Whenever the British feel the need to relax — either after a heavy week in their industrial cities or a hard year on their land — they tend to head for the seaside. Nowhere in the island is more than 80 miles from it. So, too, the visitor who has wound his way round the whole of this Exhibition may himself feel inclined to relax in the Seaside Section.
The seaside that rims the whole of Britain is of three main kinds. There are the small working ports; the large pleasure resorts; and the stretches of undeveloped coast which lie between. These three types of scene offer three different kinds of holiday to an island people who do like to be beside the seaside.
The seaside at work
The fascination of the small working port draws townsmen and countrymen alike. Here, at last, they have time and inclination to stand and stare. At their feet lies a small painted world of tar and limewash, peopled with characters who seem to do their own share of standing and staring, like the old angler who, rain or fine, is always to be seen contemplating the universe from the end of every English pier.
An unfamiliar world that demands not only to be stared at, but to be explored. A world strangely furnished, for purposes that are at first mysterious, with bollards and sea-anchors, nets and capstans, storm-cones and buoys; in fact, with all the gear of those who gain their living on and off the shores of Britain.
A reminder of the fact that such a living is not gained easily is to be found in the presence of the lifeboat, a craft designed with all that modern skill can provide to counter the ancient hazards of the sea. Water-tight engines; a cabin made of aluminium alloy; a mast of the same material which carries the exhaust well clear above the heads of the crew; equipped with searchlight, line-throwing gun, radio telephone and a loud hailer. A lifeboat that cannot be sunk.
The seaside at play
On Margate beach, where the sick one roams And the sentimental reads;
Where the maiden flirts and the widow comes — Like the ocean — to cast her weeds.
Thomas Hood wrote that a hundred years ago; but it is no longer the plain quest for health that, on any public holiday, sends the British people streaming in all directions to the sea. “We do a lot of things at the seaside that we can’t do in town.” And the pleasure resort supplies us with the equipment — the peepshows, the souvenir kiosks, the cockles and whelks, the sand castles and the sticks of rock — with which to do those things.
For a start, every single stick of rock contains an ancient mystery. On the top of each of these pink and white sugar cylinders is inscribed the name of a particular seaside town. You bite the top off the rock; you bite on and on to the sticky end — but at each stage the lettering remains embedded in what is left of the rock. How the letters get inside, and how they go all the way with you, is a question which has puzzled most people since their childhood. The answer can be found in a stall in the Seaside Section where you can see how this miracle is manufactured.
All this bright and breezy business with magic rock and funny hats and period peepshows, is conducted here against the background of a characteristically British “seafront”: a medley of Victorian boarding-houses, elegant bow-fronted Regency facades, ice-cream parlours, pubs, and the full and friendly gaudiness of the amusement park.
The sea coast
It seems a far cry from this free and easy holiday fantasy to the third type of British seaside — the coast that lies between the working ports and the pleasure resorts. The long indented coastline of Britain is rich in contrasting scenery, and it harbours a wonderful variety of plant and animal life. On the South Bank, samples of five stretches of Britain’s coast are made to speak for the whole range of the island. Here the visitor can observe the birds that turn and wheel above our shores, and can see the animals and plants of the rock pools which the ebbing tides reveal.
The seaside, whether it be at a resort, a port, or the open coast, always remains a place for the British to explore. It is also a likely place for the overseas visitor to explore the British. Give the British “a mile of warm sea-scented beach”, and they don’t feel, or seem, so sad and frigid, after all. Rather do they betray a deeply concealed belief in what Robert of Gloucester wrote six hundred years ago:
England is a right merry land, of all on earth it is best,
Y-set in the end of the world, as here all in the West,
The sea goeth it all about, it stands right as an isle.