A peek behind our love of the beach

Getting outdoors and closer to nature can do us all some good – and nowhere is better for shaking off the shackles of everyday life than the seaside. But is it just the feeling of sand between our toes and the gentle lapping of waves which makes us so relaxed? Guest blogger Anya Chapman, Senior Lecturer in Tourism Management from Bournemouth University, suggests that there is more to our love of the coast than meets the eye.

What makes beaches different? Beaches have always been mysterious places. They are what geographers and social anthropologists call ‘liminal landscapes’. They are half-way zones, where the land meets the sea: neither one nor the other. Beaches are both permanent and constantly changing – after every high tide the beach looks different.

For almost three centuries people have been drawn to Britain’s beaches. Since the 18th century, beaches have been places where crowds have gathered and mingled. With the onset of the industrial revolution, beaches literally became places on the margins – in most cases they were geographically distant from the social and economic centres of the rapidly growing industrial towns and cities. The coast was quite literally remote, peripheral, on the edge, and subsequently it found a new role in the emerging society as a place of escape, celebration, recuperation, and excess. Beaches became places to holiday – firstly for health and relaxation, and latterly for pleasure and carnival.

Children building a sandcastle on the beach at Studland, Dorset. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Children building a sandcastle on the beach at Studland, Dorset.
©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Many of the early resorts developed after Dr Richard Russell published his ‘Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water in the Diseases of the Glands’ in 1760. The good doctor himself was quite taken with Brighton, and some of the older spa resorts such as Scarborough switched their focus to seawater bathing (and even drinking!) after this. Places like Bournemouth (and what was then called the ‘Invalids Walk’) became popular resorts for the treatment of Tuberculosis – the mixture of the sea air and the pine trees was meant to be very good for the chest.

From the mid-19th century onwards, Britain’s beaches attracted mass crowds escaping the industrial cities. Industrial workers embraced the seaside – hitherto the preserve of the social elite – with gusto. As a week’s holiday at the seaside became the norm, the seaside resorts and their beaches became associated with escape from normal routines, freedom and release. Then as now, the holiday became a time when people behaved differently, because the places where they holidayed were remote from their everyday lives and workplaces. 

In time, the beach came to occupy a special status for British holiday-makers. Beaches became open, free, democratic spaces where all sorts of social groups could mix and mingle anonymously.  The beach became the focus for theatre and carnival – a place for noise, release, and transgression.  People would do things on beaches that they wouldn’t do normally – like wear bathing costumes and engage in childlike play.

Children running into the waves at Studland, Dorset. ©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Children running into the waves at Studland, Dorset.
©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Beaches today still retain this element of escape, release and carnival.  They remain places of fun and liberation, places to overturn social norms. For as long as the seaside is different, the beach will always be the embodiment of that difference.  Beaches are different, unusual, marginal places that provide opportunities for all sorts of leisure pursuits, many of which can only take place on beaches.  Some people disapprove of the moral licence associated with the beach.  But perhaps we should celebrate beaches as places of freedom.


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