Crowds at a beach-side punch and judy tent
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Seafront Surprises in England

Think of the seafront and you probably think of holidays, time on the beach, a dip in the sea.

The seafront – a place to sit, look at to sea, eat an ice cream, build a sand castle. But take a minute out from your hectic holiday and look around because there is a lot more to see on the seafront.

Think of the seafront and you probably think of holidays, time on the beach, a dip in the sea. Or perhaps, strolling along a pier or ‘enjoying’ a ride on a hair-raising rollercoaster.

But there is more to the seafront. It is a practical place, often the location of the town’s main sewers (thankfully well below ground) or the site of a railway line or a major road. It is a place of work; some resorts still have fishing boats that operate from the beach or a nearby harbour and it is often a coastal town’s main public space, where civic gatherings and commemorations take place.

So here are a few things to look out for when you need a break from a busy round of relaxing.

Southsea Hoverport – A Ticket to Ryde (apologies to John and Paul)

The seafront at Southsea has a surprise in store – the beach is one of only two places now in England, where your relaxation might be disturbed by the sudden appearance of hovercraft, the other place inevitably being at Ryde on the other side of the Solent.

The arrival of the Southsea hovercraft still turns heads today © Historic England DP196971

A hovercraft service across the Solent began operating from Stokes Bay to Ryde on 24 July 1965, the first in the world, but soon the mainland departure point became centred on the seafront at Southsea.

Once seen as the transport of the future, this is now the sole route operating in England, the monumental hovercraft that once crossed the channel having long since gone into retirement.

Lest we Forget

These three photographs show the town’s First World War memorial contributing to the spectacle of the annual Blackpool Illuminations © Historic England DP129894, DP129895, DP129896

Within touching distance of the hoverport at Southsea is one of a dozen or so war memorials lining the seafront. This is a reflection of the town’s long historic association with the Royal Navy, but all around the country there are seafronts where cenotaphs and war memorials are important parts of the lives of these coastal towns.

War memorials, dating back to the mid-19th century commemorate successive conflicts, but perhaps the most spectacular seafront example is adjacent to the North Pier at Blackpool. Constructed in 1923, this obelisk is almost 100 feet high. It was designed by the Lancashire architect Ernest Prestwich, with carved reliefs by Gilbert Ledward. This memorial cost £17,000 and is reputed to have been funded from the profits of the Tramways Department.

Islands in the sea


Towan Island at Newquay is a great place to escape from the resort’s busy beach, while still enjoying the wonderful view out to sea © Historic England DP196915

At a number of seaside resorts around the coast, islands can be seen from the seafront. At the north end of Weston-super-Mare, Birnbeck Island is now linked to the mainland by a seaside pier constructed by the famous Victorian pier engineer Eugenius Birch (opened 1867). One of the most dramatic islands at a seaside resort is at Newquay, where a suspension bridge links Towan Island to the mainland. This allows the inhabitants of its single house an unrivalled sense of privacy in the heart of a busy seaside resort, often filled with surfers in search of the big wave.

When is a sea wall, not a sea wall?

Answer – when it is sloped, curved and stepped!

The seaside resorts we love to visit each year owe their continued survival to elaborate modern sea walls and sea defences. Looking from the beach back to the town can be seen monumental stone and concrete walls and stepped defences designed to prevent the sea from flooding the town. Look closer and you will see that these are actually complicated historical structures, the modern layers of concrete often overlaid over earlier stone walls.

Vestiges of Blackpool’s earlier sea defences in the form of a sloping revetment have been preserved alongside and behind the modern stepped defences © Historic England DP154884

At the south end of the seafront at Weymouth can be seen the top of the monumental stone sea wall dating from the beginning of the 19th century, though increasing amounts of sand has been gradually obscuring it during the past 200 years.

By the early 21st century, the historic sea walls protecting central Blackpool needed replacing, and a vast construction project has created new stepped, sea defences with headlands projecting out into the sea. However, on either side of the North Pier, small parts of the dark, Victorian sea defences can be seen now incorporated into the modern concrete structures.

Some beaches are more equal than others! (apologies to George Orwell) 

Golden sand + Sea water x (Bucket + Spade) = a wonderful way to spend the day!

This photograph shows the beach at Deal in the process of being recharged in 2013, from a dredger working out at sea. Dredged materials were graded on shore and distributed on to the beach to create a new sustainable profile © A Brodie.

Some wonderful, seemingly natural beaches owe their continued existence to man-made intervention. The action of the sea, sometimes altered by the construction of harbours, breakwaters and piers, can lead to the sand on beaches being washed away.

To remedy this, major programmes of beach replenishment have taken place at some seaside resorts. This has often involved dredging sand from the seabed and placing it on the beach to recreate a more sustainable natural profile. For instance, Bournemouth, which is renowned for its wonderful sandy beach, has had more than 1,000,000 m³ of sand placed on its beach during the past half century.

Donkeys have rights!

Donkeys have been a firm favourite at seaside resorts since the 18th century. The celebrated writer and diarist Fanny Burney went to see racing at Teignmouth on 2 August 1773, which began ‘with an Ass Race. There were 16 – some of them really ran extremely well – others were indeed truly ridiculous: but all of them diverting’. As well as taking part in races, holidaymakers have been able to ride on the beach and go for longer trots into the countryside on donkeys, and in donkey carts.

