Seaside holidays in Britain conjure up a whole range of images… beaches, sandcastles, piers, amusement arcades, rock and candy-floss, boarding houses and their landladies, rainy days, as well as all those lovely seaside gardens, but maybe the one building that sums it all up is the seaside shelter. What could be more summery in Britain than a few hours spent sitting in a doorless shed watching the waves in the howling wind or pouring rain? And to prove how central to the British life they are, some of those shelters are now listed buildings, even though the names of their architects or designers are often forgotten.
Largely overlooked by architectural historians – after all you wouldn’t think there’s much one could say about a seaside shelter – but look hard enough, and the variety is astounding. Things have begun to change recently and a couple of books coupled with some listings by Historic England show they are now being recognised as the icons of the British way of life that they really are! So what’s their history?
The first of the two books is Seaside Shelters by photographer Will Scott. His 50 images take up most of the book but architectural critic Edwin Heathcote has written a short introduction which includes some really evocative word-pictures and ideas about why seaside shelters have such an impact.
While they might not be on a par with our great cathedrals and castles, as the architect and photographer Paul Dobraszczyk argues, in his 2016 book Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain: Myth and Modernity, Excess and Enchantment these shelters are a key part of what made the Victorian seaside a kind of fantasy land.
The seaside really only becomes a venue for recreation from the late 18thc, and then mainly for the leisured classes. However by the mid-19thc improvements in working conditions and crucially the opening up and expansion of the railway network enabled city dwellers to travel relatively cheaply, and even to stay away from home relatively easily. The Victorians also realised that fresh air was good for public health. This had already been a major factor in the development of public parks, and now at the seaside was taken one stage further. As Heathcote notes while “the central Europeans had their mountain resorts, forests and snowy peaks; the British had Blackpool and Brighton to escape from the polluted smog of the urban industrial miasma, into the fresh salty air.”
As coastal villages developed into seaside towns and reached by new railway lines, several became examples of planned landscapes, with resorts like Skegness, which the railway reached in 1873, designed as a set-piece: a street layout behind an open sea front with an assemblage of seaside features which were usually set in new parks or public gardens. The architecture of many of these new developments very much reflects the railway age. All sorts of new building forms emerge with many of them including bandstands, piers, winter gardens and clocktowers as well as the humble seaside shelter bearing more than a passing resemblance to railway architecture. Think of the Gothic of railway stations, and the even more simplified Gothic of early railway carriages.
At Skegness, for example, two of the shelters in that style, erected between 1899 and 1906, have now been listed, along with other built features such as the seaside railings and the Jubilee Clock Tower as are the adjacent Esplanade and Tower Gardens. These were all part of Lord Scarborough’s original development of the foreshore as it expanded from a small fishing village of 350 people into an iconic resort. You might wonder what elevates such simple structures to make them worthy of preservation. Historic England argue that they might be simple but they are also “distinctive in form with decorative detailing” and “express the leisure ideals of the early C20 and represent a period of an expanding summertime tourist trade.”
Skegness is just one of the new resorts that in the later 19thc benefit from the beginning of the rise of mass tourism. They also benefitted from the wealth that came with the growth of imperial power. Perhaps that’s why there is also more than a touch of empire about much seaside architecture.
We don’t have many examples of Indian influenced architecture in Britain much earlier – Sezincote, Daylesford and Brighton Pavilion of course – but look at many seaside shelters – and other seaside architecture such as piers and shelters in resorts like Clevedon, Blackpool or Bangor, and you can easily see echos of the Raj.
Chinoiserie on the other hand had been much more common, so it’s probably not surprising that there are plenty of shelters which have a touch of the orient about them. That might be the overall design or just some of the detailing. It doesn’t matter that some of the ornamentation is actually classical [as below where the guttering is decorated with Greek anthemions] it’s the overall impression.
So the exotic can be conjured up quite easily. It could just be a matter of the colours they’re painted, the colour or type of tiles or maybe the pattern of glazing.
Even the tiny metal ornaments on the ridge or corners, or a slight upturn at the bottom of the roof, can create that feel.
