“Aren’t we so amazingly lucky with this weather?” I kept announcing, maniacally, to anyone who came within a two-metre radius of me. It was 24°C when I arrived in Margate, a coastal town two hours from London where T.S. Eliot wrote “The Waste Land” and where, in 2019, vegan-cheese-eating Hackney ex-pats try hard not to irritate their new neighbours. But despite the sunshine, and the brave face I was putting on, I was feeling homesick.
I am Australian and even though it’s horribly predictable to miss the sun and the sand, I can’t always help myself. It’s not British winters I have a problem with. I revel in cold weather, picking out a nice warm coat from my extensive collection, sitting in a pub with dogs and an open fire. But once the temperature starts to climb, I start to wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake in moving halfway across the world. The summers here make me crave a salty swim at a proper beach with golden sand, crashing waves, scalding-hot sun and the delicious risk of encountering a jellyfish or even a shark. The bleak British coast, with its unpredictable weather, pebbly beaches and just-above-freezing sea, just doesn’t cut it.
But after visiting “Seaside Photographed” at the Turner Contemporary, I have a new-found appreciation for the melancholic charm of the English seaside. The exhibition tracks how photographers have captured the coast from the 1860s to the present. Just like the weather you might find when you trek to the seaside, it’s delightfully varied. There are surprisingly risqué photographs of Victorians lying on top of each other on the beach. There’s a wonderful Henri Cartier-Bresson shot of dolled-up girls in fuzzy cardigans with curlers in their hair, poring over a newspaper in Blackpool in the 1960s. There are sublime photographs of waves, taken by Francis Mortimer in the early 1900s. A photographer chasing this kind of shot needed a “certain amount of recklessness”, said Mortimer, stressing the need for “a companion with a stout rope” and wearing one’s pyjamas under one’s mackintosh.
To make the most of the British seaside, you need to put all thoughts of sunbathing or frolicking in the waves to the back of your mind. Instead, lay your tartan picnic-rug over the rocks, throw on a woolly jumper, sip lukewarm tea from a thermos flask and read your book, trying not to think about how cold and uncomfortable you are. When you get hungry, walk along the windy shore to the next run-down town to eat some some heavily battered fish and soggy chips. If the sun comes out, join the mile-long queue for an overpriced ice cream, and feast on the sight of acres of greyish skin slowly turning pink. Don’t even think about getting in the water, unless you enjoy not being able to breathe because your lungs have frozen. And don’t worry if you’re not enjoying yourself. The best thing about the British seaside is that you can be as moody as you like. Nobody will mind.
Colin Thomas, “Day Trippers, Aberystwyth” (1985)
Three old ladies trudge towards an ominous horizon. Not a soul is on the shoreline and even though the clouds look ready to burst, the sea is as still as a swimming pool, as flat as the road. With their sturdy macs, headscarves and no-nonsense bags, our subjects don’t look like they’d be put off by anything as trifling as a spot of inclement weather. If you’re wondering what to wear to a British beach, look no further.
Martin Parr, “New Brighton, England” (1983-85)
Martin Parr’s witty, humane photographs capture the tragicomic charm of the British seaside, of which he calls himself “an aficionado”. “I can’t resist,” he once said. “In New York, you have the street, in the UK we have the beach.” The bawdy humour of this photograph – part of a series called “The Last Resort”, taken in a working-class coastal town near Liverpool in the 1980s – is reminiscent of old seaside postcards. A teenage boy is mesmerised by the bosom of the glamorous woman who has just served him two round scoops. In front of him, an ice-cream cone points priapically upwards, next to a trail of creamy vanilla.
Pat Gwynne, “Ruth and Co.” (1967)
There’s something slightly unsettling about this photograph, by Pat Gwynne, an amateur photographer who grew up in a Dublin orphanage and worked as a printer. In the middle, a woman in a red bathing suit is engaged in a futile battle against the sand encroaching on her towel. To the left, her friend in the blue bikini is contorting her body in an effort to tie up her top without exposing herself. Their two other friends lie peacefully with their eyes closed. In the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph, on the wooden rowing boat, we can just about make out the shadow of the photographer. Is he their friend? Do they know he’s there?
Hannah Blackmore, “Vacant: A. Hall & Co, King Street, Ramsgate” (2011)
From the 1970s, cheaper air travel meant that holidaymakers started to abandon the British seaside in favour of warmer, more obviously beautiful places like Spain and Greece. Many towns that were once buzzing with tourists are now marked by struggle and adversity. This ragged, blue-and-white-striped awning on a long-ago boarded-up fishmongers in Ramsgate, Kent, is a ghostly reminder of a livelier past. The juxtaposition of a poster advertising “FUNKY BLISS”, somehow makes the scene all the more depressing.
Julia Horbaschk, “Time for Trees” (2018)
Julia Horbaschk took photos of these six spindly palm trees on West Parade in Worthing, Sussex, over a period of 11 months. Worthing used to be a thriving resort for the fashionable and wealthy. Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” while he was staying there in the summer of 1894; in the 20th century, another playwright, Harold Pinter would call it home. These weary-looking palm trees, their exoticism strikingly out of place, have clearly seen happier times.
Seaside: Photographed Turner Contemporary, Margate until September 8th