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From hum­ble be­gin­nings in fish­er­men’s cot­tages to the lux­u­ri­ous sea-view bed­rooms of our ho­tels to­day, ac­com­mo­da­tion for coastal visi­tors has been a long-stand­ing Bri­tish tra­di­tion.

From hum­ble be­gin­nings in fish­er­men’s cot­tages to the lux­u­ri­ous sea-view bed­rooms of our ho­tels to­day, ac­com­mo­da­tion for coastal visi­tors has been a long-stand­ing de­sir­able Bri­tish tra­di­tion. Grand sea­side ho­tels are vis­ually dom­i­nant within the coastal land­scape, char­ac­terised by bold, large-scale build­ings which re­flect chang­ing trends in ar­chi­tec­tural fash­ion, so­ci­ety, and hol­i­day­ing. Karen Averby, ar­chi­tec­tural his­to­rian and au­thor of Sea­side Ho­tels tells us more about the his­tory of how our multi-mil­lion pound sea­side hos­pi­tal­ity and leisure in­dus­try has evolved.

UN­TIL THE 18TH CEN­TURY the coast was pri­mar­ily the do­main of fish­er­men and other sea-far­ing folk, but this changed when the pur­suit of health, leisure and plea­sure amongst wealthy, fash­ion­able so­ci­ety grew from a be­lief in the ther­a­peu­tic and cu­ra­tive na­ture of sea­wa­ter. The first coastal re­sorts de­vel­oped as the prac­tice of sea bathing and re­lated ac­tiv­i­ties gained pop­u­lar­ity, but their rel­a­tively re­mote lo­ca­tions and of­ten haz­ardous and long coach jour­neys meant that ac­com­mo­da­tion was es­sen­tial. Ex­ist­ing cot­tage dwellings were ini­tially con­verted and inns sprang up, al­though as these were of­ten cramped and un­suited to longer stays, pur­pose­built houses of­fer­ing greater com­fort were built and leased as sea­sonal ac­com­mo­da­tion to the fash­ion­able wealthy set. As re­sorts grew, inns raised stan­dards to com­pete with pri­vate ac­com­mo­da­tion, and cheap lodg­ings, board­ing houses and pri­vate ho­tels ap­peared, ne­ces­si­tat­ing a very real de­mand for ever more ex­clu­sive ac­com­mo­da­tion. At fash­ion­able re­sorts, high-sta­tus ac­com­mo­da­tion was in­cor­po­rated within new assem­bly room com­plexes, and the neo-clas­si­cal Royal Ho­tel, Ply­mouth (1819) built as part of such a de­vel­op­ment is re­garded as the first lux­ury coastal ho­tel. Sev­eral ex­clu­sive spec­u­la­tive de­vel­op­ments, with im­pos­ing sea-fac­ing ho­tels as the fo­cal point, in­cluded St Leonards-by-sea, with its dramatic Clas­si­cal-in­spired ho­tel. The ho­tel was named the Royal Vic­to­ria fol­low­ing a visit by Princess Vic­to­ria in 1834, part of a long tra­di­tion of nam­ing ho­tels from royal as­so­ci­a­tions, al­though of­ten with more spu­ri­ous links. The Vic­to­rian era was a golden age for the grand sea­side ho­tel, as the pres­ence of a large, pur­pose built ar­chi­tect-de­signed grand ho­tel in­flu­enced a re­sort’s size, wealth and im­por­tance. Typ­i­cally large and dom­i­nant, of­ten gothic, and al­ways lux­u­ri­ous, with sump­tu­ous dé­cor and fa­cil­i­ties, they at­tracted some of the era’s most dis­tin­guished ar­chi­tects, en­trepreneurs, and guests. Ex­clu­siv­ity re­mained para­mount, and mon­u­men­tal­ity, de­sign and ma­te­ri­als set these ho­tels apart from other re­sort build­ings, as did ac­com­mo­da­tion costs and strict so­ci­etal codes dic­tat­ing dress and be­hav­iour. Their pro­lif­er­a­tion was aided by the ex­pand­ing rail­way net­work which opened up the coast from the 1840s, and the 1844 Joint Stock Com­pa­nies Act which en­cour­aged pri­vate en­ter­prise to fund new ho­tels. Amongst the most mag­nif­i­cent ho­tels of this pe­riod were Palace Ho­tel, South­port (1866), Imperial Ho­tel, Black­pool (1867), and the or­nate French-gothic Il­fra­combe Ho­tel, Devon (1867). Torquay’s Imperial Ho­tel (1866) was even more lav­ish, at­tract­ing sev­eral Royal and Euro­pean dig­ni­taries, but the ex­em­plary ho­tels of this pe­riod were the mon­u­men­tal and elab­o­rate Grand Ho­tels at Brighton and Scar­bor­ough, with mon­u­men­tal and elab­o­rate costs to match.

