“We got to the point where we had to say, look, we can’t live our lives in lockdown, we need to get on with it.” Charles Button, the 61-year-old owner of a family-run business of five Bournemouth guest houses is describing, in unvarnished terms, why he was so determined to reopen for business.
“On July the 15th we had no bookings. And that’s unusual – we usually start taking bookings in January or February. But we still managed to fill the rooms for most of July and August.”
“The tourists, they still come when the weather’s fine. No one ever complains. We had hand sanitizers at the front door and we just carried on… There’s some hotels making people bring their own sheets and all that sort of stuff. You know, that’s ridiculous.”
Bournemouth beach today is fairly busy, but the scene is a far cry from late June, when, as we tentatively edged out of lockdown, trains down from London disgorged thousands of day-trippers who fanned out along the hot sand like so many ants.
The culmination of two months of strict lockdown and that record-breaking heatwave produced behaviour which left zealous social-distancers apoplectic. Beachgoers were depicted as fecklessly risking the nation’s health for the sake of meretricious revelry.
Yet what followed was rather anti-climactic: there was no ‘second wave’ in Bournemouth, nor, aside from a few hotspots in the north and the midlands, anywhere else.
“There are some people that wouldn’t surprise me if they’re still in lockdown in 10 years’ time…” Button continues. “There’s a certain mentality, it’s just ridiculous. You can’t live like that.”
The lack of a second wave has allowed Bournemouth — along with most other seaside towns — to return to something resembling a pre-COVID-19 normality. And the priority for the hospitality industry has been to salvage what’s left of summer before the nights start drawing in and the weather turns crisp. Abundant sunshine in July and heavy discounts offered by the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme have left things looking more hopeful than they did earlier in the year. Bournemouth has seen a 23% rise in evening visitor numbers in early August compared to July — the biggest increase anywhere in the country. When I was in town, everything was booked out.
The cool northerly breeze along Bournemouth’s promenade disguises the strength of the late-summer sun. Seagulls zip noisily around over the pretty beach huts and children squeal around in sun hats. But another inevitability of the British seaside holiday is the unpredictability of the weather. I spent an entire day shuttered in the Elstead Hotel as Storm Francis battered the south coast. “The chief lie about beach holidays in photograph albums is that they only show the good-weather days,” wrote Ysenda Maxtone Graham in British Summertime Begins. The key to getting through these long and wet summer days, ameliorated somewhat in the internet age by the advent of smartphones, is “knowing how to sink into yourself”, as she puts it.
But with the advent of budget airlines, sojourns to the British seaside dwindled in popularity. Merriment was overshadowed with a gloomy penumbra of dilapidation and decline. “The high summer of the English holiday resort is over,” declared Bill Cormack in his 1998 book A History of Holidays: 1812-1990. And who would argue with that?
Bournemouth is relatively prosperous compared with many of Britain’s struggling seaside towns, which are some of the most deprived areas of the UK. I grew up 64 miles away, near Weston-Super-Mare, a town better known locally today for re-housing drug addicts than for seaside merriment. Parts of town really are no-go areas at night if you want to avoid getting your head kicked in. Further down the coast is Minehead in West Somerset – officially the worst district in England to grow up poor, coming a humiliating 326th out of 326 in the government’s social mobility index.
This is the relatively prosperous south of England. In the north, Blackpool has become a byword for squalor and deprivation. A couple of blocks away from the town’s famous Golden Mile, Edwardian hotels and boarding houses ruefully bear down on some of the poorest areas in England. Blackpool was described in 1789 as an ‘abode of health and amusement’. Nowadays, half the town’s population smokes and there is an off licencefor every 250 residents. During lockdown, Blackpool had the highest rate of unemployment benefit claimants in the country as the town’s tourism industry, which attracts £1.5 billion in visitor spend per year and employs many of the town’s residents, was completely shuttered.
Bournemouth attracts a different crowd from Blackpool; it doesn’t have the same louche and high camp atmosphere. You can still find the seaside crooners filling up antiquated music halls, but there are fewer Donald McGill-style postcards with their bawdy jokes about “newly-weds making fools of themselves on the hideous beds of seaside lodging houses,” as George Orwell put it.