Some too can be considered almost like theatrical stages or at least stage sets which is perhaps not surprising since they are sometimes raised on plinths to get a better view, or are part of a group of buildings which included a theatre such as the one on the end of Cromer pier.
The more elaborate of these buildings must have seemed really exotic, and designed to bring some mystery and glamour to the seaside, making it a doubly different experience to ordinary day-to-day life in the rest of the country, especially its towns.
Then there are the slightly unusual ones. At Southsea, for example, there’s a shelter that resembles a Victorian tram but painted in Chinese Imperial yellow. Along the coast at Eastbourne one with painted panels.
Some don’t appear to be sure exactly where their inspiration is coming from.
The designer of what is known as the Clock Tower at Broadstairs designers tried to cram everything in. Two levels of different styled roofing, a clerestory, carefully sectioned-off seating areas plus a clock and weather vane – one commentator called it “the kitchen sink approach”.
Other designers played with more traditional British architectural styles using local stone, thatch or even half-timbering…
a sort of Arts and Crafts meets a Shakespearean Olde England
Of course while there may be the occasional hint of exotic luxury, seaside shelters are literally that: shelters. They are not proper “buildings” with built-in creature comforts but simple structures that merely shield the user from the worst of the weather, especially the rain but they are otherwise pretty much open to the elements. There was therefore no escaping the bracing marine air.
Such hardiness ties in neatly with that perennial British conversation piece: the weather. In the seaside shelter you’re never far away from it – indeed “the shelter is the physical embodiment of a resigned acceptance but also of defiance: “The rain may be falling, the wind may be blowing and, in my t-shirt and shorts (or raincoat and headscarf), I may be freezing, but I will enjoy this day out despite everything.”
But why did seaside resorts build them? These days most decisions are taken centrally or by larger and larger local authorities. We have lost the sense of civic pride – and indeed civic rivalry – that flourished in the Victorian age. the floral clocks I wrote about last week were one small element of that but Seaside architecture showed it on a grander and almost universal scale. That maybe why there are few buildings or designs by well-known national names , rather almost all seaside structures were designed locally by borough engineers or parks superintendents and they often have the town’s coat-of-arms of other civic symbol embossed on them.
Town councils generally attempted to make their resort attractive and welcoming to all visitors which usually meant free promenades and gardens open to all. There were variations on that theme with some such as Frinton aiming for a more select clientele, while others like Brighton, Blackpool more at the kiss-me-quick hat brigade – but all in their own way aiming for a civic identity and what might In modern jargon be called “democratic space”. On a practical level we must remember too that boarding house guests [ie most visitors] were expected to be out of the property all day, so its interesting to note that the conservation management plan for Scarborough’s South Cliff Gardens suggests that the reason they have the highest number of shelters in the country is because the council knew that such visitors needed somewhere to go in inclement weather.
Borough engineers and their council committees would have been keen to keep up with the latest developments in construction technology. As a result some features of the street and seashore are so distinctive that they create a whole other world that Paul Dobraszczyk calls seaside resorts “ironworlds,” and well he might. The versatility of cast iron helps explain the extraordinary ornamentation of later Victorian architecture. Visitors to seaside resorts would probably have travelled by train and entered the fantasy ironworld through a station held up by cast iron columns, found lodgings in buildings with verandahs and balconies, strolled along the prom with its cast iron lamps, benches and shelters and walked along the cast iron pier to be entertained.
Of course the fantasy didn’t last. The delicate cast-iron tracery gave way in the years after WWI to simpler structures and much more modernistic designs in the “new” fashionable material: reinforced concrete. It led to another high point in seaside architecture, based perhaps more on the architecture of the new wave of great ocean liners rather than trains. Angles gave way to curves and much sleeker profiles yet as Heathcote reminds us “despite the apparent solidity of concrete they managed to remain open, light, accessible and freezing cold in all the right ways.”
