Britain’s best seaside architecture: The playful details that shaped our coastal towns, from funicular railways to Victorian masterpieces

What is it that makes the buildings of the seaside so distinct? Kathryn Ferry looks at the vibrant architecture of our coastal towns and the way our perception of it has been shaped by early-20th-century appreciation.

‘You can do things at the seaside that you can’t do in town.’ It was a standing joke with musical-hall performers and comic-postcard illustrators, but it was a sentiment that was not true only of behaviour; architecture by the sea has always exhibited a frivolity and playfulness, too.

Seaside towns have a different focus to those inland. Instead of a centre, they have a front. The border between land and sea is defined by all sorts of manmade structures and even the most resolutely practical of them all, the defensive sea wall, is ornamented for the delight of visitors.

Rebranded as the promenade, it may boast decorative railings, ornamental benches, welcome shelters and colourful beach huts. In the summer months, musicians still take their places in the band-stand and there is the pleasure pier, too, categorically not something you find away from the coast. All of these things contribute to a distinctive sense of place that has been evolving since we Brits first discovered the joys of a trip to the beach in the 18th century.

Lit-up Edwardian seafront shelter at dusk, Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, England, United Kingdom

Oriental detail lends character to this shelter at Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex

Coastal resorts developed in different ways and at different speeds. Many grew out of existing settlements, whether small villages or substantial ports. The fashion for medicinal sea bathing, which took off from the 1750s, gave them a new economic stimulus; contemporaries claimed that it had saved both Margate and Brighton in the South-East from terminal decline.

Other resorts were entirely new creations of the railway age, notably Clacton-on-Sea in Essex and Saltburn-by-the-Sea in Yorkshire. The unifying concern of them all was to provide pleasurable diversions for a visiting clientele.

View of Llandudno seaside town and beach

The grand Victorian sea front at Llandudno, Clywd

In the first place, this meant accommodation and the sort of social venues patrons from the aristocracy and gentry were used to finding at inland spa towns, such as Bath, Tunbridge Wells and Buxton.

The humble fishermen’s cottages that met pioneering visitors soon gave way to smart Georgian terraces replete with bow windows and verandahs (for which builders could charge a premium) and Marine Villas that sought to out-do each other in their quantity of picturesque details: battlements, rustic arches, Gothic windows and so on. These features still define the seafront at towns such as Sidmouth, Devon, and Lyme Regis, Dorset.

As the holiday habit spread throughout society, the 19th-century growth of seaside towns intensified. Queen Victoria’s new summer residence at Osborne on the Isle of Wight inspired a rash of Italianate villas and, from the 1860s, a new breed of luxury hotel came to dominate clifftops, none quite so impressively as Cuthbert Brodrick’s Grand Hotel at Scarborough in North Yorkshire, once the largest in Europe.

The Grand Hotel, Scarborough, dominates the coastal skyline.

For everyone else, there were serried rows of boarding houses marching back from the seafront, where new building types were emerging to cater for all weathers. Vast aquaria and winter gardens proved an expensive fad of the 1870s, those that survived doing so only because they adapted to provide music and variety acts for an increasingly mass-market audience.

This was also the age of the pier stretching horizontally out to sea, challenged, for a brief moment in the 1890s, by the competing claims of vertical entertainment structures; Blackpool Tower came first in 1894, but was soon overtaken by something even taller at New Brighton on the Wirral.

Novelty was the guiding force at the most popular resorts, but even those places that sought to maintain a more select tone had to move with the times to keep their customers coming back.

Smarter settlements frequently developed as neighbours to the more populist ones; in East Sussex, Brighton had Hove; Westcliff was more exclusive than Southend in Essex; Cliftonville kept out the Margate crowds in Kent; and, either side of Blackpool in Lancashire, Fleetwood and Lytham cultivated a superior air. Sometimes, architects were brought in to create a masterplan.

“Piper noted ‘an absence of nuance, but never an absence of romance’”

In 1836, Benjamin Ferrey submitted his vision for the new watering place of Bournemouth with villas and terraces centred around a grand entertainment pavilion on the shore. A decade later, Henry Styleman Le Strange consulted William Butterfield about turning part of his Hunstanton estate in Norfolk into a resort.

Right around the coast, patterns of land ownership shaped the look and layout of seaside towns. The Earl of Scarborough planned Skegness in Lincolnshire with wide boulevards, whereas the Mostyn Estate has long ensured the beautiful sweep of Llandudno Bay in North Wales is ringed with appropriately polite architecture (see top of the page).

Although plots were auctioned off at Cromer, the Norfolk town at the heart of fashionable ‘Poppyland’, a strikingly high proportion of its late-Victorian and Edwardian buildings were the work of Norwich architect George Skipper, who temporarily set up office in the town hall (which he also designed).

England, Norfolk, Cromer, Town Skyline and Cromer Pier

The many-gabled Hotel de Paris of 1895–96, designed by George Skipper, seen from the deck of Cromer’s Victorian pier in Norfolk

Skipper’s red-brick Hotel de Paris of 1895–96 still crowns the clifftop above the pier with an eclectic mix of bays, copper-capped turrets and balconies. Other coastal towns grew more organically, yet, whatever their individual history, they all share a discernible seaside character.

In 1938, artist John Piper tried to pin this down in an article on ‘Nautical style’ for the Architectural Review. Using his own photographic illustrations, Piper referenced such building types as coastguard cottages, slipways, customs houses and the tall black net huts at Hastings in East Sussex.

