Norfolk’s forgotten Crystal-Palace style winter gardens – and other stories of seaside renaissance

When the sun comes out, we head to the coast, but it doesn’t have to be all about the beach. According to The Seaside Heritage Network (SHN), of which I am the founder, there is plenty of overlooked history to explore along our seafronts, much of it a fascinating counterpoint to the mills, mines and steam railways that have been turned into popular visitor attractions. That industrial heritage speaks of our ancestors’ working lives; seaside heritage reveals how they played. This year the SHN is running its inaugural Bucket and Spade List of favourite seaside places and experiences, which is put to a public vote.

After some very challenging decades there is evidence of a new appreciation for our holidaying past and one of the joys of seaside heritage is that much of it is still in use. So, you don’t have to follow a brown sign, you just need to open your eyes to it as part of the backdrop to a day by the sea. Here are just a few examples that show how varied it can be.

Weymouth Seafront, Dorset

Weymouth seafront (Photo:John Harper/Getty)

Long before mass tourism, the rich and royal set the pattern for resort development. At Weymouth a monumental statue of George III overlooks the fine sandy bay where much of the seafront was built as a direct result of his patronage. When he embraced the 18th century trend for medicinal sea bathing after a bout of madness in 1789, the king sealed its popularity and Weymouth’s fortunes. Around this time, the new artistic and philosophical power of the “sea view” was also changing architectural design so the undulating profile of tall bow windows along the seafront makes Weymouth a must for fans of Georgian architecture.

Great Yarmouth Winter Gardens, Norfolk

Changing fashions and a punishing marine environment take their toll on seaside buildings but happily the crystal palace-style Winter Gardens at Great Yarmouth is in the process of being rescued. Originally erected at Torquay in 1878, it failed to make a profit and would have been long-demolished if Great Yarmouth Council had not offered to buy it. In 1904 it was dismantled and shipped from Devon to Norfolk without a single pane of glass breaking. After years of uncertainty this beautiful seafront conservatory now has grant-funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund to bring it back to life.

Blackpool North Pier, Lancashire

Thousands of Starlings perform aerial acrobatics at Sunset, they are being photographed by a lone photographer on the beach below.
Starling murmurations at Blackpool’s North Pier (Photo: James Ennis/Getty)

Blackpool is the only seaside resort popular enough to sustain three pleasure piers, but the North Pier is the grande dame of the trio. Currently celebrating its 160th anniversary, it is the earliest surviving example by Victorian pier supremo Eugenius Birch whose impressive oeuvre included Brighton West, Eastbourne and Hastings piers. At a time when Blackpool had a resident population of just 4,000 the North pier attracted 275,000 paying visitors in its opening year. Always the town’s most genteel pier it still feels wonderfully Victorian, especially when viewed from the carousel at the end.

Rothesay Pavilion, Argyll and Bute

One of the places up for nomination on the Bucket and Spade List is the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, an icon of International Modernism since its opening in 1935. Far less well-known is its Scottish offspring Rothesay Pavilion, a building whose streamlined curves first greeted Glaswegian holidaymakers coming “doon the water” in 1938. Like at Bexhill, Rothesay Pavilion had a flat roof for the newly fashionable sunbathing, the difference here being that architect James Carrick specified a surface of Lavacrete that would dry quickly after the inevitable Scottish rain. Plans to restore the Pavilion to its former status as entertainment and community hub recently got a much-needed boost and with fundraising ongoing the charity dedicated to saving it hopes that work could be completed by July 2025.

Shaw’s Amusements, Bridlington, Yorkshire

Seaside heritage isn’t just about listed buildings and traditional entertainments. The full and uniquely British seaside experience embraces the tacky and the kitsch, the sickly sweet sticks of rock and the flashing lights of amusement arcades. While many of these lights are turning from neon to LED and the arcade games have gone digital, Shaw’s Family Fun in the Yorkshire resort of Bridlington has kept its old machines and décor so that it feels like stepping back into the 60s. It doesn’t brand itself as vintage, it just hasn’t changed and the holidaymakers who keep coming back to load their coppers into the penny falls machines respect that. It’s cheap, wet weather fun that everyone can enjoy.

The benefit of exploring seaside heritage like this is that you don’t need sunshine to do it and after this summer’s mixed weather that’s got to be a bonus for both resorts and visitors.

Codman’s Punch and Judy, Llandudno, Conwy

“That’s the way to do it!’ – the famous words uttered by Mr Punch also sum up the Codman family’s fourth generation show which was first performed at Llandudno in 1860. The traditional storyline featuring long-suffering Judy, who has been married to Punch since the 1820s, and the woeful treatment of poor baby, might be viewed as out of step with modern sensibilities but the Professors inside the red and white booth are adept at responding to their audience. And when it comes to showing your appreciation, Professor Codman has gone from collecting pennies in a jar to a contactless tap.

@SeasideFerry; @seaside_network