At Bexhill there is a pair of deceptively simple domed shelters in front of the De La Warr Pavilion, which go one stage further than being set on a plinth. Dating from 1911 the year of George V’s coronation they sit over a colonnaded shelter designed for outdoor concerts and performances. There used to be a bandstand in the centre at ground level with an outside walkway that projected out over the beach although both have now gone. The Colonnade underwent significant restoration during 2011 – 2012 which included the almost inevitable development of retail and catering facilities.
Another impressive piece of inter-war architecture is at Seaton Carew near Hartlepool. Built as a bus and coach station for the thousands of visitors it backs directly onto the beach and doubled up as a seaside shelter, with public toilets under the central clock tower.
Of course not everyone likes concrete, and at Llandudno, for example, the utilitarian shelters of the 1960s which many might argue are now quite stylish, fell out of favour. In 2013 there was a scheme to replace them with the Mayor reported as saying “Getting rid of those concrete monstrosity and replacing them with replicas of the Victorian originals will make the North Parade in Llandudno a whole lot more attractive”. The 1899 plans going to be used as a template “meaning that they will eventually look very authentic”. However a quick search via Google suggest the finances didn’t add up and the 1960s ones are still in place.
There are space age shelters in concrete too. Trusthorpe in Lincoln boasts what one commentator called a set of elephants toenails while Dover and Deal both have several shelters dating from the second half of the 20thc in quite outlandish designs but now recognised as worthy of preservation and which have recently undergone restoration.
Of course many resorts did not just replace their Victorian shelters with more modern versions and instead have just added new ones. So at Skegness for example you can find not just the typical simple shelter [image earlier] but others including this simple open barn, akin to a school playground shelter, this smaller one with its ornate fretwork, a series of more utilitarian ones resembling bus stop shelters.
Once overseas travel became easier in the second half of the last century the British seaside holiday began to loose its appeal. Guaranteed sunshine on the costas had more appeal than bracing Skegness and almost every resort went into a long downhill slide economically. As a consequence they went into architectural decline too, as assets such as buildings and parks, always expensive to maintain because of the marine climate, became real burdens. We all know that once decline has begun it can quickly turn into a vicious spiral with vandalism playing a major part. British seaside towns are now amongst the most economically deprived areas of the country and require major regeneration.
That is happening in areas such as Margate where the arrival of the Turner Gallery sparked a wave of investment, and Great Yarmouth which has recently seen the restoration of its amazing Venetian Waterways. But even if there aren’t huge projects transforming other resorts there are small signs that things are looking up for seaside resorts and shelters in particular. Historic England has increased its listings, although there are probably a lot more than merit similar protection, and there are local schemes, usually volunteer driven, which are saving others.
One up to date good news story comes from Weston super Mare where over recent years the three remaining late 19thc shelters had become an eyesore. The structures were “decommissioned” in 2020 after they were deemed unsafe, with work postponed because of the pandemic. The local papers report that work is due to start earlier this month.
So why is this important? Edwin Heathcote sums up the seaside shelter as “an enduring architecture for everyone: young and old, homeless, left-alone, cantankerous or drunk. Seaside shelters have no doors, no opening times, no profit motive and no real defined purpose. They are just there. They are, perhaps, paradoxically, among the saddest and the most joyous, the smallest and the biggest hearted buildings ever built. They will surely outlast us all, still shabby, still slightly funny, still decaying. ”
I was going to end on that slightly downbeat nostalgic but realised it wasn’t the end of the story. Although he’s right about the shelters of the past he doesn’t mention the fact that there is a whole new wave of contemporary features so let’s end with a quick look at two of them. At Bexhill in 2009 the local authority won a £1 million of funding from the sadly now abolished CABE under its SeaChange Programme and opted to have a series of new shelters as part of wider seafront renovation. A competition gained over 140 entries so the appeal of designing a new seaside shelter is still strong!
Sussex is obviously leading the way because just along the coast is the colourful 324 metre Long Bench structure which ‘flows’ along the promenade at Littlehampton. It curves round lamp posts and obstacles, and twists up into two seafront shelters like this one. It even has its own website
Who said the seaside shelter was old fashioned and a thing of the past!
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