The Great British Seaside

The Great British Seaside

Last month we officially waved goodbye to Summer and in its place we welcomed Autumn leaves and cooler days, however, before fully committing to all the wonder the current season brings, I'm taking a moment to reflect on one of my favorite memories from the last. While my Stateside friends and family celebrated America's birthday with cookouts and fireworks at the beginning of July, I was on an eagerly anticipated two week vacation in England.

Prior to my departure on June 27th, it had been five long years since I'd visited the motherland during the Summer months. As my imminent transatlantic flight loomed, I began to feel giddy with excitement simply thinking about the many quintessentially British Summertime experiences I'd missed, one of which was the long time tradition of an excursion to the seaside.

Fortunate to have a base from which to explore the south shores of the United Kingdom, I was ecstatic to visit not one, not two, but three of Britain's beloved coastal landscapes during the second week of my trip, the first of which was the famed seaside resort of Brighton and Hove.

Brimming with an eclectic mix of nostalgia and nightlife, the city of Brighton draws crowds from all walks of life throughout the Summer months. Despite several facelifts over the years, however, the city's iconic seafront with its renowned pebble beach, countless arcades, colorful carousels, and traditional deck chairs remains reminiscent of a time gone by where holiday makers flocked to the coast in droves to bask in the elusive Summer sun.

We spent much of our outing to Brighton by the sea, appreciating the timeless British beach experiences that appear to have unaged, unlike the people who return year after year to feast on fresh fish and chips, ninety-nine ice creams and sweet peppermint rock candy. I was somewhere between the excitement of reliving fond childhood memories and feeling like I'd stepped into a 1970s postcard and it was wonderful.

We ambled along the Palace Pier, pausing to watch the gulls coasting the sea breeze before swooping towards the al fresco diners enjoying their deep fried cod, generously doused in pungent malt vinegar and sea salt. The sun was shining brightly and the sightseers were out in full force. A group of children squealed in delight as they took turns feeding the vibrantly lit arcade machines, hoping to win a beach-themed fuzzy toy or a handful of coins so as to continue their amusement. I ducked inside the glass fronted rock shop to browse the neatly stacked shelves of rainbow colored candy canes, pausing to recollect the last time I might have enjoyed a stick of the cavity inducing confectionery. Laden with a pastel striped paper bag of traditional Brighton rock, we continued our waltz, en route to the towering helter skelter of the funfair.

The end of the pier was a hullabaloo of hysterical adolescents, zigzagging in every direction behind the fair's admission gates. The carousel whirled, the off-key organ merrily reciting "I do like to be beside the seaside" as the kaleidoscopic horses danced up and down. Up ahead of us, rising above the haunted house and the iron framework of the crazy mouse roller coaster, the helter skelter stood tall and proud. For a brief moment I vividly recalled my sister's enthusiasm for the spiral slide, hessian sack and all. I wasn't such a fan, yet standing watching the children in line undoubtedly brought back enamored memories of my own youth.

“The carousel whirled, the off-key organ merrily reciting “I do like to be beside the seaside” as the kaleidoscopic horses danced up and down.”
— Sarah Orman

We headed back towards the beach, pausing to enjoy a classic ninety-nine ice cream before leaving the pier. As the creamy, vanilla soft serve began to melt and drip down the side of the wafer cone, I was once again reminded of a younger version of myself; the slow yet appreciative eater who could never eat an ice cream fast enough.

We sauntered along the seafront, tiptoeing once or twice on to the pebble beach to watch the holiday makers relaxing in their iconic striped deck chairs or picnicking with family and friends by the gentle waves of the English Channel. A brief stop to purchase some local delicacies from a seaside vendor and our jaunt continued, soaking up the summer sunshine and the unmistakably nostalgic atmosphere.

Pimms and English beer at a small traditional pub rounded out our walk by the Channel before heading into Brighton city center for a spot of antique shopping and an exquisite fish dinner, complimented by a bottle of perfectly chilled white wine. As we headed home that evening I was filled with nothing but joy and happiness having relived a handful of fond memories from my childhood in addition to creating new ones. It was quite the perfect day at the seaside!

Our second perfect day on the South Coast of England was a stark contrast to the retro glitz and glamor of day one, yet it was just as wonderful. Only 36 miles from the colorful city of Brighton and Hove, Hastings is a historic fishing town that today combines an eclectic mix of industry, antiques and tourism.

Our day trip began with mid-morning coffee and cake by the shingle covered beach. Refueled and ready to explore, we made our way to the old town where we wandered without cause, pausing to rummage for treasure in the many antique stores haphazardly stacked high with curiosities.

