(Telegraph) – The British invented the seaside. Other nations will surely contest this claim, but the historical evidence is unambiguous. This year, on July 22, the world will celebrate 283 years since a British man and his wife first had the brilliant idea of going to the beach.
Already I can feel incensed readers preparing to contradict me, their fingers poised above their keyboards to post hostile comments. What are you on about? How can you prove? Surely, the Romans at Ostia? Hawaiians with their surfboards? Sappho on Lesbos?
Of course, in the two million or so years of human evolution, some of our ancestors must have thought it would be nice to lie on the shingle listening to the sound of the waves, but until a fossilised sun-lounger turns up on the Yucatan Peninsula, until we unearth a bog-body in a pair of Bronze Age Vilebrequin trunks, who should take the credit for discovering the modern world’s favourite holiday? Stand up, Reverend William Clarke, pioneering beach-bum.
In 1736, Reverend Clarke sent this smug proto-postcard to his friend Mr Bowyer: “We are now sunning ourselves upon the beach at Brighthelmstone… The place is really pleasant; I have seen nothing in its way that outdoes it… My morning business is bathing in the sea, and then buying fish; the evening is riding out for air, viewing the remains of old Saxon camps.”
Here is the genius of the true innovator. It takes Steve Jobs decades of tinkering to develop the iPad, it takes Henry Ford years to get his assembly lines in place in Highland Park, Michigan. But, virtually overnight, Reverend Clarke has sketched the template of a beach holiday that will remain unchanged right up to the present day.
Taking the water
Everything is here: loafing in the sunshine, swimming, seafood, the need to boast about it all to a friend, and even the slight guilt at enjoying such a brainless pleasure for which he compensates by pretending he’s also been taking part in an improving cultural activity (Saxon camps, yeah, right!).
Reverend Clarke’s discovery might well have languished in obscurity like other brilliant but badly timed inventions, were it not for this stroke of luck: the benefits of the beach holiday were very quickly given spurious medical reinforcement by a celebrity doctor.
Brighton-based quack Dr Richard Russell published a treatise in 1750 extolling the benefits of seawater: being near it, being in it, and even drinking it. The doctor’s advice sparked an upper-class rush to the seaside. A holiday industry was born, consisting of bathing machines – like horse-drawn allotment sheds – and brawny local fisherfolk called dippers who helped posh hypochondriacs get in and out of the waves.
Dr Russell also advised his patients to drink seawater to stimulate their digestive systems. A pint of it, the wise doctor counselled, was “commonly sufficient, in grown persons, to give three or four sharp stools.” The doctor’s regime was endorsed by the Royal family. The Prince Regent, later George IV, came to Brighton to cure his goitre, built a house and did for the seawater cure what Gwyneth Paltrow has done for the gluten-free diet.
From Regency Britain, it’s a straight line to the present day: resorts were built around the British coast, the expansion of leisure and the spread of railways gave day-trippers the chance to get to the seaside. Piers followed, and donkey rides, tooth-rotting confectionery, fish and chips in newspaper, Donald McGill’s saucy postcards, and Mods and Rockers punching each other silly on bank holiday weekends.
The world’s innovators
And then, as with all British ideas, going to the seaside was exported and turned into a vast international business. Even the most one-eyed patriot would admit British beach-going was decisively improved when it went global. Dr Russell’s slighly mad, pseudo-medical rationale for sea-bathing softened as the practice arrived in warmer climates. European beaches with limpid water, good food, and reliable sunshine transformed a purgatorial ordeal into something unambiguously pleasurable.
Today, as you survey Europe and its plenitude of extraordinary beaches – the dazzling golden sands of the Île de Ré, the red cliffs of the Algarve, the lagoons of Greece – you have to remind yourself that it all started with an obscure 18th-century clergyman taking a few days off in Brighton.
Of course, there’s another reason why the beach holiday took off in the way it did – and why it’s likely that some of our nameless ancestors were there before the Reverend: being at the seaside is one of life’s great pleasures. It may not be true for everyone, but for a lot people, me included, the beach is heaven.