For Britain’s Seaside Resorts, Rejuvenation in Small Doses

This article is part of our latest special report on Waterfront Homes.

Britain has had a centuries-long obsession with seaside towns, first sparked in the late 1700s when doctors began extolling the health-affirming virtues of seawater and ocean air. The know-how, and wealth, of the Industrial Revolution led Victorians to embrace this innovation with gusto, resulting in more than 100 such resort towns dotting the coast by century’s end.

“They were incredible feats of architecture and engineering — even to attempt one now would be an extraordinary thing,” said Alex Fisher, editor of Coast, a magazine that celebrates life around Britain’s seafronts.

By the 20th century, they continued to thrive, and most had become synonymous with a brassy, carefree affect: saucy postcards, kiss-me-quick hats and an occasional sunny day on a spit of sand. The rise of cheap package holidays abroad starting in the 1970s slowly siphoned off their core market, though, leaving many foundering through the 1980s and 1990s.

But thanks to the British government’s restrictive, pandemic-related travel policies, which all but forced Britons to embrace domestic vacations again, they’ve seen a revival this year, Ms. Fisher noted. And that might have a future: Flexible working, she said, will make it easier to attract residents, rather than visitors, to such locales in the long term.

The best way to understand these changes, now and going forward, is to look at three very different seaside resorts around Britain. One has weathered the downturns almost frozen in amber; another is regenerating at warp speed thanks to a combination of convenience and cachet; and a third struggles, even as glimmers of hope appear.

Three boys sailing a homemade raft in 1934 at Frinton-on-Sea, Essex, which features an impressive housing stock and one of the best beaches in Britain.Credit…Reg Speller/Getty Images

Frinton-on-Sea, Essex

It was a Victorian industrialist who, quite literally, put Frinton-on-Sea on the map: Sir Richard Powell Cooper created the town as it exists now in the 1890s, pumping his fortune into creating a tiny exclusive enclave controlled by strict bylaws. There would be no pier, no ice cream stands — even the color of beach huts would be regulated. And there certainly would be no pubs (the first opened, amid predictable hullabaloo, more than a century later).

Today, Frinton-on-Sea is home to 5,000 people. One of them is Clive Brill, a 61-year-old actor and producer who now runs its seven-week summer theater festival after first visiting as a performer. “Frinton adjoins one of the best beaches in the U.K., which spreads for six miles — it’s golden sand and has the most fantastic tides,” he said.

His adoptive hometown has bucked the downturn of most of its peers in part thanks to a focus on upscale tourism from the outset. It resisted any effort to expand, or attract a broader audience despite the economic potential — compare it to nearby Clacton-on-Sea, a typically exuberant, mass-market seaside resort just 20 minutes’ drive away, which has struggled in recent decades.

Frinton-on-Sea also features impressive housing stock, including several houses designed by C.F.A. Voysey, the Arts and Crafts designer and architect. “I’ve had many a tour around it,” Mr. Brill said of one such home, “and it’s absolutely fantastic. It was designed with a view that people who had some money were moving in.” Prices can be surprisingly reasonable for waterfront property: An eight-bedroom detached house close to the seafront, for instance, is for sale at about $1.4 million.

Mr. Brill said that the town relished its almost Big Brother-like approach, as well as its prim gentility, with a knowing wink, citing the local maxim that compared it with a huge, nearby port: Harwich is for the continent, while Frinton is for the incontinent.

Indeed, more than one-third of locals are of pensionable age, but recent additions to town nod to the influx of younger people, Mr. Brill suggested — take the local tapas and wine bar, Different, whose name seems equal parts challenge and explanation.

Enjoying the weather in June 2020 on Margate’s beach, only an hour and a half from London by high-speed train.Credit…Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

Margate, Kent

Gizzi Erskine was amazed during her first visit to Margate eight years ago. The cookery writer and TV presenter who grew up in London came down to visit after friends from the capital’s artsy East began flocking there.

“Margate had a gritty glamour, and the sunsets are unbelievable — I’ve seen colors in that sky that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. The light is something to behold,” Ms. Erskine, 42, said.

