Pathways > The Pathways book > Promenades
Through the 18th and 19th and into the early 20th centuries business boomed for British seaside resorts. Early visitors were encouraged to the sea by physicians, whose remedies included drinking seawater as well as taking the air and bathing. Going into the sea was strictly controlled through the use of the 'bathing machine'. In this contraption you could change in privacy and enter the sea away from prying eyes. Stepping down into the water you might well be 'plunged' by an attendant. It all meant that the remedy could be charged for, of course.
People eventually broke free and, particularly with the arrival of the train, flocked to the seaside purely for pleasure. Some even swam nude. The promenade and the piers mixed business with pleasure, providing a platform on which visitors could mingle and where entertainment and refreshments could be offered.
From the early days the seaside was also associated with licence. The promenades and piers on which people strolled decorously by day were the venues for a good deal of fumbling at night. Prostitution thrived. The authorities did their best to overlook the seamier attractions of their resorts but were canny enough to promote them with posters of pretty, handsome and available-looking young things.
The Brighton seafront walk, featured in the book, is free to download once you have joined as a member of Walkingworld.
Below you can read the full chapter from the book.
There are accounts from as early as the 1730s of better-off holiday-makers visiting seaside towns, enjoying the bracing weather, having a dip in the sea and perhaps going for a ride on the downs. Perhaps these pioneers preferred the freedom of such spots to the social constraints of the inland spas. Those who lived by the sea, meanwhile, seem to have always enjoyed the beaches and the water for pleasure as well as for work. But for most middle- and upper-class outsiders the seaside holiday had to be invented, packaged up and delivered on a plate.
During the early years access to the beach and to the sea came to be controlled by physicians. The model was that of the inland spa, varied slightly to promote the special attributes of the seaside resort. The key method by which access to the sea was managed, making it available to those who couldn’t swim and allowing it to be charged for, was the bathing machine. Bathing machines varied in design but were generally four-wheeled carriages with canvas or wooden hoods, not unlike those found on gypsy caravans, and entrances at both ends. You would step in on the beach side fully clothed and undress in private, ready for your dip. Then the whole clumsy machine would be rolled down into the sea, either by hand or with the help of a horse.
It was considered essential that the machine blocked any view of the bather from the shore. Some machines were equipped with a canvas modesty hood on the seaward side, which dropped down to create a private dome. Once in the water, the occupants climbed gingerly down steps into the water. Some bathing machine owners employed attendants or “dippers” to assist the bathers in and out of the sea. Some of these dippers were renowned for ducking their clients with rather more enthusiasm than was called for, and a few became minor celebrities. Apparently a bit of rough handling during your dipping was considered part of the experience.
However, it was not long before the doctors’ grip on the seaside experience began to loosen, although bathing machines were still found at some resorts a good 150 years after their invention and “taking the air” by the sea continued to be prescribed as an antidote to the foul, disease-bearing vapours of the city. People increasingly came for pleasure, to enjoy each other’s company, to take in the views and to breathe the sea air – all the things that we go to the seaside for today.
The promenade was a wide open space designed into many seaside resorts, simply because it worked. It acted as both a sea defence and a social platform for taking the air, admiring the view and meeting with fellow visitors. Most importantly it allowed everyone to “promenade”, regardless of their social status. People could saunter along at leisure, showing off their fine clothes and admiring, or criticising, everyone else’s.
Like so many seaside structures, the promenade combined business with pleasure: there were opportunities for entrepreneurs to make money in kiosks, cafes and stalls. As resorts vied to attract holiday-makers, the promenades were partnered with seafront parks, complete with lawns, paths, flowerbeds, floral displays, bandstands, shelters, paddling pools and ponds. In places the cliff-top walks were made more accessible, to satisfy those with a more adventurous spirit.
The question for seaside resorts ever since the 18th century has been how to make them pay. As a present-day business consultant would put it, the object is to “add value” to the natural world and extract some monetary benefit from it. But attempts to control the behaviour of visitors have always been partially subverted by the general public’s waywardness. They rejected the doctors’ assumption of control and swam in the sea on their own, sometimes naked. They offended the official line in seaside resorts up and down the country by being rowdy and getting drunk, and looking for sexual encounters. They didn’t always obey the rules laid down by the archetypal seaside landlady. In fact, the trend by the sea has always been towards pleasure, in this liminal place where norms are overturned and where it’s possible, for a short holiday period, to misbehave.
