Oh I do like to stroll along the prom prom prom…

For the last in my summery seaside related posts I thought I should move on to the next line of the famous song and think about strolling “along the prom prom prom where the brass bands play tiddily-om-pom-pom.”   And in particular  look at the wonderful gardens that can often be found there.

Thats because almost every resort worth its name has from Victorian times boasted of its parks department – indeed many were laid out  in prominent central positions and used as a  way of attracting visitors and boosting civic pride.  They remain one of the outstanding features of the British seaside and many have been registered  by Historic England as worthy of protection.

While most towns and cities are built round a complex of grand buildings and major roads seaside towns are generally designed round  their open spaces, the biggest of which is their beach.   Most seaside resorts started life as small fishing villages, where the beach was a working space for fisherman, and there were just functional buildings lining the shore, while the houses tended to be slightly away from the front, and often facing away  to avoid the wind and the waves.

As these seaside fishing settlements expanded with the growth of tourism several things happened. The first was that the beach and the land immediately beyond it soon ceased to be working space and became instead a halfway house for visits between the sea and the town. A good example of that is what happened in Brighton – formerly Brighthelmstone – which began to become fashionable in the later 18thc.

Steine Field,  one of these local all-purpose working spaces with boat repairs, coal selling, net making, storage of goods and rubbish was railed in and turfed and by 1818 it had been transformed and the fishermen became unwanted nuisances.

The Steine became a “fashionable promenade… Unrivalled for the beauty of its lawns  and the crowds of nobility and Gentry which assemble there every evening.”  It  was a key element in Brighton’s success, but it wasn’t really directly on the beach and over time visitors didn’t just want promenades near the sea they wanted sea views and the fresh air that came from walks directly  along the sea front .

So to keep up its fashionable status The Steine continued to evolve. It shifted from being a simple space for promenades into a pleasure ground complete with all the paraphernalia of a public park but a public park for the elite: ornamental flower beds, iron railings, paved paths, lighting, statues and then in 1846 a huge ornamental fountain that stood 32ft high with cast-iron dolphin supporters.

This story was repeated elsewhere with visitors taking precedence over local workers. At Hastings, for example,  the beach was tidied and increasingly regulated by the town authorities as the town’s status as resort grew, and by 1858 the author of one guide commented “the beach has been vastly improved by the removal of the quaint looking old fishing huts, that formerly so obstructed the sea view.”

Of course the beach was far too  unpredictable and uncomfortable to be the place to take a promenade, so a transitional space  was needed between it and the town.  In most  seaside resorts that took the form of  a solid  dependable level surface where it was safe and easy to walk and observe not only the sea and the architecture of the town, but also the other visitors.  This became known as the promenade or esplanade. Interestingly both words borrowed from  Europe. Promenade  from the French …. while esplanade derives from a continental military term meaning the  open, level space of ground, separating the citadel of a fortress from the adjoining town [OED].

It was still being used in that sense of a defensive protective open space  well into the 19thc, but of course at the seaside the term was equally appropriate because that’s precisely what the new esplanades or promenades were doing.  In most coastal places  the boundary between land and sea was always at risk of changing through  erosion or build up and  coastal defences were needed to tame the power of the sea and fix the boundary between sea and the new resorts more permanently.   Of course the authorities didn’t necessarily want to give the impression that the land was in anyway unstable or dangerous so, combining necessity with ornament these coastal defences were often camouflaged by gardens and structures of various sorts. This meant that land without much economic or aesthetic value by the standards of the day such as sand dunes, marshland, and cliffs were co-opted, adapted and redesigned to create  new artificial landscapes.

And these new landscapes were very definitely artificial. There was no attempt anywhere to imitate nature, rather defy it.

One of the main features, especially in the second half of the 19thc was carpet bedding in its many guises. Named for the intricate geometric patterns that could be found on Persian and other eastern carpets it  meant laying out closely planted beds of colourful low-growing foliage plants, which sometimes of course included those that flowered profusely too. The more colourful and the more complex the design the better. It required huge numbers of plants, often only half-hardy, and so was both expensive and time-consuming and fiddly to do.


