Think of an archetypal British seaside town. There is a good chance the mind will conjure up a holiday resort. Buckets and spades, fish and chips, deckchairs, donkey rides, grey and white gulls patrolling a grey and white prom. Perhaps a picnic, complete with poet John Betjeman’s ‘sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea’. Such objects and images shape a unique cultural landscape, the ‘Great British Seaside’. Current curbs on travel abroad make this place feel particularly pertinent. Yet does it exist?
When I think of a British seaside town, I think of Weymouth in Dorset. Located halfway along the Jurassic Coast, Weymouth is one of Britain’s oldest seaside resorts. It’s also one of my favourites. I have enjoyed family holidays here for almost 30 years, as a child and with children of my own. During my visit of 2011, I helped to research this Discovering Britain walk exploring Weymouth’s connections with other countries. We chose Weymouth as it was about to host the London 2012 Olympic sailing events. A year later, the Games saw 273 boats, representing 63 countries, contest 30 medals in Weymouth’s waters.
Weymouth is famous for its sandy beach, gently sloping along a broad natural bay. The town has been referred to as ‘The English Bay of Naples’. From the pier wall near the Pavilion, golden sands stretch to the horizon in a sweeping curve. The elegant terraces lining the prom resemble a row of even teeth in a seafront smile. The walk begins though by turning away from this welcoming scene. From the pier, the route enters Weymouth’s historic harbour. Links between this seaside and countries overseas soon become apparent.
The harbour is a charming sight, especially in the sunshine. Lobster pots line the quayside while colourful boats bob in the River Wey. Today’s town grew from two competing villages, Weymouth and Melcombe Regis. The pair developed separately on opposite banks of the river, with constant feuds over harbour access. Melcombe Regis has a grim claim to fame. This Dorset fishing village is estimated to be where the Plague entered Britain in June 1348.
The Plague was carried by rats and spread through their journeys on ships. A memorial in Weymouth harbour recalls rather different voyages. From the late 16th century Weymouth’s location provided an early trade and migration route to America. Local pioneers included Richard Clark, who helped to discover Newfoundland, and John Endicott, who became the first governor of Massachusetts. There are several Weymouths across the Atlantic. A reminder appears on The Town Bridge, where the walls are inscribed 'To Weymouth in Old england from Weymouth in New England'.
Americans returned during the Second World War. Weymouth harbour was an Allied departure point for the D-Day Normandy landings. The walk passes a very different flotilla. Rows of yachts bask in the marina. Weymouth is ideal for sailing. The neighbouring Isle of Portland provides shelter from ocean currents and strong winds. Weymouth bay also experiences four daily tides instead of two, doubling chances to take to the water. It was physical geography that brought Weymouth the Olympics, plus the international Tall Ships Races three times.
Yet Weymouth’s international fame can be traced to a person. From the marina the walk visits the King’s Statue, a unique tribute to King George III. In the middle of a traffic island, his full-length and fully painted figure stands on top of a huge stone plinth. From 1789, King George III visited Weymouth 14 times in 15 years. When the king was on holiday here, Weymouth became the seat of the British Empire. Royal patronage transformed the town’s fortunes and helped it to become one of Britain’s first pleasure resorts. But initially the King’s visits weren’t for pleasure.
Throughout his reign George III suffered with physical and mental illness. To aid his ailments, doctors prescribed bathing and fresh sea air. George III chose Weymouth as his brother owned a house on the seafront, Gloucester Lodge. Today it is a luxury hotel. Beside the King’s Statue is a bathing machine, a curious wheeled shed. George III used one to make dramatic entrances into Weymouth’s curative waters. During his first visit, a band hidden inside another bathing machine nearby serenaded him with ‘God Save the King’.
George III’s holiday pastimes became highly fashionable. One of his favourites was strolling along the seafront. The rest of the walk follows Weymouth’s seafront road, The Esplanade. Along the way, stops explore how sights and sites connect with countries overseas. For example, people commonly swim in the sea using the front crawl, a stroke that reached Britain via South America. The Esplanade itself is a French name for ‘a clear level space’, with origins in Spanish (esplanada) and Latin (explanare). There are esplanades worldwide, from Aberdeen to India, Thailand to New Zealand.
Even stopping for an ice cream others a taste of travel. Weymouth has one of Britain’s oldest ice cream parlours. Rossi’s opened in 1937 and has been family owned ever since. Before the Victorian era and the invention of refrigerators, ice cream was a rare luxury. Its popularity in Britain is due to Italian entrepreneurs – and maybe an Italian explorer. Ice cream as we know it, made with frozen milk, was documented in China around 200 BC. It has been suggested that Marco Polo brought the recipe from China to Italy.
One of the most surprising stories emerges near the end of The Esplanade, at a group of traditional amusement rides. They include a colourful carousel, complete with grinning horses. Watching them softly spin, rise and fall, in time with jolly organ music, it is amazing to discover their origins stem from war. In the 12th century Turkish and Arabian horsemen used rotating machines with dummy horses for battle practice. After the Crusades, such machines arrived in Europe and succeeded court jousting.
The walk ends back beside the Pavilion. In the decade since Weymouth’s Olympic fortnight, the view of the beach from here has hardly changed. The opposite is true in the opposite direction. When we first researched this walk, work was underway on the Jurassic Skyline observation tower. From its site on Weymouth pier, this 53-metre high structure offered vast views along the Jurassic Coast. After opening in June 2012, visitor numbers dropped. The tower shut in summer 2019 and by the end of the year it had gone.
When we think of coastal change, we tend to think of physical processes upon natural landforms, such as cliff erosion and tidal deposition. Britain’s coastal towns are shaped where the wind blows too, metaphorically as well as literally. Weymouth’s vanished tower shows how challenging survival can be.
The heyday of British resorts was the post-war years, after the introduction of workers’ paid leave and before the arrival of European package holidays Covid-19 marks another potential sea change. With many foreign holiday destinations off the map, British resorts from Southend to Southport anticipate increased visitor numbers this summer. Does the Great British Seaside exist for real or in our collective imagination? Maybe a global pandemic will show us the answer.