I have always been drawn to the water. I was conceived in room 16 of the art deco Midland Hotel overlooking Morecambe Bay and spent the first part of my life crabbing in Morecambe’s boating pools, digging for ragworm with my Pop on the mussel beds and fishing for flatties off the stone jetty. Some memories weren’t so joyous but were perhaps character-building – such as being ‘encouraged’ to sing Cliff Richard’s terminally naff ‘Congratulations’ in a talent contest on Harry Graham’s bandstand and being dressed like Tarzan and sitting on the back of a float during the carnival. I can still smell the mixture of vinegar and olive oil that my mum used to smear on me to get me brown on Heysham beach!
Morecambe was a joyful place, where my nan had a choice of piers to go dancing on, where my mum had cool coffee houses like Brubeck’s to hang out in, and where I had a choice of beach activities and an amazing lido. It saddens me when I go back to my birth town that all this has gone, and the joy that I remember is conspicuous by its absence.
Morecambe’s tale is a common seaside one, but there are signs of life. In Morecambe, the wonderful Winter Gardens variety hall (where my wrestling dad held me up in the ring) is being gradually brought back to life and the Midland Hotel is being lovingly restored. Nationally, seaside lidos and theatres are being re-evaluated. There are mavericks with foresight like Jane Wood in Littlehampton and her Heatherwick-designed beach café, but more often than not they represent isolated pockets among poorly executed development. Many seaside town councils think that there is nothing wrong with letting Lidl take the place of some guest houses on the seafront or with allowing Morrisons to be the gateway building to the town centre. They allow chi chi residential apartment blocks to replace landscaped rose gardens on the seaward side of the coastal road while repeating the misguided mantra ‘because we need the jobs, we need the investment’, when what they are doing is selling the town’s crown jewels with not a chance of getting them back for many a generation.
I live by the sea now in West Sussex, where the National Trust ensures that this bit of coastline retains its value; but here, where strips of coast are owned by resident groups, a nimby attitude denies visitors of a decent café and even the chance to allow our kids to try out a full array of watersports – so there aren’t too many visitors!
And the problems don’t just lie with the sea. Our canals and urban rivers have been rediscovered as ‘placemaking’ assets but as their value gets realised, some daft councils allow them to become dominated by residential, missing the opportunities for the UK to bring a piece of the Stockholm, Copenhagen and Amsterdam waterside café culture that we line Easyjet’s pockets to visit, and forcing me off the towpath when I’m out running!!
It’s time we started a national audit of the value of waterside to the nation. Maybe we need a ‘Waterfront Minister’?