The strangely neglected heritage of the British seaside

Authors: Light, D. and Chapman, A.

Start date: 8 April 2019

The seaside towns of Britain have a highly distinctive legacy of buildings dedicated to pleasure, entertainment and distraction.

These include piers, pavilions, theatres, lidos, bandstands, beach huts, funfairs, and amusement arcades. Alongside this built heritage is a distinctive intangible heritage in the form of traditions and performances associated with the seaside holiday.

However, the distinctive architecture of the seaside is very rarely valued as heritage. For example, neither the National Trust nor English Heritage own any buildings associated with the seaside holiday. Furthermore many distinctive seaside buildings have decayed and been demolished in recent years (such as The Futurist theatre in Scarborough). Many others (such as Brighton’s Hippodrome) are described as being ‘at risk’.

In a country that is seemingly obsessed with heritage the neglect of the architecture of pleasure at the seaside is surprising. However, this situation can be considered through the lens of the Authorised Heritage Discourse (Smith 2006). This is a way of thinking (largely led by experts and heritage professionals) which defines and frames what is considered to be ‘heritage’. This discourse defines heritage in terms of monumentality, the aesthetically pleasing, that which has innate value, that which represents elite social groups, and that which is important for national identity.

Those buildings and practices which do not conform to these ideals tend to be excluded or dismissed. For this reason, seaside architecture – associated with entertainment and intended for a mass, working-class audience – has long been overlooked. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the derisive reaction to Blackpool’s application to be considered for World Heritage Site status, even though the resort could make a strong case according to the criteria for acceptance.

However the authorised heritage discourse does not enjoy complete hegemony. This paper argues that attitudes to the architecture of seaside pleasure are starting to change. The rise of industrial heritage in the 1980s was the beginning of the challenged to the authorised heritage discourse, illustrating how ‘ordinary’ buildings, associated with working class people could be valued as heritage. A similar process is now taking place with the heritage of pleasure at the seaside. While non-state actors (such as the National Trust) continue to neglect the heritage of the seaside holiday, it is the state that is leading the way. Official heritage agencies in England (English Heritage/Historic England) have begun to reappraise the heritage of seaside towns, evidenced in the publication of a book series about seaside architecture. Other state agencies (particularly the Heritage Lottery Fund) are increasingly funding regeneration projects for seaside heritage (such as Hastings Pier and Margate’s Dreamland) to enable it to be refurbished and put to a contemporary use. Funding projects from central government (the Coastal Revival Fund) have specifically focussed on regenerating seaside heritage structures. A House of Lords Select Committee has been established with the theme of ‘Regenerating Seaside Towns’. Broader developments have also contributed to a resurgence of interest in the heritage of seaside towns. These include a slow upturn in visits to seaside resorts (fuelled in part by the rise of the staycation) along with a growing nostalgia for the traditions of the seaside holiday and ‘seasideness’ (Jarratt, 2015) This creates a context where the heritage of pleasure and mass entertainment at the seaside can be revalued and reconfigured for new purposes in the 21st century.

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