Brighton started out as the obscure fishing village of Brighthelmstone. In 1703 and 1705 it was engulfed by great storms and the population dwindled to around 2,000. But the tide turned in the middle of the century. In 1750 local doctor Richard Russell published his influential Dissertation on the Uses of Seawater in the Diseases of the Glands, originally in Latin. An English version followed two years later. Russell’s seawater cures enticed the better-off to take the water at Brighton. His recipes are decidedly unenticing: one contained woodlice, cuttlefish bones, crabs’ eyes, bicarbonate of soda, milk and seawater. There is absolutely no evidence that any of his remedies worked, and indeed there were plenty of cynics at the time.
But the patients came and, believe it or not, they drank. It is perhaps fortunate that, although the town’s sewage went directly out to sea, the population was not yet great enough to make it a serious problem. It would be many years before Brighton was to get even the most basic of sewage systems, enabling the waste to be at least partially treated before it was sent down the outfall.
Dr Russell is sometimes credited with the invention of the seaside health resort but that probably exaggerates his influence. It is just as likely he was stepping onto a bandwagon that had already started rolling. He happened to be practising in an excellent place to develop his business. It was not long before other physicians “discovered” seaside towns all around the coast of Britain that offered equally good access to the perceived restorative properties of the sea air and the water itself.
In Brighthelmstone the movement towards leisure, rather than health, was given a massive boost with the arrival of the Prince Regent in 1783. For several decades George, Prince of Wales – later George IV – brought the fashionable set to his seaside palace, the Royal Pavilion. Between 1815 and 1822 society architect John Nash transformed a drab farmhouse into one of the most dazzling and exotic buildings in the British Isles. Many of the town’s elegant squares and crescents were built around this period, reflecting the architectural style of London and inland spas like Bath. The name Brighton came into common use, perhaps because Brighthelmstone was a bit of a mouthful.
The Royal Pavilion was the harbinger of the oriental style that was to dominate seaside architecture for a very long time, though it took a few decades for the fashion to take hold. The style was a mish-mash of decorative motifs and features, designed above all to be exuberant and exotic. There were no particular rules: if you fancied a minaret, say, you had one. There was more than an element of British imperialism in the style, each building and structure reflecting the country’s global dominance. But on a more innocent level it was a celebration of otherness, of the strange and fantastic places far across the sea.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Royal Pavilion in the early 1840s but their trips coincided with another arrival: the train. In 1841 the London-to-Brighton railway line opened. It was massively popular. By 1860 Brighton was welcoming a quarter of a million visitors a year by train alone. The great influx of hoi polloi didn’t go down particularly well with the royalty, or with the upper classes in general. Resorts across the country tried to sustain elite tourism by erecting gates, opening private gardens and building grand hotels – largely to no avail. By 1850 Queen Victoria had sold the Royal Pavilion to the Corporation of Brighton for £53,000. For her seaside retreats she went to the altogether more isolated Osbourne House, an Italianate villa built on the relatively inaccessible Isle of Wight.
Lack of royal patronage made little impact on the popularity of the town. The sea view became an ever more important ingredient, with the most desirable homes and hotels facing out to the Channel. A prime example is the Grand Hotel, built in 1864 and famously bombed by the IRA during the Conservative Party conference of 1984.
David and Chris Stewart, with dog Brough, spend a spring day visiting Brighton beach and the race course on the downs overlooking the town.
We are in Brighton for a bit of seaside strolling. We start our walk in the so-called Quadrophenia Alley, not because we are avid fans of the 1979 film but because our son and his girlfriend rent a small flat just next to it. During the 1960s two rival youth cultures, the mods and the rockers, clashed several times in Brighton. The best-known fracas happened over the weekend of May 17-18, 1964, when some 3,000 youths converged on the town. In the film, as this notorious battle rages, Jimmy (played by Phil Daniels) and Steph (Leslie Ash) crash through a door into the alley to escape a gang of rockers. While they hide away Jimmy gets to enjoy a brief moment of ecstasy with the object of his affection. People come from all over the world to find the alley, as evidenced by the (mostly reasonably tasteful) graffiti on the walls.