Last month, she became the latest D.F.L. — that’s “Down from London,” in Margate-speak — after opening a new restaurant, the Love Cafe, in an old diner. Her business partners include Carl Barât, a member of the louche rock band the Libertines; he already co-owns a hotel, the Albion, in the town — where visiting musicians can stay while they record in some of the new studios that have also opened here.

It was hard to predict such a drastic upturn when Margate’s Turner Contemporary gallery opened in April 2011 (J.M.W. Turner had lived here as a child and painted the community regularly). That same year, one in four shops in Margate closed, the worst rate of anywhere in Britain, according to the Local Data Company, a British retail location data company; it was a stronghold for the United Kingdom Independence Party, the right-wing, anti-European Union party.

Yet the gallery served as a beacon to lure creative types to the town, expanding the population and perspective here in equal measure. The return of the acclaimed contemporary artist Tracey Emin, who grew up in Margate, was a boost, too; another D.F.L., she left her longtime base in Spitalfields, East London, and plans to turn her Margate home into a museum after her death.

The renaissance of this seaside resort is undoubtedly buttressed by its location — an hour and a half from London by high-speed train. That Margate was one of the first seaside wellness resorts also played a role in the recent rebound. The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital, the first of its kind in Britain, opened in 1791, and many of the adjoining homes date from the immediate decades that followed — large Georgian townhouses that remain well-priced and well-built, but primed for renovation.

“People who couldn’t afford to buy in London could buy here,” Ms. Erskine said, sounding a note of discomfort that’s familiar in any gentrified locale. One recent report from the Property Market Index noted a surging premium for seafront homes, which could fetch around $943,000, almost triple that of the typical price there, and likely a direct result of their desirability among the D.F.L.s. “I do feel slightly concerned about the socio-economics of it, all the rich white people taking over.”

A horse-drawn carriage in Blackpool. The city attracts millions of visitors and, lately, a creative class. Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Blackpool, Lancashire

Two years ago, when the British government examined England’s poorest neighborhoods, eight of the top 10 most deprived areas in the country were part of Blackpool. The resort city in Lancashire doesn’t lack for visitors — 18 million people visited in 2019, according to the local council; residents numbered just under 140,000 in 2021 — but that influx of visitors hasn’t translated into much regeneration.

Michael Trainor, a once-local artist (he now lives in Scotland), explained that it’s mostly thanks to a combination of location and size. Sun can be elusive on the Irish Sea coast, even in summer, he noted.

“It was the original Victorian chutzpah to put it on a chilly bit of northwest coastline. Mad from start to finish.” What’s more, much of the housing here is nondescript and recently built, with little detailing to inspire (the Edwardian homes around Stanley Park are a noteworthy exception). The average house price in the United Kingdom to the year end in August was $387,000; Blackpool’s average selling price in July 2021 was about $170,000.

Mr. Trainor, 54, said that Blackpool’s attractions, including its landmark Eiffel Tower-inspired tower, were built as mass-market crowd-pleasers, mostly for the working classes of Manchester’s factories. Luring new creative talent is much harder as a result; the costs, and risks, are much higher.

Yet Mr. Trainor, who is the former head of LeftCoast, an arts organization in the city, doesn’t discount Blackpool’s chances. He first came to the city for a commission and helped champion its arts scene for several years. And it is getting some national attention: Britain’s Arts Council named it an area of priority in September.

One of Mr. Trainor’s most exciting projects is the Art B&B, a 19-room reimagining of a typical bed-and-breakfast, with each room uniquely conceived by an artist. Christopher Samuel, for example, designed one intended to make ambulatory guests understand the inconvenience he encounters at most hotels as a wheelchair user.

Art B&B’s profits are earmarked for reinvestment in the local creative scene, and Mr. Trainor proudly noted that income from the hotel this summer exceeded all expectations.

“Blackpool has the same issues that all the U.K. seaside towns have got,” he said, “but it’s by far the most visited, so becomes a concentrated version of everything that happens in them, good and bad.”

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