Later variations moved away from the low-level,  and incorporated “exotic” planting of differing heights – and again the more luxuriant and outrageous it was the better.   Displays like this were way beyond the means of almost all amateur gardeners and added to the sense of exotic difference to be found at the seaside.   A few resorts like Eastbourne still manage to capture the spirit of these 19thc planting schemes  despite the expense.

[For more on carpet bedding and its cousin mosaiculture see Brent Elliott’s article “Mosaiculture: Its Origins and Significance” in Garden History vol9 Spring 1981, available for free via JSTOR  and a Garden Musum blog post from May 2019]

As older resorts like Brighton and Weymouth continued to evolve, so new ones sprang up all round the coast, particularly as the railway network  expanded.  Landowners saw the potential for profitable coastal developments on  land previously without much value and   began to lay out their grounds in carefully planned ways. The aim was usually  to create a unified and fashionable look for their new resort.  Almost all of these plans involved extensive public parks and gardens as  central features, and often had green spaces in a less formal style extending out at the edges of the town too.

Alongside  these early publicly accessible developments   were more exclusive private seaside estates such as Kemptown in Brighton and St Leonards in Hastings . These often had communal but private gardens which charged a  subscription to residents, much in the style of London squares. Elsewhere developers created commercial pleasure grounds open to everyone who had the money to pay the admission charge.

An early example was a small settlement around the mouth of the river Bourne in Dorset.  In 1836 Sir George Gervis commissioned the architect Benjamin Ferrey to lay out an estate on his share of what had until 1801 been common land.  Ferrey’s plan included  space for private but communal pleasure grounds along the banks of the Bourne.

A few years later in 1845 Decimus Burton took over and extended the gardens further inland.  As the population grew management became more onerous and  so in 1859 the gardens were leased to the new town authorities and became a public park.

As in other resorts the arrival of the railway in 1870 led to a massive growth in visitor numbers, especially from London and the Midlands, while the town’s population grew darmatically too from 17,000 in 1889 to 60,000 by the end of the century. Bournemouth was booming  or in  Thomas Hardy’s words it was  “a fairy place suddenly created by the stroke of a wand”.

Apart from the vibrant carpet bedding and plantings of “exotic” specimens like cordylines which you can see in the images, one of the other prominent features  of what are now known by distinctly mundane name of the Lower and Upper Central Gardens is  all the rockwork.  At Bournemnouth it was installed in the 1890s by  the famous firm of James Pulham who were specialists  in creating  landscapes using both natural stone and their own invention, an artificial rock called Pulhamite.

Further features such as the Coy Pond and  other now archetypal seaside garden attractions such as mini-golf were added in the 20thc. The gardens now extend to 20ha  in a narrow strip for about 3km along the Bourne forming a green heart for the city.

As the town grew so other “organized” green spaces on its outskirts were created by “formalising” the cliffs and chines [a chine is a steep-sided gorge created by a steam cutting through very soft rock on its way to the sea.]  For example in the 1920s  a terraced tropical garden  was laid out in Alum Chine overlooking the bay.  They were part of a “Gardens of Excellence” scheme to help make Bournemouth even more appealing. Having become overrun, they were restored and replanted in 1996, and a new paved viewing area added.

There is a full history and detailed description of the Grade II listed Central Gardens, , on the HE website. while descriptions of the other seaside gardens in Bournemouth can be found on the council’s website.

While Bournemouth was building gardens running inland from the sea,  at Scarborough in Yorkshire they were were taming the cliffs. There had been a long established mineral spring at the foot of South Cliff but in the late 1820s a proper spa began to develop, with a new Spa Promenade  opened in 1839, when walks were  also laid out on the cliff.  As at Bournemouth tourism developed rapidly and in the 1850s Joseph Paxton was commissioned to build a Grand Hall and an extended promenade, together with a bandstand, and some Italianate style gardens with balustraded staricases carved out of  a section of the steep cliffs.

