It’s fair to say that I do love to be beside the seaside and living in Scarborough I find myself in the privileged position of being able to walk on the beach almost every day. Tides permitting a morning play on South Bay is how the dog and I like to start our day. There’s always spectacular views to enjoy no matter the weather and I don’t think many places can boast of being bookmarked by a heritage garden at one end and a castle at the other.

I still remember the thrill of our annual family trip to Mablethorpe when I was a child, living in a land locked part of Lincolnshire it was the highlight of the year and it seems that a visit to the seaside is still a shared delight for many Brits with around 15 million domestic trips to our coastal resorts recorded in 2019 alone.

Recent curbs in foreign travel indicate that numbers of British visitors to coastal areas are set to sore this summer but where did our passion for a paddle and a bag of sand encrusted chips begin? And how did a trip to the beach evolve to include donkey rides, crazy golf and 2p slot machines?  

To deduce the answers we have to travel back to the Victorian era when a trend for sea bathing saw the birth of the first seaside resort in our very own town. The discovery of the Spa waters with their purported health benefits propelled a fashion for the wealthy and well to do to visit the town and it wasn’t long until a dip in the sea was added as a remedy from a wild variety of ailments from rabies to melancholy.

Of course this wasn’t sea swimming as we know it today, in fact it was quite an arduous affair particularly for women who were expected to uphold high standards of modesty which saw the beach crowded with horse drawn bathing machines. After boarding these contraptions on land and slipping into a full body bathing suit made of heavy wool the swimmer was drawn into the water so that they might bath in isolation. No such decorum was shown by the gents who until 1860 when the practice was banned on public beaches often bathed in the buff though they were segregated from the ladies view.  Over time beach huts replaced cumbersome bathing machines and unlike their wheeled sibling these static structures have remained an enduring favourite feature of seaside towns around the country Scarborough being no exception. 

Though Scarborough’s journey to being a holiday hotspot saw it start out as a playground for the rich the road to it becoming the most visited place outside of London was boosted by the arrival of the rail network which allowed working people the chance to enjoy a day out. Where there are people there is money to be made and Victorian innovation soon saw all kinds of entertainment and attractions added to the seaside experience.

The first recorded donkey rides were in Bridlington in 1895 but quickly gained popularity elsewhere, whilst fish and chips originated in London but fast became a staple food for seaside tourists due to being a cheap and easy to eat alternative to carting a picnic about.  Yorkshire was the birth place of another seaside staple the stick of rock, it was invented by Burnley confectioner Ben Bullock in 1887 and who hasn’t taken one of these sugary delights home as a gift or souvenir?

What else did the Victorians ever do for our seaside resorts? Well they invented the deckchair, the ice-cream cone (also known as a hokey pokey back then) popularised sand castle building and developed the Punch and Judy show all set to become staples of the seaside experience for generations to come.

Scarborough also saw the creation and growth of the Spa complex, in its day the most popular music hall outside of the Capital, the Grand Hall alone can seat almost 2000 people and its resident orchestra who still play regular concerts on the Sun Court throughout summer are the last remaining professional seaside orchestra in the country.

Of course not all things popular in Victorian times remained in fashion, taking the Spa waters is no longer done and the popular pastime of promenading, which was extremely important to the wealthy Victorian visitor, fell from favour as people from all walks of life came to enjoy the town.

We can’t give the Victorians all of the credit for the modern seaside experience either, some of our favourite pastimes came a little later, for instance South Cliff has Scarborough’s oldest pitch and putt green, it opened in 1925 and it’s still  popular with visitors today. It’s crazy cousin hails from across the Atlantic where James Barber of North Carolina decided to jazz up his putting green with some special features. As for amusement arcades though the first confirmed purpose built one appeared in Great Yarmouth in 1902 it wasn’t until the 1930’s that they had become a mainstay of coastal resorts but it would be hard to imagine the front at night without their illuminations now and what else would we do with all those stored up coppers?  

Let’s raise a chip to our ancestors in appreciation of their influence on our seaside experience. Whilst I’m not sure they would approve of our choice of swimwear I think they would be happy that Scarborough is still treasured by so many people to this day. 

Gemma Alexander – South Cliff Gardens Community Engagement Officer


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