The va­garies of the Bri­tish weather in­flu­enced pros­per­ity, and a good sum­mer sea­son was nec­es­sary es­pe­cially in north­ern re­gions, where lim­ited sum­mer open­ings were com­mon, al­though re­sorts with milder cli­mates had a ‘sea­son’ from Oc­to­ber un­til Easter. The win­ter mar­ket was soon em­braced, as ho­tels in­stalled in­no­va­tive ‘warm­ing ap­pa­ra­tus’ for the colder months, thereby length­en­ing their sea­sons and prof­its. The state­ment ho­tels of the Ed­war­dian pe­riod were char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally showy, rem­i­nis­cent of French and Ital­ian Riviera ar­chi­tec­ture. They of­ten com­manded iso­lated clifftop lo­ca­tions, and were equipped with all mod­ern con­ve­niences, in­clud­ing elec­tric light­ing and heat­ing, as at Low­est­oft’s im­pos­ing Em­pire Ho­tel (1909), then Bri­tain’s largest sea­side ho­tel. Many ex­ist­ing ho­tels were mod­ernised to com­pete with their newer coun­ter­parts and sev­eral grand ho­tels were cre­ated by con­vert­ing ex­ist­ing res­i­dences. Paign­ton’s Red­cliffe Ho­tel (1903) was con­verted from an In­dian-in­spired Gothic res­i­dence, and the for­mer Villa Syra­cusa, Torquay, opened as the lux­u­ri­ous Torquay Hy­dro. Times were rapidly chang­ing, how­ever, and as most sea­sides at­tracted hordes of folk from all walks of life, re­sorts such as Black­pool, Great Yar­mouth and Bournemouth rapidly lost their ap­peal amongst the higher ech­e­lons of so­ci­ety and the tra­di­tional grand ho­tel clien­tele re­moved their cus­tom to qui­eter lo­ca­tions. The First World War had far-reach­ing con­se­quences for the ho­tel in­dus­try as staff en­listed and ho­tels were req­ui­si­tioned for mil­i­tary and hospi­tal use. Many grand ho­tels did not re­cover post-war, strug­gling to com­pete with smaller, cheaper pri­vately-run ho­tels. For­tu­nately the sea­side hol­i­day re­gained pop­u­lar­ity, es­pe­cially at tra­di­tional re­sorts such as Black­pool and Bournemouth where new grand ho­tels were built, some in Ge­or­gian re­vival and Baroque styles. But it was the new, Modernist Art Deco ho­tels such as the iconic Mid­land Ho­tel, More­cambe (1933) and Ocean Ho­tel, Salt­dean (1938), which dom­i­nated the era, of­fer­ing mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties of so­lar­i­ums and sun ter­races and em­brac­ing so­cial changes, such as din­ner, danc­ing and cabaret, which were also of­ten open to non-guests. This golden pe­riod ended abruptly in 1939 when the Sec­ond World War proved more catas­trophic for sea­side ho­tels than the First, as beaches closed and count­less sea­side ho­tels were req­ui­si­tioned. Post­war sea­side re­cov­ery was slow, and many grand ho­tels never re­opened. In time vis­i­tor numbers steadily rose as hol­i­day sea­sons ex­panded, al­though the clien­tele had again shifted. The in­tro­duc­tion of an­nual paid leave al­lowed many work­ing-class peo­ple to take hol­i­days, al­though many flocked to the pop­u­lar hol­i­day camps and car­a­van parks. Con­versely, hol­i­day camps res­ur­rected some grand ho­tels; But­lins ac­quired and re­fur­bished run-down state­ment ho­tels in­clud­ing Mar­gate’s Cliftonville, and Saldean’s Ocean Ho­tel. But gen­er­ally, the old-fash­ioned, age­ing Vic­to­rian and Ed­war­dian ho­tels were vul­ner­a­ble to changes in pop­u­lar taste and eco­nom­ics, and as mod­erni­sa­tion proved dif­fi­cult and costly, stan­dards de­clined, and in many cases clo­sure and some­times de­mo­li­tion fol­lowed semi-dere­lic­tion.

