung places, experiencing the glorious smorgasbord of experiences that this planet has to offer; a privilege afforded to us by the planet-altering dawn of the jet age in the 1950s, with its unprecedented technological glitz and glamour. It’s an era deserving of its own journal entry, and maybe something a little more solid as a means of tribute... but that’s something for another time. What I do know is that, regardless of how white and fine the sand is, unswayed by turquoise shallows and coral reefs, we will always come home to our British shores with the same fondness and gratitude that we have always had; and as long as our blue planet exists, the seas will be there, ebbing and flowing, waiting to welcome us.
“You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.” - Alan Watts