Why do we love the seaside?

Why does the seaside hold such a special place in the hearts of the British? What is it that draws us in?

Though our ice creams melt and seagulls steal our lunch, something about the seaside keeps us going back. Some of our earliest and most vivid memories are made at the seaside, a topic explored in The Great British Seaside photography exhibition at the National Maritime Museum.

Photographic memory

David Hurn and Simon Roberts, photographers

We all take photos at the seaside. They help us remember the fun we've had, and reflect on time passing as each generation repeats the rituals of their youth with their own children. Professional photographers capture the seaside from all angles, observing beach life as much for social documentary as for their own personal keepsakes.

“A good seaside photo is one that evokes memory”

But they still have their own memories to draw from. Photographers David Hurn and Simon Roberts remember their childhood seaside experiences. For David, it was trips to Barry Island as a boy: the picnics, the bucket and spade, and the inflatables. Simon loved the pebble-lined beaches of Angmering where his grandparents lived.

The seaside tastes like fish and chips

Pete Fraser, fish and chip shop owner 

For Pete Fraser, his family's summer seaside holiday was always his favourite time of year. Living in the home counties, he would excitedly go to the same coastal village in North Wales every year with his parents and three siblings. 

Nowadays, eating fish and chips reminds him of those times. For 18 years he has been running Harbour Lights, an award-winning fish and chip shop in Falmouth. Thousands of customers have passed through his doors, so what is it that draws them to the seaside?

‘People love being taken back to a time when life was a bit simpler, and for most people that’s childhood. At the seaside you get to experience the simpler things. When kids lark about on the beach, surely it’s better than spending hours in a darkened room playing video games.’

His livelihood depends on other people loving the seaside as much as he does - and he has discovered that they do. In the early days he worked long hours to get the 'chippie' going, but now with a thriving business in Falmouth, he and his wife Sue have been able to set up a second shop, Fraser's, in Penzance.

"I could have had a fish and chip shop on a high street inland, but I feel happier by the seaside."

Image of Pete and Sue Fraser
Pete and Sue Fraser
Both shops are lucky to have great sea views. ‘I could have had a fish and chip shop on a high street inland,’ Pete says, ‘but I feel happier by the seaside.’ When he looks out the window at Falmouth harbour or onto Mount's Bay it’s forever changing, and he loves the variety.
‘The world can be such a miserable place, but the natural environment can give you happiness, especially at the seaside.’

Memory in a bottle

Life at the sea edge is unpredictable. You never know what the tide might bring in, and if you throw something into the water, you never know where it may end up. A message in a bottle could result in a friend for life.

Bebe, Devon

‘I was brought up in Brixham living above a souvenir shop my parents ran. My personal memory was that my family had a boat in a place called Shaldon. We spent a lot of time on that boat. At the age of 10, I wrote my name and address, put it in a bottle and threw it into the sea. A year later I got a reply from a 15 year old girl in Holland. We were pen pals for a very long time. My mother embarrassed me by putting the story into a local newspaper. I've tried to find the clipping from the papers archive but I can't find it... and I can't find Diana who must have married and changed her name. She's been lost in the mists of time.

"At the age of 10, I wrote my name and address, put it in a bottle and threw it into the sea"

‘The thing I love the best about living by the sea is our little beach hut in Paignton. We get to go there after school with my two children every day, my five year old daughter loves the seal that visits us on a regular occurrence. The local fisherman give us bits of mackerel to feed the seal.’

Image of children with ice creams
New Brighton, Merseyside, 'Last Resort', 1983-85 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Rock'n'roll at the seaside 

For generations of teenagers, memories are made at gigs across the country. For the kids of the 60s and 70s, exciting new sounds emerged from the North West with the popularity of Northern soul, which influenced the ‘mod’ youth subculture. Seaside towns sweeping from Clacton to Brighton staged clashes of fashion and music between the ‘mods’ and the ‘rockers’. The violence was short-lived and often exaggerated in the media, but this era of seaside life retains the glamour and energy of youth.

Brian and Sue, Stoke-on-Trent

‘We grew up on Merseyside. The big thing was crossing the Mersey on The Royal Iris or The Royal Daffodil. My father used to commute on it every day. As teenagers we used these ships to go to gigs like one time we crossed to see The Who. One time I got the boat across to Liverpool Town Hall to welcome The Beatles back from their first American tour.’

Margate, Kent, 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos
Margate, Kent, 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Summer lovin'

Love and the sea have always gone hand in hand on the British coastline, though it’s never quite as glamorous as the opening beach scene from Grease. Young newlyweds used to fill coastal hotels before affordable air travel made honeymoons abroad an accessible option. However, the youth of each generation has carried on the fundamental tradition and the beach remains a romantic spot for some seaside frolicking.

Anonymous, Leicester

‘It was a beautiful July day in 1981, my future husband and I were on our first holiday together in Lowestoft. We were very much in love. And only had eyes for each other. We walked along the prom and marvelled at the lovely street decorations, but everywhere was so quiet and unbusy. We had the beach to ourselves and frolicked in the sand. It wasn't until we got back to our digs at lunch and heard the land lady's telly that we realised it was Charles and Di's wedding day. Love truly is blind.’ 

"We had the beach to ourselves and frolicked in the sand"

Barry Island Wales 1981 © David Hurn/Magnum Photos
Barry Island Wales 1981 © David Hurn/Magnum Photos

Some of these memories were collected as part of the Maritime Memories Machine.

Banner image: Weymouth, 1995 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

The Great British Seaside: Photography From The 1960s To The Present​ runs from March 23 to September 30 at National Maritime Museum.Buy tickets