The 1960s her­alded a new era as in­creas­ingly dom­i­nant ho­tel chains be­gan to ac­quire and ren­o­vate ho­tels, and a Gov­ern­ment Ho­tel De­vel­op­ment In­vest­ment Scheme pro­vided new ho­tel sub­si­dies, lead­ing to a spate of boxy ho­tels built at min­i­mum cost for max­i­mum profit, ig­nor­ing op­u­lence and grandeur in favour of prac­ti­cal­ity and func­tion­al­ity. By the late 1970s an ex­cess of ho­tels with hun­dreds of rooms meant that com­pe­ti­tion was fiercer than ever, es­pe­cially as changes in hol­i­day habits saw a de­cline at re­sorts as low-cost pack­age hol­i­days abroad be­came pop­u­lar. This greatly im­pacted the for­tunes of grand sea­side ho­tels, and by the 1990s and 2000s, many were no longer vi­able. Many grand ho­tels are long van­ished, but for those that re­main the fu­ture is per­haps now less bleak. Many are fully booked at high sea­son, al­though ac­com­mo­da­tion is of­ten af­ford­able due to bud­get coach par­ties, mid-week spe­cials, and ‘tin­sel and turkey’ and Twix­mas breaks. In con­trast, a bur­geon­ing niche mar­ket for smaller lux­ury chic bou­tique ho­tels away from the seafront, com­mands higher prices. To ad­dress old-fash­ioned per­cep­tions, and to at­tract a new clien­tele, sev­eral iconic grand sea­side ho­tels have un­der­gone largescale multi-mil­lion pound re­fur­bish­ments with new high-end leisure fa­cil­i­ties such as cham­pagne bars and spas. Lo­cal author­ity re­gen­er­a­tion and in­vest­ment in seafront projects help stem de­cline and rein­vig­o­rate sea­side towns. New ho­tels built at key seafront lo­ca­tions are of­ten part of ho­tel chains and con­sor­tiums, and al­though some re­ceive crit­i­cism for ‘mod­ern’ de­signs, there is a dis­cernible trend to­wards more in­ter­est­ing and sym­pa­thetic de­sign pro­pos­als, which con­sider ex­ist­ing en­vi­rons and preva­lent lo­cal build­ing ma­te­ri­als. Her­itage is also sig­nif­i­cant, and im­por­tantly, many his­toric ho­tels now en­joy listed sta­tus, and are recog­nised as be­ing in­te­gral to an area’s ar­chi­tec­tural and so­cial his­tory. Hol­i­day­ing at grand sea­side ho­tels has changed over time, and al­though spend­ing whole sea­sons at one ho­tel is a thing of the past, they are no longer the ex­clu­sive pre­serve of the wealthy. They are now widely ac­ces­si­ble, whether for a tra­di­tional ho­tel hol­i­day, a spa week­end, an overnight busi­ness stay, or briefer vis­its for a spe­cial din­ner, an af­ter­noon tea treat or a fancy cock­tail.

Be­low: Ri­val ho­tels, The Metro­ple and The Grand, Brighton. Right: Imperial Ho­tel, Torquay Left: Nine­teen­th­cen­tury wood en­grav­ing from Sea-side Sketches pub­lished by F.knott.

A gaily painted But­lin's Ho­tel in Cliftonville, Kent Left: Black­pool Imperial Ho­tel Right: Boscombe Spa Ho­tel, later re­named The Chine Ho­tel

Images this page left-bot­tom: The Royal Bath Ho­tel, Bournemouth; Em­pire Ho­tel, Low­est­oft and Metropole Ho­tel, Brighton

Images this page above left-right: The Ball­room at the Palace Ho­tel, Torquay and old-fash­ioned ad­ver­tis­ing for the Palace Ho­tel, Torquay

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