It is, perhaps, an appropriate place to begin. Sex, and misbehaviour generally, is an ever-present undercurrent in the history of seaside resorts. While the municipal authorities were keen to promote an image of respectability and clean family fun, many holiday-makers were attracted by the freedom from normal constraints that the seaside resorts seemed to confer.
The rather grand architecture of the seaside, too, tells only one side of the story. Promenades, gardens and piers were built to enable visitors to breathe healthy seaside air, take in the views and to mingle socially in an appropriately decorous way. At night, however, the dark spaces under the piers and in shelters and alleys provided other opportunities for intermingling.
Mostly this disgraceful behaviour was ignored, but in a noble attempt to find out exactly what was really going on the Mass Observation Project, set up in the late 1930s, sent its observers to another popular resort, Blackpool. They resorted to pretending they were drunk so they could fall upon couples under the piers and discover exactly what they were doing. In a selfless spirit of exploration they attempted to “achieve copulation” themselves. They succeeded four times and rather sniffily declared that Blackpool was “the most moral town in Britain”.
The authorities at Blackpool were surprisingly displeased. They might not have wanted to declare it outright but they knew perfectly well what the underlying attractions of a seaside holiday were. The marketeers learned quickly how to entice by implication. From the mid-19th century onwards a recurring theme on resort posters is that of fashionably dressed young men and women looking appealing and available.
A few steps through the Lanes brings us out onto the sea front. Crossing the busy street, we come onto the promenade. Here we would once have looked down onto elegant Italianate seafront gardens; the present incarnation is rather more utilitarian, with paved pathways and wooden boardwalks linking the bars and cafes housed under the arches. Turning right, we make a short detour to view the remains of the West Pier, built in 1866 by Eugenius Birch. Once a magnificent structure, it has been steadily deteriorating since 1975. Fires in 2003 more or less completed the destruction: very little is now left apart from the great metal pillars screwed into the seabed and a collapsing and twisted skeleton out to sea.
Turning back along the beach, we head towards the remaining pier. It’s early spring and not many are venturing on to the beach, let alone into the water. It is a reminder that swimming came late in the development of the town as a popular destination. The first visitors came explicitly for the improvement of their health. Even today Brighton lacks the classic sandy beach that most holiday-makers yearn for, though the pebbles have their own sculptural attraction.
We come to the Palace Pier, built in 1899 on the site of a chain pier. Its original name was the Brighton Marine Palace and Pier; it’s not surprising it has been shortened. These days dogs are not allowed onto the pier, and indeed they are banned from the beaches for much of the year. Health and safety, rather than morality, has become the controlling theme of the modern seaside resort, with signs telling you where and when you can walk your hound.
So Chris and Brough wait at the entrance while I do a quick tour of the pier. It’s early in the year and many of the seating areas are cordoned off for repainting. It’s heart-warming to see the woodwork being properly cared for. It’s a chilly spring day and there are only a few stragglers like myself doing a quick circuit or, in that time-honoured way, gazing wistfully out to sea.
We continue on our way east heading towards the giant marina whose great grey walls dominate the horizon. Just beyond the pier we come upon one of those quaint inventions that characterise the British seaside. In 1883 Magnus Volk built England’s first electric railway along this part of the Brighton seafront. It remains the oldest operating electric railway in the world.
The railway runs for a mile or so along the edge of the beach. Today it is not open for the public but one of the trains trundles past, a trainee driver and his instructor at the controls. On our left the cliffs have been transformed through the construction of the Madeira Terrace. The terrace demonstrates a long-running tendency in seaside architecture to obscure and tame the natural environment. The iron columns support a wide pathway along what would have been natural cliff, creating a third level of platform along which people could throng. Today it is deserted. On our right is Brighton’s famous naturist beach, shielded by a bank of pebbles.
The Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway was a bizarre addition to Magnus Volk’s land-based railway, designed to give the public the exhilarating experience of travelling over the sea. It took two years to lay the track beyond the high tide mark, fixing concrete sleepers into the bedrock. The single car was a pier-like construction with a 45ft by 22ft platform, which stood high above the ground on four 23ft legs. Volk named this contraption the Pioneer, although it was popularly renamed the Daddy Long-Legs. Regulations meant that a qualified sea captain had to be on board at all times and the car was provided with lifeboats and life-rings.
The seashore railway opened at the end of November 1896; a few days later it was nearly completely destroyed by a storm. The Pioneer was knocked on its side, the sight of which might have made some punters wonder about the wisdom of getting on board. Nevertheless, Volk immediately set to rebuilding the line and reopened it the following July.
