Sophie Campbell explores the joys and eccentricities of the seaside.
Every year in early summer, the PS Waverley (that’s PS for ‘Paddle Steamer’), edges out of her berth on the River Clyde where she was built 70 years ago this year, and sets off on her annual perambulation around the British Isles. She spends two months working her way down the west coasts of Scotland and Wales, then follows England’s south coast eastwards, picking up day passengers as she goes and ending up on the Thames in October. People love her raked funnels and smart paddle wheels and she offers a unique offshore overview of one of our greatest guiding assets, the Great British coastline.
In the northwest, the Waverley chunters past Blackpool, which grew into a holiday resort in the late nineteenth century and gives Paris a run for its money with its 518-foot Tower. When the Tower opened in 1894 it had a circus, among other things: older residents remember elephants crossing the prom – trunk to tail – to bathe in the sea each day. It still has a (human) circus and its famous and spectacular ballroom. Further south, just above Liverpool, dawn and dusk are the perfect time to see 100 naked men on a beach; in this case the Antony Gormley’s sculpted figures at Crosby (official title Another Place) planted on the sands, gazing out to sea. After doing their own perambulation around the world, they have come to rest here.
Then comes Wales and the dazzling beaches of Anglesey, which so discreetly hosted the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their early married life. On the mainland side of the Menai Strait, separating island from mainland, are Edward I’s Caernarfon Castle and, farther east, the magnificent pier at Bangor with its Whistlestop tea room. Farther south still, way past the Penrhyn Peninsula, beyond the Italianate tumble of Portmeirion and the coast of Snowdonia, is the blunt fist of Pembrokeshire, our only coastal National Park. This is one of the loveliest sections of the Coastal Path National Trail, including St David’s – its cathedral, the smallest in Britain, was deliberately set low in the landscape to avoid Viking marauders – right round to Tenby, with its Georgian houses perched on the cliffs. In less squeamish days they had their own ‘long drops’ (latrines) above the sea. You may see day boats puttering out to the working Cistercian monastery on Caldey Island.
The North Devon fishing village of Ilfracombe is one of Waverley’s ports. Its pregnant Verity statue by Bristolian artist Damien Hirst – he has a restaurant in town – stands looking out to sea, possibly thinking about all those Gormleys. Ilfracombe sits on the coastal path from Hartland in the west to Lynmouth in the east, aka ‘Lorna Doone Country’, on the edge of Exmoor. The art theme continues in Cornwall. The most obvious example is St Ives, where the studios of artist Barbara Hepworth and potter Bernard Leach make up for the closure of Tate St Ives until March 2017. Rounding the Lizard Peninsula there are former tin mines and Brunel’s Royal Albert rail bridge over the Tamar connecting Cornwall and Devon, and finally the genteel world of novelists and fossils (in no way related) on the English Riviera.
Torquay’s biannual Agatha Christie Festival alternates with Agatha Christie Day each September. And the Regency resort of Sidmouth at the western end of Lyme Bay is not only famous for croquet (who knew?), but is the less-publicised end of the Jurassic Coast, its cliffs packed with sea creatures millennia old.
At the other end of the bay, Lyme Regis hogs the limelight partly because it is wildly romantic: John Galsworthy lived here (his house is now open for holiday lets) and the protective curve of the Cobb is forever associated with his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman – and, let’s face it, actress Meryl Streep who starred in the film adaptation. It was also home to Mary Anning, a rare female star in the world of eighteenth-century natural philosophy, whose specimens can be seen on the walls of the Natural History Museum in London, as well as in the delightful Lyme Regis museum.
On east to the Solent, the five-mile strip of water separating the mainland from the Isle of Wight: here the eagleeyed may spot the grounds of Osborne House at East Cowes. This English Heritage site has Queen Victoria’s wheeled bathing machine: she descended its steps helped by a burly female assistant. This has its echoes – in a less grandiose way – farther east in Brighton, which was famed in its early days for the ‘Brighton Dippers’, women who plunged reluctant swimmers under the waves. The town is a wonderful example of a Regency resort, chosen by the rackety Prince Regent over his father’s more sedate choice of Weymouth – luckily for us, as he spent a fortune building the Brighton Pavilion in characteristically over-the-top style. 150 years later the town became infamous for Mods and Rockers riots, spawning Quadrophenia tours and visits to the cells under today’s Town Hall, where rioters were held.
East of here, the coast is undergoing a renaissance, best illustrated by the Art Trail you can follow by foot or by bike from the Towner Gallery at Eastbourne, with its excellent Store Art Tours, via that temple of Moderne, the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, to the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, built to echo the tall, black ‘net shops’ for drying fishing nets.
Hastings is home to the largest beach-based fishing fleet in Europe, stunning Tudor and Regency buildings and a population of artists and musicians fleeing high prices in London and Brighton.
A Shore Thing
And so we reach the corner of England, with the Dungeness power station, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway and the ‘concrete ears’, or acoustic mirrors – precursors of radar – at Denge. Across the peninsula in North Kent are Margate, with its Turner Contemporary art gallery and Wayne Hemingway’s retro theme park, Dreamland; little Faversham, proud possessor of a 1300 version of citizen’s charter Magna Carta; and the Isle of Grain church where Pip met Magwitch in Great Expectations.
Farther into the Thames estuary are lesser known gems – the ruins of Lesnes Abbey, say, or that glory of Victorian sewage engineering, Crossness Pumping Station – or, on the other side of the Thames, Rainham Hall, once the property of an eighteenth-century merchant and wharf owner.
As we follow the estuary inland to picture-postcard London, we reach the end of Waverley’s voyage: her final mooring is beside the Tower of London near Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and More London: one of the world’s great views.
The British Guild of Tourist Guides has more than 800 guides throughout the country. For a seaside tour visit www.britainsbestguides.org