From the old town, we headed to The Stade; a shingle shore that has been used for beaching boats for over a thousand years. Saxon for the term "landing place", The Stade is home to Europe's largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats. No more than ten meters long, each boat is hauled from the sea with their bounty after every trip. As a result, vessels are unable to carry large amounts of fishing gear and thus only fish within a short radius from the coast, making the fleet an incredibly ecologically sound one.

“A jolly looking woman worked diligently inside another hut laying out fresh fish from an early morning trawl, birds swooping dare devilishly in the hope of swiping a delicacy for themselves.”
— Sarah Orman

I wandered up and down the beach, weaving about the array of fishing paraphernalia strewn all over the tan and grey shingle rock. The colorful chaos of crab pots, ropes, anchors and nets was mesmerizingly beautiful, despite the fact there was no obvious system of organization and every so often I had to carefully step over a stray net or hook. A local fisherman trudged back and forth from his vibrant vessel to one of the small black wooden huts set inland beneath the jagged cliff face. A jolly looking woman worked diligently inside another hut laying out fresh fish from an early morning trawl, birds swooping dare devilishly in the hope of swiping a delicacy for themselves.

Despite playing host to a different kind of tourist to Brighton, this small yet historic corner of Hastings was somehow oblivious to the people who came from far and wide to explore the nooks and crannies of this often underrated coastal town. As I paused to take a few pictures at The Stade, I realized how peacefully quiet it was and how the only people around me were the ones grafting hard to make a living.

After pausing to take it all in and enjoy its characterful beauty, I headed back towards the iconic towering black structures known as the Net Shops, where for years the local fishermen stored their humongous fishing nets. I joined my family, who were sat outside a small, quaint pub overlooking the imposing black buildings and the colorful trawlers below them. The sun was shining brightly and all around us, locals and tourists alike were enjoying the beautiful British Summertime. One or two pints of my sister's favorite locally brewed ale later and we were on our way to the top of the cliff by cable car to enjoy a bird's eye view of the coastline.

The cliff top was brisk, the strong breeze from the English Channel whipping my hair in every direction and the cool salty air turning my skin a light shade of pink. We laughed a loud at the ice cream truck parked on the hilltop; the irony of such British tradition in the oddest of circumstances. After a short walk braced against the fresh air, we headed back down the East Hill Cliff Railway, any lethargy as a result of one or two beers assuredly blown away.

With everyone eager to dine, we made our way towards one of Hastings best fish and chip shops, where we feasted on freshly fried cod, chunky potato fries, hot mushy peas and bread smothered in salty butter. We sat outside on the seafront, shooing away the seagulls as we dined in silent appreciation of a true British classic. It was quite the fitting closure to what was once again, a wonderful day by the sea.

Our third and final seaside outing was somewhat rural by comparison to Brighton and Hastings. Famous for its countless miles of stunning landscape and iconic chalk cliffs, the East Sussex headland known as Beachy Head is truly a magnificent example of the best Britain has to offer.

Again, the sun was shining and the wind was strong. As we parked the car and headed towards the top of Britain's highest chalk sea cliff, I was a little nervous at the prospect of standing close to the precipice with my camera. There are no fences or railings at the top of Beachy Head and the path strays dangerously close to the edge in several parts.

Fear aside, I planted my feet firmly as I paused to gaze out across the Channel towards France. The view was breathtaking and thankfully not at all unlike the many picture perfect images I'd seen of this famous natural landscape. The red and white striped lighthouse looked so small beneath the steep chalk cliffs and as I snapped away {unable to check the back of my camera due to the terrifying wind!} I couldn't help but imagine the same scene during a storm; the sea crashing against the rocks below and the same small yet powerful lighthouse standing strong amongst the chaos.

“The red and white striped lighthouse looked so small beneath the steep chalk cliffs.”
— Sarah Orman

My heart pounded throughout the duration of our walk, a mix of excitement and appreciation for our surroundings combined with unequivocal fear and sadness, for in addition to being iconically beautiful, Beachy Head is notoriously famous for being a popular suicide location. Hesitating briefly at a small section of the cliff top dedicated to those who felt the only answer was to say goodbye to this life, we slowly made our way back to the car.

The remainder of our afternoon included a remarkably scenic drive along the South Downs of England towards the Seven Sisters; a series of chalk cliffs west of Beachy Head, where we paused for a traditional ninety-nine ice cream after a long walk to and from the beach.

Our visit to the chalk cliffs was a poignant one filled with both impressive natural beauty and occasional moments of solitude and reflection, yet it was just as wonderfully memorable as our previous adventures.

Three days and three very different British coastal experiences, yet despite making the most of each visit, something tells me we only just scratched the surface of Britain's beloved seaside. I once cursed the unforgettable tune heard over and over by the shore, however, there is certainly something to be said about the catchy melodic sing-song the British break into when we catch sight of the coast, for we all truly love to be beside the seaside, beside the sea.