The attraction was popular, but before long there were problems. The electric motors that drove the car through the water were not powerful enough at high tide, but it was not worth upgrading them. Then in 1900 groynes built nearby were found to have damaged the concrete sleepers. The railway had to close for two months for repairs. In a final blow a few years later the council decided to build a beach protection barrier, around which the line would have to be diverted. Volk didn’t have the funds to do so and closed it instead.
At the terminus of Volk’s railway we start to climb up away from the sea, going through an underpass to cross the road. We pass by a huge 1930s-style apartment block and continue upwards towards the downs overlooking Brighton. Skirting the golf course, we find ourselves at one end of Brighton race course. It is one of just three courses in Britain that is not a circuit, Epsom Downs and Newmarket being the others. It forms a figure like a horseshoe, with wide left-hand turns along much of the course, then a downhill section leading to a level finish in front of the grandstand. The dog, who has been forced onto a lead by the regulations along the beach, gets to run free. From this wide bowl 90 metres above sea level there are views across the town and far out to sea.
The connection with horse-riding harks back to the early aristocratic days of the town, when riding out on your horse was an integral part of the seaside experience. The pleasure of galloping along the downs has probably endured down the centuries, at least for the upper classes. The rest of us have had to make do with donkeys on the beach. In 1783 a group of Brighton’s richest inhabitants, including the Duke of Cumberland, the Marquess of Queensbury and Earl of Egremont, initiated the first Brighton races on Whitehawk Down. The two-day event became immediately popular and in its second year attracted the presence of the Prince of Wales.
With the creation of the direct railway link between London and Brighton, the races attracted a more mixed crowd, to the distaste of the upper classes, who felt it was their own. However, unlike the course at Oswestry visited on our Offa’s Dyke walk, the owners of this institution stuck with it, and the track and grandstand were repeatedly expanded.
The 1920s saw the emergence of a gang culture within the racing world. This continued on and off until June 1936 when the notorious Hoxton Mob were arrested. Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock explores the underbelly of the town, with violent London gangs running protection and extortion rackets. It is almost certainly a grossly distorted view of the place, which continued to attract the holiday crowd.
Passing below the main stand, it’s just possible to pick out the earthworks of the Neolithic settlement at Whitehawk camp. Built around 3500 BC, it is a causewayed enclosure like Windmill Hill near Avebury. Flint tools, pottery and the remains of butchered animals have been excavated, suggesting that it was used for communal gatherings. It may later have become a burial site, as a few adult burials have been found, along with a young child and a mother interred with her baby.
Coming down from the hill and back into the streets of Brighton, we make our way to Queen’s Park, set in a sheltered valley. Formerly a Victorian pleasure garden known as Brighton Park, it was later renamed in honour of Queen Adelaide, the adored wife of William IV. The park formally opened to the public on August 10, 1892. There’s a lake with ducks to feed, a playground, wildlife garden and scented garden. Exiting on the western side, we make our way through a further series of streets and down a long hill to cross another park and enter into the North Laine area, a bustling collection of shops, cafes and bars. Heading south towards the sea, we complete our eight miles back at the Royal Pavilion, where there’s a museum into which the dog, of course, is not allowed.
(Quadrophenia Alley can be found by walking south-east along Prince Albert Street past the town hall. Turn right into Little East Street. After a 19th-century cottage with walls made from tarred beach pebbles, turn left down an unnamed alleyway marked “To East Street”)
Other seaside resorts to promenade through
Promenades can be found all over Britain, but it’s the piers that epitomise the British seaside resort. Sadly, more and more are falling in to disrepair, a reflection of the overall decline of many seaside resorts, still suffering from the availability of cheap holidays abroad. In places, however, bold attempts are being made to revive the piers as destinations for a more demanding audience. The Grand Pier at Weston-super-Mare has been rebuilt in a modernist style, after a fire destroyed the pavilion in 2008; it advertises itself as a theme park. On the Suffolk coast Southwold Pier has the feel of an older, gentler world. The pier company boasts that it has no fruit machines but it does have slot machines in the form of Tim Hunkin’s whacky inventions, including a DNA tester and Autofrisk, which pats you down disconcertingly with a pair of rubber gloves.
