It’s six months since I finished writing my book, Don't Need the Sunshine, and I’m at the seaside again. It’s New Year’s Day and I’m in a café in Felixstowe. I spent so much of my life visiting seaside resorts, reading and writing about them, and they continue to dominate my conversations.
When I started writing my book everyone I spoke to had suggestions for me. "You have to go to …" they would say, inserting a town of their choice because it’s the best or worst, saddest or most mediocre seaside you could ever visit. People have such strong associations with the coast - I’d spent a year collecting the stories of people who have lived and worked there. I wanted to ask the questions I’ve always wanted answering. Is it possible to walk away with a profit on those 2p machines in the arcades? Did the romance of the seaside die with the birth of Ryanair? What is the future of our seaside towns?
It was physically impossible to visit all the seaside towns recommended to me, but this is a book about those I have managed to visit, the towns whose cafés, pubs and museums I have spent time at, whose benches I’ve sat on to admire the views. At home, the wall by my desk is covered with postcards of the places I have been to. Skegness, Hastings, Blackpool. Rude postcards bought at the saucy postcard museum I visited on the Isle of Wight. Souvenirs of a year spent with sand in my shoes. I made connections with my past. Traced family footsteps. Went to seaside resorts I’d been to hundreds of times before as well as ones I didn’t know existed.
Felixstowe is one of the towns I didn’t originally have chance to visit, despite being urged to do so. "Check out the Cliff Top Tea Rooms by the seafront," I’d been instructed. At a loose end on New Year’s Day, this is where I ended up.
The Cliff Top Tea Rooms are a place where people reminisce. Look out at the sea while squeezing the life out of a teabag, refilling the pot with hot water. Here the world moves at the speed of the rotating cake stand displaying Victoria sponge, apple strudel, lemon cheesecake, scones. The café is crowded, the sound of polite chatter audible. Most people, I imagine, are reminiscing. There is little else to do in January at the seaside.
The café was suggested to me because there is something special about it: you have that feeling you are in a bygone age. Everything about the café, from the tablecloths to the politeness of the staff as they bring pots of tea is traditional and quaint. A sign advertises freshly cut sandwiches. It feels like we’re all waiting for a steam train. The feeling I have in this café is one that I have felt so many times at the seaside; a feeling of safety in nostalgia. The bad things can’t reach us here. There are many negative associations with the British seaside, but I have tried to focus on places like this. As so often has been the case over the previous months I find myself surrounded by contented people.
Outside, people walk along the seafront. The sea and fresh air don’t close down for a Bank Holiday. Three generations sit on a bench dedicated to a fourth. Two little girls ride bikes with stabilisers. A couple are enjoying their New Year’s Day hand in hand walkBeyond the beach, the sea sparkles; a sight I will never get bored of.
In writing this book I’ve stumbled across stories of romance, family histories going back generations, and new ideas to make our seaside prosperous. I’ve met a retired lighthouse keeper, dozens of Mr Punches and the lady who organises the UK sandcastle building competition. I’ve learnt about the history and future of the seaside; met bed and breakfast owners, artists, and those campaigning to restore theatres and lidos and Winter Gardens to their previous glories. The British seaside has never failed to inspire me, and I hope you will be equally inspired by the people and places in my book too.
Don't Need the Sunshine by John Osborne is out now, published by AA.