The arrival of the superb new volume in the Buildings of England series, Sussex East (Yale, £35), provokes thoughts about the decline of our seaside. Some of us may think it has happened during our lifetime; but the reality is that it has been going on for around a century, since the Great War, if not for longer. It seems class has a lot to do with it. Sussex towns such as Brighton and Eastbourne flourished in the second half of the 18th century, when the quality patronised them to take the waters. Hastings, a much older foundation, enjoyed a similar success. Brighton and Sussex generally reached a zenith at the start of the 19th century, when the Prince Regent was an habitué, his pavilion built between 1786 and 1822. The fine Georgian terraces along the seafront, like those to be found at Hastings and St Leonards, reflected the arrival of the haute bourgeoisie. The Dukes of Devonshire, who owned Eastbourne, developed it later in the century for the middle classes. That resort, like others on the Sussex coast, became a favoured haven for the genteel retired, especially those returning from the colonies. The towns developed inland suburbs for the lower-middle classes, and they became less fashionable as the railway brought the Riviera within easy reach.
The railway did something else: it made these towns accessible to the English masses at a price they could afford. Great hotels such the Grand and the Metropole in Brighton (the latter a massive confection by Alfred Waterhouse, and when it was built in the 1880s the largest hotel in the country) accommodated the visitor in something approximating to style. However, the train also brought in hordes of third-class passengers, either as day trippers or as lodgers in boarding houses farther along into Hove, or off towards Rottingdean. The character of some of these places changed from elite watering-hole to end of the pier show, with kiss-me-quick hats, sticks of rock and fish and chips. The vulgarity had its charm, and it has been much praised; but Brighton before the war, teeming with people affluent enough to visit it but to whom a continental holiday was unthinkable, for both cultural and economic reasons, was also the Brighton chronicled by Graham Greene, with its razor gangs and flash-suited little thugs. And, as a sideline, it became the nation's adultery capital, where men would arrange to be spotted by a chambermaid in bed with a tart in order to provide the necessary evidence for a divorce.
At least Brighton suffered a glamorous degree of seediness; for other resorts decline was not nearly so exciting. Eastbourne retained much of its gentility, but also acquired the reputation of a place where people went to die and appeared to forget to do so — unless helped by Dr Bodkin Adams, whose career as a "euthanasor" is brilliantly described in another excellent new book, The Curious Habits of Dr Adams, by Jane Robins (John Murray, £20). Bexhill-on-Sea just became forgotten and lapsed into occasional dereliction. Hastings put up a fight but became squalid, a showcase for the late-20th century's drugs culture and the so-called "alternative lifestyle" and, by the coming of the millennium, a metaphor for the bed-and-breakfast existence of so many people on benefits. Boarding houses that had once welcomed eager, excited holidaymakers from Clapham and Peckham now owed their commercial viability to the largesse of the welfare state, as did much of the town.