History of the beach

Did you ever wonder when people first got the notion of spending their summertime “down the shore?” Well, Charles Leadbeater has. According to him (in Britain at least), people only started going to the beach in the 18th century.

From w w w . p r o s p e c t – m a g a z i n e . c o . u k:

The idea that going to the beach was good for you was a creation of 18th-century Britain. Entrepreneurs keen to promote an alternative to the spa hit upon the idea that immersing people in cold salty water might be healthy. One of the first recorded bathing expeditions took to the North sea at Scarborough in 1627. A century later, a string of seaside alternatives to the spas at Bath and Buxton were well established. Before that, beaches had been regarded as hostile places, at best a working space for people who made their living from the sea: fishermen, smugglers, wreckers. Swimming for pleasure, and sunbathing, were unheard of.

By the mid-19th century, the beach had become an aspirational destination, helped along by Byron and Shelley, aristocratic tourists to the Mediterranean and colonists in the south seas. By the early 20th century, despite its chilly waters, Britain had the most developed beach economy in the world. It was spurred by the rising wealth of an expanded middle class; an upper working class with more time and money than their counterparts elsewhere; urban dwellers who wanted to escape from uncomfortably polluted conditions; the early development of the railways; and the entrepreneurial verve of a local business class, responding to increasing demand. By the end of the 19th century, few places along the coast of England and Wales were more than ten miles from a resort.

It helped that nowhere in Britain or Ireland is more than 120 miles from a shoreline. Britain’s coast stretches for around 9,000 miles and includes cliffs and beaches formed from almost every major kind of rock. At low tide, this creates an open area of hundreds of thousands of hectares, which is regarded as a vast public property.

British culture was so influential in the 19th and 20th centuries that much of its beach culture travelled around the world. In Montevideo, the beach had a pier, gardens, bandstand and putting green. Many beach cultures still show traces of 19th-century Britain, from the Victorian formalism and fantasy of Brighton to the glitzy elegance of Biarritz, the populist pleasure machine at Coney Island and the hippy culture of California. At the core of each is the beach: a place where the pleasure principle is given freer rein, normal constraints on dress and behaviour are suspended and a mildly carnival-like atmosphere rules. Beaches are giant blank spaces, washed clean every day, on to which all sorts of hopes are projected.

People started going to beaches in search of better health, and while we no longer drink seawater in large quantities, as visitors to 18th-century Scarborough were encouraged to, most of us still like to think that sea air, a blast of sun and perhaps a bracing dip will make us feel better. The Romantic poets, and painters such as Turner, introduced the idea that the seashore might be the source of sublime experiences. They helped to turn the beach into an outpost for solitary self-reflection and rediscovery, a source of therapy – a theme now echoed in posters advertising beaches from Queensland to Oregon. Maintaining that sense of escape these days takes time and money. We have to pay handsomely to do without luxury.

Read the full article: Beach party

It’s interesting that something that seems so natural and timeless to many is really only a few hundred years old in most parts of the world.

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