A  ‘Swiss Chalet’ and other shelters and summerhouses soon followed, [see last week’s post] before in 1862  the ‘People’s Park’, with lots more rock work,  was laid out running down to the seafront and the Spa promenade.

The country’s first cliff railway opened in 1874 and development and expansion of the various gardens continued through the rest of the 19thc including extending the promenade over reclaimed land at the foot of the the cliff.


As I showed last week much of developement of seaside resorts – particularly buildings, and hard landscaping was down to the local borough engineer. Scarborough was lucky to have Harry Smith in post from 1897 to 1933. He was a man with a vision and created around 300 acres of new public green space in his time, mainly from previously “valueless” land obviously in Scarborough’s case particuallry its cliffs.  From c 1910 he united the various small gardens already there to form South Cliff Gardens.  They were linked with lots of long gently sloping  paths which were  were edged with rocks excavated from the beach during the building of the first open-air tidal bathing pool in Britain which opened in 1914.

As can be seen not all of these gardens were  planted ornamentally, or even  apparently planted deliberately but where they were the effect must have been stunning. Smith’s triumph was the creation of  the Italian Garden in 1912 which was carefully fiitted into the topography of the cliffs.

In the 1930s the more sheltered of these gardens were renowned for their summer displays of brightly coloured plants such as dahlias,  as well as  tropical plants and cacti. Amazingly this tradition has been maintained.

There was further development after Smiths time but it wasn’t until 1957 that all these various garden areas were bought together by the coropration in a single united park, which has now been listed as Grade 2 by Historic England.


There has been an impressive  recent programme of restoration of all the gardens, paths and shelters and I guess Smith would be pleased that his work is still in place and looking good.

While there were constant fears of falls and cliff collapse  at Scarborough – and indeed a hotel did fall into the sea taking most of its gardens with it in 1989 – it was exactly the opposite problem at Southport. There, around 1834,  The Promenade, was laid out as a form of coastal protection which also enabled  building development by the estate owner Peter Hesketh-Fleetwood, on the sand-hills behind.

What happened consequently probably wasn’t expected but the promenade helped the Ribble  to silt up and  the sea to recede. A pier was built in 1860 but had to be extended twice more as the sea continued its retreat. However the “new” land created was  acquired by the town and developed as the Marine Park and gardens which included a large lake  in the 1880s.

Early the next century  Thomas Mawson drew up more designs, with a mix of open grass, shrubberies and intricate parterre flower beds,   on the site which he included in his 19i1 book Civic Art.  Although they weren’t   implemented they did influence the local Borough Engineer’s design for other nearby gardens. Again the gardens are listed at Grade 2 by HE.


While Hesketh-Fleetwood was working on Southport he was also working on developing a complete new town on  his estate at the mouth of the River Wyre.    It was bleak and waterlogged land but, neverthless, thought to be  a suitable base for both a  new port to rival Liverpool and a ferry terminus for travellers to Scotland which it was thought at the time would be impossible to reach by rail through the Lake District.

Hesketh-Fleetwood had spent holidays at St Leonards, the private development near Hastings designed by James Burton and was friends with his son Decimus who he commissioned to lay out the  new town. Unfortunately his vision was rather expensive and, in the end, virtually bankrupted him.

Work began in 1835 starting from the highest point on the coast, a large sandhill  now known as The Mount, from where there are spectacular views across the Wyre estuary and Morecambe Bay to north Lancashire and Cumbria. The street pattern  radiated out from there with the hill itself becoming the central garden, with a pagoda on the summit.  Sadly this was replaced by a pavilion in 1902 – rather nice but not quite as exotic although it is still listed at Grade II.

 Apologies… Once again I got a bit carried away and didn’t cover everything I wanted to so I’ll return with some more about seaside promenade gardens next week.

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2 Responses to Oh I do like to stroll along the prom prom prom…

  1. Everything Plant says:

    Hey there, I like the site! great job.

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