Beside the Seaside: The Revival of Europe's Seaside Towns

The faded grandeur of Europe's seaside towns offer major throwback appeal. Arts, culture and a healthy dose of kitsch have fuelled the resurgence of these coastal enclaves.

The article first appeared in Vol. 26: Nostalgia.

Her glare down the barrel of the lens is cold and scornful, the children in their swimmers preoccupied by their disconcertingly green mint ice creams with old- fashioned wafer cones. There are net curtains and a Formica-topped table. It is one of Martin Parr's most iconic photographs, from his mid-1980s series The Last Resort, and it says everything you need to know about lost British seaside towns.

Shot between 1983 and 1985 in a dilapidated New Brighton - the seaside resort on the tip of the Wirral, across the Mersey from Liverpool - it is the series that would come to define Parr's super-saturated career of wry portraits of the mundane. A beauty pageant; wasted chip trays and crying babies; cigarettes and sunbathing on concrete beside a dirty excavator - the heyday of Victorian holidays as faded as the weatherworn paint jobs on tacky stalls lining the promenade.

When the package holiday boom packed the Union Jack shorts off to the Costas, the deckchairs and donkeys died out from Morecambe to Margate, and you were more likely to see a hanky on the head in Rhodes than in Rhyl. Poverty crept in and the swathes of empty buildings became temporary bed and breakfast accommodation for many of the most troubled. The socioeconomic problems were complex, but the decline clear - from the late 1990s onward many would have bitten your hand off for even a return to the Thatcherite Britain documented in The Last Resort. Does a cascade of two-penny pieces from a coin-pusher still make a sound if there's nobody to hear it?

But still, little evokes a longing for days gone by as potently as the faded glamour of a seaside town. Even in a state of dystopia, there's something irresistible about sticks of rock and cockles at the end of the pier. It's this soiled nostalgia that informed Banksy's Dismaland "bemusement park", which brought 150,000 visitors to Weston-super-Mare in the summer of 2015. Some 220 miles almost directly across the country, though, a radical regeneration project has tapped into that essence of seaside holidays past, trading Banksy's doom and gloom for bright lights, bags of retro and city style.

The second £25m reboot of Margate's 1920s Dreamland amusement park opened in 2017 and has already seen Damon Albarn's Gorillaz host its own mini-festival. Street-food trucks, a roller disco and diner, a gastropub and a hip rooftop bar with a barbecue confirm it as a slice of East London by the sea. It's not the first cultural catalyst for regeneration in a town that had slumped into seemingly terminal decline, however. Dreamland's revival was predated by the David Chipperfield-designed Turner Contemporary in 2011, a project heavily supported by former art world enfant terrible Tracey Emin, who grew up in the town. Through the arts and entertainment, two things long associated with Britain's seaside towns, Margate has found its feet again. The nostalgia and the kitsch are not lost. Character is retained, edges softened, and nowhere more evidently than at The Reading Rooms, a Grade II-listed Georgian townhouse turned luxury bed and breakfast with lashings of style and substance. Here the patina of time is juxtaposed with unrestrained luxury, light years from the net curtains and grandma carpets of the archetypical seaside B&B.

Kent at large has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance, with nearby Ramsgate boasting the handsome Albion House Hotel and Deal home to The Rose, a remarkable renovation of a rundown, high-street boozer. Here interior designers Harding & Read, alongside creative consultancy from Michelle Kelly, have transformed the old pub's eight bedrooms with consideration and inventiveness. Vintage touches like a gaudy old dressing table are paired with bold colour-blocking and contemporary art, while wicker furniture and floral headboards meet indie design magazines and luxury bed linen.

Downstairs the kitchen's output is overseen by executive chef Rachel O'Sullivan, formerly of London's lauded Polpo and Spuntino, who has put thoughtful British comfort-food classics centre stage. These are not big nor clever, but instead finely executed and smear-all-over-your-lips scrumptious. With cocktails and craft beers and baristas knocking up flat whites with coffee from London's Climpson & Sons, it's quite the transformation for a venue with a spirited past. Deal might not be a Skegness or a Great Yarmouth, but with its arcades and pool halls it's still a far cry from the seaside idylls of Padstow or St Ives. In The Rose, this town on the east Kent coast has a destination hotel capable of becoming its own catalyst for change.

Of course, change works in cycles. Many of the package holidays that decimated Britain's seaside towns jetted fresh pale skin to Spain's eastern coast to be turned pink by the sun. By the turn of the 21st century, air travel had become so ubiquitous and cost-effective that their sons and daughters could be found lining the shores of the Caribbean. No longer so "exotic", many Spanish towns now face similar disrepair. Some 30 kilometres south of Barcelona a small, abandoned 1950s hotel on Platja de Garraf had cut a forlorn shadow for many a year. Bumped right up to the sand on a small bay lined with charming wooden beach huts, it reopened last year as Little Beach House Barcelona, an extension of the Catalan capital's lavish outpost of the famous creative members' club Soho House.

With a throwback design that nods heavily to the building's past, the 17-bedroom hotel and restaurant is packed with custom-made furnishings, found objects, statement pieces and contemporary art, and occupies a prime position on a beach where time has long stood still. With rattan and hessian, soft Mediterranean hues and lush indoor foliage, the waves softly lapping just a few feet from its walls, Little Beach House Barcelona conjures notions of an age consigned to bleached 35mm film and vintage postcards.

It's a sensation that's replicated on the Côte d'Azur. Sandwiched between the Hollywood glitz of Cannes and Saint-Tropez on a sleepy pebble beach with old-world appeal, Hôtel Les Roches Rouges delivers big on the classic French Riviera. Without the bombast or glamour of its neighbouring resorts, authenticity can be found in abundance at this sanctuary of 1950s modernism. It is Riviera luxury sans the oligarch super- yachts, Provence by the sea - slow food and slow living, pine trees over palm trees, subtle and seductive. With Parisian architecture firm Festen and visionary French hotel entrepreneur Valéry Grégo having chipped away at bad renovations from the 1980s and 1990s, understated style has returned to another unloved spot threatened to be washed away by the sands of time.

In his days as the theatre organist at Blackpool's Tower Ballroom, Reginald Herbert Dixon saw it all. Holding down his position from March 1930 until March 1970, the prolific musician witnessed transformative years for the seaside holiday. I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside was his signature tune. And they did. Sure, they still do, but travel has lost the ability to marvel in its own right. Experiential travel, cultural travel, transformative travel... they all play into a game of social media one-upmanship. The seaside today's traveller wants to be beside is untouched and pink, as well as an Instagram first that's sure to break your likes total. But when the likes are gone, how do you feel inside?

Be it the 1950s style of the Riviera remembered from films you think you saw, the vintage charm of a beachside hotel once destined to live out its final days in dereliction or handsome design projects that immerse you in the strange allure of waned amusements, there's an irreplaceable quintessence to the seaside resort embedded in our collective imagination. From the Basque Country's Biarritz to Blankenberge in Belgium, Europe is littered with towns that have the ability to tug at your heartstrings with their piers and windblown seafront shelters, salty air and seagulls. Blackpool might not be the paradise it was when Reg Dixon tinkled the ivories of his Wurlitzer for the first time, yet scratch the surface and the magic remains. We do like to be beside the seaside - and now is the time to look closer to home.

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