The Tide Turns in East Sussex

The grand old towns of the south coast have certainly lost some of their former glory, but there is no reason why their best days should not be ahead of them

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.

Britain is not the only place where such a thing has happened. France did not legislate for its workers to have paid holiday until Leon Blum took that progressive step in 1936; but when he did all hell broke loose. The Riviera was beyond the reach of the       ouvriers, because land there was too expensive. But in the less fashionable resorts of Brittany, Normandy and the Pas-de-Calais it was possible to put up cheap hotels and invite the masses in. As they had done in England before the Great War, the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie left — had Proust survived another 15 years he would not have been found at “Balbec” in the late Thirties. However, as they appear not to have done in England, they eventually came back.

Both French and British seaside resorts suffered a downturn from the mid-1960s, when Franco launched the Spanish package tourist trade, and it became within the reach of all but the very indigent to afford a hot week or fortnight in the Costas. British resorts were left to mods and rockers, but even they and their cultural descendants preferred to go somewhere where the weather was better. The British seaside became a minority interest. In France, though, the casinos at Deauville, Le Touquet and Dinard were spruced up, the hotels were refurbished and upgraded, and the civilised, middle-class French flocked back to these resorts. And, since the Russians have moved into the Cote d’Azur in large numbers, the resorts along the Channel coast have found a new popularity with the affluent and the discerning.

On the other side of that Channel things are, perhaps, not so bleak as they were a decade ago. Outside the towns, the southern coastline is particularly beautiful: not just in Sussex, but on the Isle of Wight, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Certain resorts have acquired a cachet, albeit for hosting braying, boozing and fornicating well-heeled teenagers celebrating their release from schooling and preparing for university. There is the odd good restaurant. The weather is usually no worse than that in northern France, just across the water. And there is nothing in many of these resorts for those who would make them unpleasant for their mainstream clientele.

According to the new East Sussex Pevsner, signs of revival are under way even in towns that seemed as lost as Hastings did. Bexhill renovated the stunning De La Warr Pavilion a few years ago, rescuing it from decay and in the process saving one of the finest Art Deco buildings in England. Attempts continue to make the rest of Bexhill live up to its example. The ninth Earl De La Warr built the Pavilion in the 1930s as a statement of hope after years of decline. Eighty years later, there is no reason, given the right attitude on the part of those who govern these seaside towns, why their best days should not still be ahead of them.

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