Just me and 250,000 at the seaside

I have lost many friends in the essential early Sunday morning break-for-the-beaches, picnic packed and flask of coffee to hand, essential in avoiding the miles of grinding traffic queuing on the coast approaches.  Heading to south coast favourites, Bournemouth and Poole offer seven pebble-free miles of Blue Flag beaches.

The sunshine is estimated to be worth around £1.5billion to the tourism industry, but being the porous sort of industry it is, this money is well dispersed throughout the economy and includes BBQ food, booze and beach balls. With only three short months, the traders on the beach were doing a roaring trade charging £2 to inflate sad-looking dolphins and too-small rings held by their optimistic owners who I hoped would be able to extricate themselves once wedged inside.

Forget sunglasses, a towel and beach bags, when a family descends onto the beach, they need at least half an acre of territory in which to dig in for the day. Most important of all is the wind break, all 10 metres of multi-coloured hideousness, guaranteed to block any view. Next is the beach tent shelter whose purpose I have yet to discover. Next will be the parasol or gazebo, depending on the size of the family, and followed by an assortment of chairs, tables, towels, tattoos and toys. And very often, no sign of any sun cream, it’s “we’re gonna be red red red today”. This makes for a tight fit on the sand, but fabulous people watching!

For those beach goers who don’t care for sand in their fish ‘n chips, there is always the beach hut. Now stranded at the top of the beach, with contents spilt out onto the promenade, seem to offer even more sunburn and a hike to the water. Bournemouth council owns over 500 huts that can be rented for a mere £32 for the day, complete with plastic furniture that just screams sweat and heat rashes.

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The beach hut has evolved from wheeled bathing machines, first used by the Victorians who went to great lengths to protect their modesty. The bathing machine was an integral part of the beach and bathing etiquette in the 18th and 19th centuries, where very often men and women were segregated and it was made virtually impossible to spot anyone of the opposite sex wearing beach clothing that whilst modest by today’s standards, was not something for a women to be seen in. Usually powered by horses, they were wheeled into the water from where the occupants could enter the sea. Until 1860, there was no rule against nude bathing for men however, but each town prescribed what bathers should or shouldn’t wear. It was important that women didn’t wear clothes that when wet, stuck to them. I wonder how these rules where enforced, or were the ladies happy to to perhaps only wear three layers that day?

When beaches became integrated, their function changed to becoming stationery changing rooms, now marooned above the high water mark at the top of the beach. Found in many far-flung corners of the British Empire, they are now very much part of the tourist promotional fabric with St James in Cape Town and Brighton in Melbourne.

Maybe we all go a bit mad after wearing layers of clothing for most of the year, and though a day trip to the seaside used to be pretty much all the holiday one could expect, we have Thomas Cook to thank for broadening our horizons and love of the seaside all over the world.

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