A drove of donkeys has obligingly lined up at Bridlington in size order to take their portrait. Apart from the mother making sure her child remains on, these well-trained animals have remained in this pose without handlers © Historic England AA99/00354

Around the coast this summer, many of the larger resorts will have donkeys to take small children for an exciting walk along the beach. Today, people who care for donkeys require licences and are regularly inspected, and Blackpool has a ‘donkey charter’ enshrining their rights. Their working hours are from 10am to 7pm with an hour off for lunch at 1pm, and Friday is their designated day off. No person aged over 16, or weighing more than 8st (51kg), is permitted to ride them and the animals and their harnesses must be kept clean. 

What lurks beneath?

At Hastings the broad concrete promenade between the wide seafront road and the beach was created during the late 1920s and early 1930s by the ‘Concrete King’, the Borough Engineer Sydney Little. He created a double height promenade with parts of the lower tier providing long shelters and walkways.

Sydney Little designed the Carlisle Parade underground car park in 1931, as well as two other underground car parks further to the west between 1934 and 1936 © Historic England DP139356

Little’s scheme also included a pair of large swimming pools, which ceased to operate many years ago. However, in recent years these have creatively been converted into exciting skateboard parks that are proving popular with children of all ages. The new seafront also included England’s earliest underground car parks, one of which has ventilators designed to look like seaside shelters above ground.

Everybody loves a nice beach, including our enemies

If you want to get into the sea, head to a lovely flat sandy beach. But what is great for holiday-making, would also be ideal for an invading enemy, and therefore, at times of war since the 16th century it has been necessary to build defences to prevent invasion.

At Eastbourne, this Aerofilms image of 1920 shows the large Redoubt Fort that was built in 1806 as part of the fortification programme to prevent Napoleon from landing in England © Historic England  EPW000101

Surviving examples include castles constructed at the time of Henry VIII, Martello towers designed to protect the south and east coasts of England from invasion by Napoleon and more recently pillboxes as part of elaborate defences designed to prevent the Nazis from storming this country.

Spending a penny – toilets and what came before?

Some trips to the seaside involve packing everything including the kitchen sink! However, one indispensable facility needed by every holidaymaker at seaside resorts is a toilet, something that first appeared during the late 19th century.

At Scarborough, a 1900 brick toilet block with elaborate detailing and tiling inside was constructed into the hillside beside the central seafront © Historic England DP175001

This begs the question of what happened before? Seaside resorts were initially popular because people believed that bathing in the sea, and enjoying sea air, could improve their health, but by the 19th century, many beaches had sewage regularly being washed on to them. Gradually, sewerage systems were improved, and alongside this came the provision of toilet blocks.

At South Shields, the brick podium housed toilets, including original toilet stalls and urinals. Above, the elegant colonnade of Tuscan columns could serve either as a viewing platform or a bandstand. It is now part of the fish and chip restaurant © Historic England  DP175003

One of the earliest surviving seafront public conveniences was housed in the octagonal stone basement beneath the elaborate 1883 ‘Birdcage’ bandstand at Brighton. The same combination of a basement public lavatory with a bandstand above appears at the southern end of the seafront at South Shields, in a structure probably dating from the 1930s. The decision to convert it into a fish and chip shop by constructing a modern addition, afforded opportunities for the local newspapers to indulge in headlines, such as ‘Batter future for South Shields seafront’.

Remembering the great and the good


A bust of the heroic lifeboatman Henry Blogg is located on the Upper Promenade on the East Cliff at Cromer © Historic England  MF99/0816/00013

Over the past 150 years seafronts around the English coastline, have become adorned with sculptures commemorating great sailors, Kings and Queens and lifeboatmen who gave their lives to rescue others. Statues often also celebrate the lives of intrepid explorers and local celebrities.

The bronze statue by Graham Ibbeson of Eric Morecambe doing his famous dance occupies a prominent position on the central promenade. It is rare to find it without a person wanting to have their photograph taken beside it © Historic England DP175072

Some of the most touching statues celebrate more humble people. At Aldeburgh, a naturalistic portrait of a dog named ‘Snooks’ was unveiled in 1961 on the seafront overlooking the boating pond. It commemorates the work of a local doctor Robin PM Acheson and his wife Dr Nora Acheson.

I am an architectural historian and historian who has researched everything from Roman forts to 20th century airports. My main interests are the history of tourism, prisons and law courts, and medieval architecture and sculpture.

4 comments on “Seafront Surprises in England


    Enjoying the information you post

  2. Lovely walk along the front at Sidmouth and Burleigh Salterton and the Cobb at Lyme Regis after we spent years caravanning in East Devon between Exmouth and Burleigh just on Woodbury Common where the Royal Marines from Lympstone exercise…..great seafront days

  3. Claire Roos

    Well I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed my whistle stop tour of some of England’s beach resorts! This is a beauty of a blog. I’m off to get myself an ice cream. Thank you Beach Boy!

    • Allan Brodie

      Thanks. Slap on your sun cream for tomorrow,!

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