My passion for the British seaside, its history, culture and architecture, began when I fell in love with beach huts back in 1998. Visits to the coast revealed a surprising degree of difference in beach hut design whilst trips to libraries and archives showed these diminutive structures had a history stretching back to the earliest seaside holidays in the 18th century. The results of my research were published in two books Beach Huts and Bathing Machines and Sheds on the Seashore: A Tour Through Beach Hut History
During the time I have been researching beach huts their image has been transformed from weary old seaside sheds to highly desirable property. I have been lucky enough to be on the judging panel for competitions to design original new huts along the Lincolnshire coast, and at Boscombe in Dorset, where our winners created the first UK huts specifically for disabled users. I have also enjoyed being a regular judge alongside Channel 4’s Phil Spencer for the Towergate Beach Hut of the Year Competition since its inception in 2011.
Whilst visiting the nation’s huts and their owners I came to appreciate what an amazingly rich seaside heritage we have, something I believe should be properly celebrated not least because the British invented the idea of the ‘seaside’ as a leisure destination. Until the era of foreign package deals and cheap flights, the seaside was THE place for Britons to go on holiday.
Before the Georgian era beaches were the domain of fishermen and smugglers, but this changed when wealthy tourists began to arrive attracted by the promise of sea bathing as the 18th century wonder drug – said to cure everything from hypochondria to deafness! In Queen Victoria’s railway age existing resorts grew and others were created offering a uniquely playful architecture and a huge array of entertainment options to a growing number of visitors. My favourite period was the 1930s when streamlined Modern buildings welcomed in the newest health fad of sun bathing.
My book on The British Seaside Holiday looks at the heyday from 1870 to 1970 exploring themes such as transport to the coast, accommodation, holiday camps, beach activities, entertainers and amusement parks.
With my background in architectural history I am keen to promote the often overlooked structures that make our seaside resorts the distinctive places they are. I was therefore delighted to act as consultant to the Royal Mail on their special stamp issue dedicated to Seaside Architecture in 2014, for which I also wrote the text of the presentation pack.
My work on seaside history naturally drew me to the subject of holiday camps and after publishing my book of that title in 2010 I was delighted to be asked to write the Official History of Butlin’s for the company’s 80th birthday in 2016.
Billy Butlin was one of the 20th century’s most significant entrepreneurs with an enviable knack for knowing what the British public wanted before the British public knew themselves. During his twenties he built up a business of seaside amusement parks that meant he was a millionaire even before he launched his famous holiday camp brand in 1936. His plan was to offer afforable luxury to the masses of middling people who were otherwise confined to the old-fashioned seaside boarding house. He provided chalets with the freedom to come and go, top name entertainers, a huge range of sporting activities and the chance to make new friends. By 1963 he was playing host to a million British holidaymakers each season, across 8 sites around the UK and Ireland.
In researching The Nation’s Host: Butlin’s and the story of the British Seaside I was lucky to have privileged access to the Butlin’s Heritage Collection from which to choose a wealth of wonderful imagery, much of which has never been published before.
Profits from the book go to Great Ormond Street Hospital, one of the many charities that Billy Butlin supported during his own lifetime.