Of course, Bournemouth attracts its share of stag-dos. My half-brother’s was here seven years ago, an inebriated affair during which the stag took the lines of a famous 1912 seaside music hall ditty to heart: Have you ever noticed when you’re by the sea/the things you can do there with impunity? I saw just one solitary stag party this time: a group of middle-aged men in dress shirts zipped past me one afternoon on a ‘Beer Bike’, a pedal-powered watering hole on wheels.
Part of Bournemouth’s trouble is its image problem. “Bournemouth has compared itself to Blackpool and Brighton, right? But we’re trying to change that and say, look guys you should start comparing yourself to the south of France or California,” says Andy Lennox who runs two Zim Braai restaurants in Bournemouth, and who also founded The Wonky Table, a network of around 500 local hospitality firms.
Some will sneer at Lennox’s enthusiasm for Bournemouth; there’s peculiar prejudice common in some quarters of Britain which assumes that foreign automatically equals superior. Yet there is no reason France or Italy should produce an innately better vacation than the south coast of England, pace the vagaries of our climate. Holidaying in Britain can be just as pleasant as jetting off to Bordeaux or Tuscany, providing you’re not hamstrung by haughty disdain for your fellow countrymen.
With international travel pretty much off the agenda for the foreseeable future, and with the Government encouraging ‘staycations’, the next 12 to 18 months represent a once in a generation opportunity to reverse a decades-long decline in places such as Bournemouth, Blackpool and Morecambe. Global passenger traffic is not expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024, according to airline industry organisations.
But first, these towns need to survive the coming months. “It’s going to be a very, very tough winter,” says Lennox. “Anybody who’s a good operator right now is sitting there going, ‘Okay cool, batten down the hatches and wait for what’s coming’.”
During the colder months, targeted Government support for seaside industries will be needed more than ever. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was a great success, says Lennox. And it did manage to assuage some of the financial losses experienced by the hospitality sector during the initial stages of lockdown, when around 80% of firms closed their doors and about 1.4 million workers were furloughed.
“It’s been the most effective campaign the Government has ever done,” he says. “They’ve galvanised an industry by pumping £500 million in, but they’re also getting the tax returns off the back of that as well. They’re also going to potentially get more companies returning quicker to a profit, which will increase corporation tax.”
A policy that was portentously dismissed by the Guardian less than a month ago as “junk… served up by a politician who should know much better” has generated restaurant footfall that is 17% up on the same period last year. Lennox now wants it extended for October and November, the “quietest time of the year”.
But as well as largesse from the Chancellor, towns like Bournemouth will need visitors. Indeed, perhaps the events of this year will open more people’s eyes to the abundance of possibility not contingent on an annoyance-ridden trip overseas. Lamenting a lost summer when we are surrounded by 7,723 miles of handsome coastline seems at best myopic and not a little ignorant: nobody in Britain is ever more than a couple of hours drive away from a beach of some sort.
Out on Bournemouth beach four hulking cruise ships are perched, immobile, on the horizon. According to locals, it is cheaper for cruise operators to moor these moribund vessels here than 25 miles away in Southampton. Cruise ships were mothballed in March and are unlikely to return to service until some point next year. Strangely beautiful by dint of their size, at night the ships shine like strings of fairy lights across the murky water.
Their presence feels rather symbolic. They represent travel in all its liberating potential, a prospect tantalisingly out of reach as a pandemic hems us in.
But as with the lockdown, this unexpected constriction can suffocate you — or encourage you to find pleasure in the small worlds whose enjoyments you may previously have neglected or overlooked. British life, and the British seaside in particular, is brimming with many such ordinary pleasures: the carousels and shabby Edwardian shelters, the soggy fish and chips, the sticks of luminous rock, the ice cream parlours, the slot machines, the Regency facades, the exhilarating range of candy flosses.
In the words of Albert Camus – who understood better than many Anglo-intellectuals the enjoyment to be found in a simple, unpretentious life – we should perhaps view our current predicament as “a lucid invitation to live and to create in the very midst of the desert”.
I head back out to the beach to catch the last of the late summer sun. Sitting in a deck chair, I take a look around: a young boy delights in what is obviously a first taste of ice cream. The froth from the incoming tide splashes across a woman’s picnic; she doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care.
Over the course of the past six months it has at times felt as though the world were on fire, with the progress of past decades slowly but inexorably turning to ashes. But right now, in the warming light of the mid-afternoon sun, nobody has a care in the world.