Following the example of the Tate at St Ives, culture and architecture are being mobilised at other seaside resorts to attract a more upmarket crowd. The new Turner Contemporary gallery at Margate may start to transform the town. On the north-west coast, Morecambe’s Midland Hotel, an art-deco classic, has been beautifully restored. A walk along the seafront at Morecambe, with superb views across the wide bay to the Lake District fells, is hugely satisfying. It’s just important not to spend too long looking at the forlorn buildings and empty lots lining the seafront.
On the other side of Morecambe bay, Grange-over-Sands offers an interesting counterpoint. This genteel town maintains a Victorian ambiance. Arriving by train, you step straight onto the promenade. There’s a small-scale seafront park complete with duck pond, and plenty of tea shops and old-fashioned hotels.
Below is a list of other places to promenade.
Ayrshire and Arran
This walk is on tarmac paths from Troon promenade to Prestwick and return by train or bus. It can be linked to Walk Number 1889 to make a much longer walk from Prestwick to Troon and back.... More info
This walk can be started at either end. Starting at the Citadel it follows The Lang Scots Mile, which is measured as 1,984 yards instead of the usual 1,760 and then continues along the promenade and inland a short distance along the side of the... More info
This walk starts at the mouth of the River Ayr, passing through some built-up areas of Ayr before returning to the shore via Newton of Ayr and along Prestwick Promenade.... More info
Bedford is famous for its riverside promenade. This walk takes you round the whole route, but could be curtailed at a number of bridges or via short cuts. The walk is always refreshing in any weather and never far from a pub or restaurant to watch... More info
Compiled in April 2016. This is an easy stroll along the promenade section of the North Wirral Coastal Park. Prevailing winds blow across it from the Irish Sea and in cool weather they can feel very chilly indeed. The park is very popular with... More info
This is a linear coastal walk using a specially made path, as well as promenades and sea walls. It goes from west to east to take advantage of the prevailing wind.... More info
A 'Bournemouth Bus Pass' delightful walk through parks, clifftop, promenade and gardens from the Bournemouth Hospital Bus Hub to the top of Boscombe Gardens.... More info
Using a 'Bybus' Yellow Bus pass or your pensioner's English bus pass, you can get from the Bournemouth Square (town centre). Use the Yellow Bus to access the start and finish points. This is an easy walk from Tuckton Bridge along the riverbank,... More info
From Bournemouth Pier you ascend the cliff path and walk westward along the clifftop. Walk down Middle Chine to the promenade and then up Alum Chine Tropical Gardens to descend Alum Chine itself. The walk continues to Branksome Chine, where you... More info
The walk goes up along the famous Bournemouth middle and upper gardens, following the Bourne Stream up to and passing Coy Pond and then on up to Branksome. You next walk down the length of Branksome Chine to come out to the promenade and splendid... More info
A very pleasant totally flat coastal walk located in the south east corner of County Durham that is suitable for the whole family at any time of the year. The walk starts from the small seaside resort of Seaton Carew and heads north along the... More info
A varied walk along the Lincolnshire coast from the resort of Skegness via inland paths and quiet lanes to the beachside hotspot of Ingoldmells. The return is via the promenade past Butlin's, then on the sandy beach back to the pier at Skeggy.... More info
A bracing walk across the top of the Wirral Peninsula along a fine promenade or, if the tide is out, on firm, clean (if not quite 'golden') sands. At New Brighton we turn south along the Mersey for fine views of Liverpool's new waterfront.... More info
In September 2012 new footpaths were opened up in the dock area south of Birkenhead, making possible again a direct walk to New Brighton promenade. This walk takes advantage of the new access, gained after a twelve-year campaign. It is flat, without... More info
A promenade around the town of Holt, taking in the local places of interest.... More info
This is only a short walk but covers nearly a thousand years of history of this famous seaside town. It starts off following Regent Street down to the seafront and covers a large section of the promenade. The route then passes Nelson's Monument, the... More info
Start from the church, high up on its hill at Stoke by Nayland. It will frequently be visible throughout the walk. Walk through the village and soon use a brief section of the Stour Valley Path (which paradoxically follows the River Box at this... More info
From Gunton woods nature reserve to the cliff top road with it's great views. Then through the lovely Sparrows Nest gardens. Down the historic High Street and through the precinct towards the pier and promenade. Return by following the sea crossing... More info