Anne here. For those of you who are currently suffering the effects of blizzards, ice-storms, tropical cyclones, floods and other trials, today's blog is offered as a small fantasy, a reminder of good times in the past and more pleasant times to come. But since we are a historical blog, I'll concentrate particularly on the past…so close your eyes a moment and think of warmth, gentle, balmy sea breezes, and the tang of salt air.
For most of the history of Britain, spending time at the beach was far from a fashionable activity. The beach was the haunt of poor people — fishermen, and those even poorer who gathered cockles and mussels (alive alive-o) winkles and other shellfish. Even oysters were not regarded as the rare and expensive delicacy they would later become — helped, I suspect by their supposed aphrodisiac properties. Oysters, having no strong, fishy taste were often used as fillers for pies, to extend the more expensive meat.
The poor in some parts even gathered and ate sea-weed. My Irish grandmother told me that, and I can recall her selecting seaweed, rinsing it and eating it with apparent pleasure. She tried to get her grandchildren to eat it, but we refused. (Ironic now to think I eat seaweed almost daily these days. Nan would be proud. Actually no she wouldn't — she'd probably be highly indignant that I eat Japanese style seaweed after having refused the good Irish version.)
Bathing in the sea was extremely uncommon. Many people assume sailors and fishermen and seamen would have been excellent swimmers, but in fact mariners of all kinds were deeply superstitious about learning to swim. It was held to be bad luck, showing a defiance, a lack of respect to the element that ruled them.
It wasn't until the late 18th century that sea bathing began to be fashionable, and it started as a health measure. The Romans had introduced regular bathing to Europe, and that practice had continued for many centuries after the decline of their empire, but during the Renaissance bathing came to be regarded as unhealthy — even dangerous, as they believed water was the conduit by which diseases entered the body. They were partly right, of course; bad water was responsible for many an epidemic, but they believed the diseases entered the body through the skin. Enter the long period where gentlemen were sewn into their clothing and drowned the stench in perfumes.
But in the eighteenth century, doctors started using sea water as a treatment for disease. In the 1730s, Dr Richard Russell of Lewes began to experiment with sea water in the treatment of his patients and later wrote a tract advocating the drinking of seawater and sea bathing in 1750. In 1753, Dr. Charles Russel published a book called The Uses of Sea Water in which he recommended the use of sea water to treat a number of common and less common diseases. William Buchan's book, Domestic Medicine, published in 1769, which also advocated sea bathing and the drinking of sea water, became a best seller, staying in print for more than seventy years, and translated into a number of different languages. As more doctors took up the use of sea water as an aid to health, Marine hospitals sprang up in coastal areas, and the rich, who could afford to be pampered, took to the sea.
Soon it wasn't just sea water that was good for you — sea air was held to be full of ozone, a marvelous tonic, quite different from the noxious vapors contained by normal everyday air. (Again, if we're talking polluted cities, they were right.)
At first the health practices involved dipping people in brisk winter waters — and the effect was bracing, I'm sure. Strangely some people preferred to make their visits in the summer. The wealthy and fashionable started coming to the beach, and soon the trickle (yes, I can't resist a pun, sorry) became a flood.
Initially people simply had themselves dipped in the sea, usually by some muscular stoic who fished you out if you started sinking.
But some hardy souls soon came to enjoy it and ventured further, learning to swim. These were almost exclusively men, and they usually swam naked. And thus Rules Had To Be Made. In some places sea bathing was restricted to certain hours, in others ladies were banned from the beach during certain hours. It was their modesty that had to be protected, after all, not that of the men, flashing their all.
The bathing 'machine' was invented — a sort of room-on-wheels that was harnessed to a horse and driven into the sea. The occupant(s) were then dipped by a dipper (person) in the water in relative privacy, then, when they were finished, the bathing machine was pulled onto dry land by the horse. This is Queen Victoria's bathing machine.
Sea bathing became so fashionable even Royalty joined in. When George III bathed from a machine in Weymouth, a band of musicians hidden in a nearby machine played "God save great George our King." This picture is of Queen Victoria's bathing machine.
The town of Brighton became madly fashionable and much of the architecture of Brighton dates from this time, with its Georgian terraces and Regency architecture and not forgetting the extraordinary Royal Pavilion. Large hotels came to be built to house those who couldn't afford to take a house for the summer, or who only wished for a short, though luxurious, visit.
Mostly people just splashed around, staying afloat as best they could, but gradually swimming became a discipline and "swimming strokes" were invented, named and practiced. (No Regency gent ever swam with a powerful crawl, by the way, as I've read in several novels. That particular stroke was developed in response to the strong surf of the Sydney beaches.)
Beach business boomed in the Victorian era, and railways were built to take the masses to the beach, thus removing the exclusivity and leading to the development of private swimming pools. But that's a tale for another day.
In the heyday of Victorian England, you could find everything you wanted at the seaside — theatres, entertainment venues of all kinds, bands playing, dancing — all the fun of the fair, and water, too. People came in search of "dolche far niente" — a popular phrase at the time, literally meaning 'sweet doing nothing', or pleasant idleness. Sun, sea and leisure to enjoy it — what a concept.
I'm sitting in a small seaside town in Tasmania at the moment, hoping I can load this post from the hotel lobby (internet is down in the rooms.) If I don't manage to load any pictures, bear with me — I'll get them up as soon as the connection is back. And despite the internet problems, it's gorgeous here, and I'll blog about it on my personal blog when I get home.
Like the fashionable people of the Regency and Victorian eras, most of us still love visiting the sea-side, and long cold winters are made more bearable by the prospect of summer and the beach. (The photo below, posted for your viewing pleasure, is an iconic image in Australia, taken by Max Dupain in the 1930's at Bondi)
So what about you — do you love the beach? Hate it? Are you a good swimmer, or are you part cat and dislike water. Are you a beachcomber, or a collector of shells? Share a favorite beach memory, or tell us your favorite summertime activity.