 Traditional tall wooden huts for fishing net storage East Cliff Hastings UK

The tall huts for drying fishing nets at East Cliff, Hastings, East Sussex

His interest in the functional quality of many maritime structures was in line with the concerns of International Modernism, but, using the example of a lighthouse, the artist described how the sea influence went beyond pure function to demonstrate a discernible taste, a ‘sailor’s taste’, as he put it.

The three key hallmarks of this taste were gaiety, evident in the bright red and white stripes of a lighthouse; an exaggerated show of strength facing down the elements; and the strong contrasts between a structure and its setting. Above all else, he noted ‘a straightforwardness, an absence of nuance; but never an absence of romance.’

From this point, Piper argued for a continuation of the seafaring influence, differentiating all seaside buildings from their inland counterparts. For him, the idea of people going to the sea ‘for a change’ or for ‘a breath of fresh air’ was subconscious acknowledgement of the fact: ‘It is the whole gamut of heightened contrasts that the seaside provides and that is strong enough and infectious enough to make life there seem fuller and gayer.’

Piper was one among a select group of mid-20th-century artists and critics who found beauty in aspects of seaside architecture that had hitherto been overlooked or at best taken for granted. His friend John Betjeman teased out the best of the seaside in his radio broadcasts and writings, as Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden painted such seafront staples as wheeled bathing machines, beach huts and piers.

Southwold Beach Huts on the seafront promenade Southwold Suffolk East Anglia England GB UK Europe

The brightly coloured beach huts at Southwold, Suffolk are among the many that offered shelter to visitors and inspiration to artists

Artist Barbara Jones considered even the smallest, most ephemeral seaside elements as folk art. All of them celebrated a kind of seaside vernacular. In a June 1947 Architectural Review article, republished in her book The Unsophisticated Arts (1951), Jones hinted towards a growing taste for warmer climes when she began by stating that: ‘We have not in Britain that regular strength of sun under which plain white walls give dazzling, holiday gaiety, but the iron lace and crochet of a really good pier are uplifting to the spirit in almost any weather, and our coastline is ringed about with the most admirable cast iron.’

She deemed Brighton’s Royal Pavilion — ‘surely Europe’s most magic building’ — the climax of fine architecture on the coast and attributed to it another important aspect of the seaside feeling, ‘a taste for the oriental, a feeling of exoticism, a breath of foreign travel, very simply and cheaply, in an age always ready to admire anything imported from distant lands’. Much of that copycat seaside Orientalism so beloved by the Victorians is now lost, but it survives in the odd onion dome.

Shelters offer a nice example of a distinctive seaside structure that repays closer attention. The first iron-and-glass versions were probably introduced to Brighton’s West Pier in 1866 by its wonderfully named engineer Eugenius Birch. Their success in keeping the worst of the sea breezes at bay led to shelters being provided on promenades everywhere, but the joy of them is in their variety.

The cast-iron columns, glazed screens and fretted wooden canopies of many Victorian examples mark them out as products of the railway age, whereas later designs incorporate everything from thatch to concrete, displaying changing architectural tastes in miniature. Open on four sides so that holidaymakers can cheat the wind from whichever direction it blows, they have always been free to use and are essentially democratic. That they remain useful in the 21st century is clear from the fact that new ones have recently been built at Southend, Bexhill and Hastings.

An unusual concrete seafront shelter, at Beach Street, Deal, Kent, dating from the 1950s, reminiscent of the age of Art Deco

A concrete shelter from the 1950s at Deal, Kent

It is arguably in this continual layering of our seafronts that their charms lie. Jones’s interest in everything from amusement arcades to zig-zag paths made her the perfect person to help bring a vision of the archetypal seaside town to the Festival of Britain, which took place on London’s South Bank 70 years ago this summer.

Alongside a display of rock-making and a giant tin bucket, Jones and her colleagues modelled a stylised seafront of cut-out building types that spoke to the aesthetic of postwar picturesque, which dominated Festival design. In the foreground, an ornate pavilion stood on the spindly legs of a pier. Next to it was a stripy lighthouse and, copied directly from Margate, the classical Droit House, now a tourist information centre.

Climbing up the pretend cliff behind a row of beach huts came the hotels, boarding houses and entertainment buildings, with a Victorian bandstand at the centre of a Georgian crescent. Diminutive carousels and a miniature Ferris wheel lent the essential fairground element.

Thankfully, the core of that mid-20th-century ideal of what the seaside town was and is survives today and, given a little time, even the brashest architectural intrusions can settle in. Piper confessed his dislike in 1938 for the ‘scourge of Victorian villas on clifftops’, although he conceded that, over the years, they, too, had become ‘encrusted with some of the salt spray of the seaside’.

Since then, seaside towns have been revitalised by DecoModerne lidos, hotels and ice-cream parlours, by post-war Festival-style pavilions and beach huts, by Brutalist car parks and indoor leisure centres, by modern kitsch and millennial promenade art.

What we retain of this melange becomes equally salt-encrusted. In a year of enforced staycations, it is worth keeping in mind Piper’s admonition that ‘to study 18th- and 19th-century buildings without going to the seaside is to miss a lot of the essential force of style in those centuries’.

He feared a snobbery against the playfulness of seaside towns would see the erosion of their special qualities and argued: ‘It would be far better to allow coastal gaiety to infect the whole country than to let it be squeezed out by the inland habit.

What there is of English seaside tradition should be preserved and everyone responsible for developments should keep an eye on it.’ It’s hard to disagree.