British Seaside Towns

Fish and chips, buckets and spades, beach huts, a Punch and Judy show and penny amusement arcades. British seaside towns are quintessentially British and I think, fairly unique in the world. There are many entertainments and activities available in seaside towns. But here are a few of the how can I say it, weirder ones, that make up this endearing British tradition.

Of course, this is stuff the British just know. This guide is for the visitor to the UK, a kind of ‘make sense of what is going on!’ guide.

British Seaside Towns

A Sandy Beach – Understanding British Seaside Towns

Punch and Judy

A few words about Punch and Judy shows. Punch and Judy is a puppet show performed in an upright tent that is usually brightly coloured. The show, usually on the beach or very close by, is performed by a single puppeteer inside the tent known as a professor or Punchman.

They are sometimes assisted by a person called a bottler. Their job is to gather the audience outside the tent introduce the performance and collect the money. They might also do the accompanying music and sound effects.

Basically, Punch and Judy is a simple story of domestic abuse. Involving the police and also, somehow, a crocodile gets involved along the way. Indeed, there are often sausages in the show. Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense I know! Despite Mr Punch’s series of grisly murders with his club throughout the performances, it is still considered a children’s comedy.

That alone can tell you much about British culture.

Italian Origins

With its roots in Italian puppetry, Commedia dell’arte, Mr Punch is the main protagonist in this quintessentially English tradition. Likely, it was first performed on 9 May 1662 in Covent Garden in London by the Bologna-born puppeteer Pietro Gimonde also known as Signor Bologna. We can be fairly certain of the date as it was recorded by the well-known diarist and cheese burier Samuel Pepys. The British quickly took him to their hearts and, as the British do, and assimilated him into their own culture.

The show has changed over the years often featuring contemporary jokes and plots. However these days a typical show will include the introduction of Mr Punch and Judy and a request from Judy to babysit their child. He usually fails abysmally at carrying out this task. It is rare for Mr Punch to hit the baby these days, thankfully. He may well sit on the baby or drop it or let some other ‘accident’ happen to it.

Once Judy has returned she’ll be upset and rightly so, with Mr Punch. And just like every other household around the world, fetch a stick and the bloodletting will commence. A policeman will usually arrive and himself be brutally murdered by Mr Punch.

Below, as can be seen, is a short highlight or, if you will, lowlight reel from a punch a Judy Show in Brighton.

Sometimes there’s a doctor too. Occasionally in traditional performances, there may even be a hangman. Sometimes the show will end with the devil arriving to collect Mr Punch. Mr Punch often brutally slays the devil too. Because it’s all done by puppets it’s not taken too seriously. In the same way, Tom and Jerry cartoons are massively violent but again, not taken seriously.

It’s ok, they’re only puppets

If you’ve managed to follow all this you’re a better man than I. The show is full of audience participation and calls of “that’s the way to do it”.

It’s almost a rite of passage for every English child, to sit on a cold beach, with sand invading every orifice and watch a Punch and Judy show.

Piers

Another feature of the traditional British seaside town is a pier. These wooden constructions often jut out into the sea. Some can be quite small but the longest in the UK, at Southend-on-Sea, is over 2000 m in length. It is reckoned to be the longest pleasure pier in the world.

Mainly associated with the Victorian era, the first seaside piers sprang up in the early 19th century. Originally, when they were built, it was a simple wooden landing stage for boat trips for the upper classes. The pier allowed them to enter and exit the boat without getting their feet wet. But piers developed into entertainment venues in their own right with, exotic for the time, pavilions, and decorative ironwork and even lighting.

The rise of the pier as a tourist attraction has a lot to do with the expansion of the railways in the early 19th century. 100 piers were built in Britain between 1814 and 1905 and about 60 of them remain today.

Boscombe pier - British Seaside Towns

Boscombe pier – Understanding British Seaside Towns

Boscombe Pier in Dorset was first opened in 1889 and has undergone extensive renovation over the years. It now has no buildings on it as it once used to.

It was the fashion then to dress up in your best formal clothes and walk along the pier or to ‘promenade’ as it became known.

Nowadays you are likely to find amusement arcades and fairground rides on some of the larger piers. A lot of people view the whole seaside experience as gloriously tacky. But, whatever your opinion, it is, undoubtedly, quintessentially English.

Crabbing

For a lot of British people, a visit to the seaside and let the kids go crabbing is an essential part of it. This practice involves a baited hook on some thick line let over the side of the pier or seawall into the water to attract crabs. It is then lifted out of the water and any attached crabs are put in a bucket. So, a lot like fishing but with crustaceans. 

Rock – Confectionary

As much a part of the seaside as ice creams, sandcastles and the terrible British weather, Rock is often known by its place of origin i.e. Brighton Rock or Blackpool Rock. It is a boiled sugar confectionery sold at seaside resorts, usually taking the form of a cylinder or ‘stick of rock’ about 1 to 2 cm in diameter and 20 to 25 cm long. There is often a pattern embedded all the way through the centre of the rock, traditionally the name of the resort where the rock is sold.

Rock has been mentioned in popular culture. Graham Greene wrote a novel in 1938 entitled Brighton Rock. George Formby, many years ago also performed a song called with ‘My little stick of Blackpool Rock’ which is basically just a series of knob gags.

Not a dirty word in it but pure filth all the same! Innuendo, of course, leading us nicely into Postcards.

Postcards

It used to be the tradition when you’re on holiday to send a postcard, back to your relatives. From about 1894 these early postcards were pictures of landmarks scenic views and photographs. It wasn’t until the early 1930s that cartoon style saucy postcards became widespread and at the height of their popularity over 16 million a year was sent. They made much use of innuendo and double entendres to get their ‘not so hidden’ message across.

Their heyday lasted for about 20 years until the government in the 1950s decided to try and crack down on these postcards by citing an apparent deterioration of morals in the UK. However, they hung on and it wasn’t until the 1980s that their long overdue demise from British Seaside Towns happened.

Beach huts

A beach hut, usually a smallish 2-metre x 2-metre wooden box often painted in bright colours is a regular feature on the beaches of British Seaside towns. It is reckoned there are about 20,000 beach huts in the UK. Originally they were used as changing rooms for getting in and out of your swimming costume author shelter from the elements.

They are thought to have been constructed largely as a response to Victorian morality in the mid 19th century. People could change without being seen. After all, even the sight of an ankle was considered racy back then!

My grandparents owned a beach hut in Littlehampton and I have fond childhood memories of playing in the sand by the beach hut. With a few chairs and windbreaks stored in them and facilities for making a cup of tea. (This is Britain after all!)

These days, due to a certain amount of nostalgia beach huts can command a high price to buy them. This is surprising, seeing as you cannot stay overnight in them and the annual maintenance costs can be quite high.

Sandcastles

Building a sand castle with a bucket and spade is probably the number one seaside tradition there is. The earliest reference but I could find about sandcastles was from the mid-1830s but it is suspected that they are older than that. Sandcastle building competitions are still held on some beaches.

Bucket and spade - British Seaside towns

Understanding British Seaside Towns

In the olden days the buckets and spades used to be tin but now, of course, they are modern mass-produced plastic usually in bright primary colours aimed at their audience, children. It’s almost another rite of passage on your visit to the seaside building your first sandcastle.

Further Reading

British Seaside Towns – Conclusions

Hopefully, this goes some way to explaining all about the British Seaside Towns and possibly give you a little, and maybe unwanted, window into the British Psyche…

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