Did you spend your childhood holidays cooped up in wooden beach huts, eating sausage sandwiches with added sand, riding donkeys and taking afternoon strolls down windswept promenades to buy an ice-cream when the rain eased off? And did you stop doing this when a week in Malaga became the same price as a week in Blackpool? You are not alone. In the past 20 years, holidaymakers, or “grockles” as they are known in the South-west, have voted with their feet and jetted off for sunnier climes. But the image of the British seaside resort is about to change.
From Morecambe’s new statue of its most famous son, comedian Eric Morecambe, to Margate’s masterplan by top architect Terry Farrell, seaside towns are setting about reinventing themselves. And the local authorities are being aided in their ambitions by a clutch of regeneration funds. Government, lottery and European money is now being funnelled into these once-proud resorts and harbours as well as into inland inner cities.
The fate of coastal towns has also attracted the notice of the government. Last week, culture secretary Chris Smith accompanied tourism minister Janet Anderson on a fact-finding visit to Great Yarmouth to highlight the need to attract more lottery funding to seaside resorts. Anderson is also touring Blackpool, Scarborough, Minehead and Newquay to gather information on how flagging resorts can find new ways to attract visitors. Last week, regeneration minister Hilary Armstrong announced £172m in Single Regeneration Budget funding for 35 coastal towns.
Once upon a time, the colour, glamour and clean air of places such as Blackpool and Folkestone were an escape from the smog and poor living conditions of London, Leeds and Manchester. Peter Hampson, director of the British Resorts Association, explains: “The bottom line is that people used to go to the seaside because home was so awful and staying in someone’s house with an inside loo was a novelty. Blackpool and the illuminations were all about electric lights before they were in every home. But living standards have improved, so people’s expectations have grown. Resorts have to be at least as good as home to make them worth visiting.”
As a result, strategies and joint ventures are forming up and down the country to make seaside resorts a cut above the average city or provincial town. For example, the Civic Trust is joining forces with the South-west regional development agency to revamp coastal and market towns in the area. It will start with six pilot projects, and the trust will work with the promoters to help them get the projects off the ground as well as take advantage of the extra funding. “Seaside infrastructure is hundreds of years old and costs an arm and a leg to prop up. Now, with lottery money and the decentralisation of governments, a broader look is being taken,” says Paul Davies, head of the Civic Trust Regeneration Unit.
A quick glance across the country shows a number of projects of varying scales in the pipeline. Torbay has received Objective Two funding which the council is deciding how to use. In the north, Objective Two funding is beginning to make a difference in Southport and Blackpool.
Apart from chasing funds, coastal towns are also investigating ways of putting themselves back on the map. Weymouth can no longer attract royalty – it was a favourite of George III – but it hopes to make a name for itself as a centre of sailing excellence. FaulknerBrowns is to design a £6m sailing academy in the bay.
Becoming a flagship in the design world is another strategy to lift a flagging resort. East Kent council has decided that Margate needs a serious facelift to raise it beyond the “kiss-me-quick” cliché. Terry Farrell & Partners has come up with a masterplan for the old part of the town that includes a £10m arts complex, the Turner Centre, for which the Kent Architecture Centre will launch a design competition in the early autumn. “We’re looking for a world-class exciting design that will enhance Margate’s charms but signifies that it wants to be at the forefront of development,” says Barry Shaw, the centre’s chief executive.
The British weather that drives so many holidaymakers to sunnier climes abroad means that towns have to come up with things for visitors to do when poor weather keeps them off the beach. The Tate Gallery in St Ives is one example of what can be achieved, and Shaw hopes that Margate’s Turner Centre will be just as successful. “The building needs to be architecturally intellectual but it must also appeal to people sitting on the beach who would like to go in and have a coffee,” he says.
Big-name architects will not drive out the iconic design features of a typical resort, but Victorian bandstands, benches and parks, like the Lower Pleasure Gardens in Bournemouth, are a considerable draw on funds for small authorities: although well used by visitors, they don’t in themselves bring in any revenue. “If you have a population of 80 000 and 20 000 wiggly wrought iron benches, that is a great cost, and you can’t charge fees for sitting on them,” says the British Resorts Association’s Hampson.
There are success stories on the British seaside. Brighton and Bournemouth are currently vying for position as the rave capital of the south. Two years ago, Bournemouth reinvented itself as “BoMo” and advertised its attractions on buses in Brighton. Certainly, the Dorset resort has lost its “Costa Geriatrica” image.
The local university has expanded, bringing in streams of young people attracted by the bars, clubs and restaurants. The town square has recently been remodelled to include a café with a patio for al-fresco cappuccinos. Brighton is also attracting new clubs and plenty of developments.
The smaller towns may find it more difficult than Brighton and Bournemouth to attract investment from large companies, but, once the funding filters through, there could be a new era in which seaside resorts are once again a draw because they are so much more fun, glamorous and interesting than the city – or a cheap week by a concrete pool in Estepona.