Building universities in seaside towns could help revive them.
It’s the end of July, and I’m soaking up the fragments of sunshine interjecting a surprisingly chilly afternoon. Behind me is the mound of sand – laden with crumbs and footprints – and beneath me are the pebbles, granular and crunchy. Right front of me is the soothing lull of the tide, crashing aggressively inwards, foaming, while further ahead are small specks of people exploring rough-and-ready ridges. What are they up to? A few days later I’m by the water again, sitting slightly uncomfortably, and corrugated iron bars are in the way. For half an hour I do nothing but stare and listen, my eyes transfixed by the swirling dark blue whirlpool, my ears captivated by the occasional seagull, foghorn, or eventually, a thundercloud.
I’d like to say these were trips to the seaside, but they weren’t. Perhaps I wanted them to be. But one was an enclave on the banks of the Thames outside the Tate Modern, while another was an immersive indoor art installation by Martyn Ware, called It’s Always Ourselves We Find In The Sea. In fact, apart from a trip to Brighton (which was primarily to see a friend that lived there), I’ve done almost everything this summer apart from go to the seaside. Did you?
It’s sad because I used to go regularly, in fact all of my family holidays to date have revolved around the seaside, including my first, Blackpool, for the illuminations. I remember that I wanted to live in the Colwyn Hotel permanently. I know that we went to an amazing ice cream parlour called Notarianni’s. My dad and I crashed a self-driving boat into some weeds in Stanley Park. I was proud to last the longest on the glass panel at the top of the Blackpool tower. I screamed when the rickety, ramshackle ferris wheel on the pier swung myself and my mum around for a second terrifying circuit. This was about as close a seven year old gets to liberation.
Liberation partly accounts for a long history of social, cultural and ethnic minorities in Britain ending up by the seaside. This is well depicted in the film Bhaji On The Beach (1993), where a group of Asian women from Birmingham take a minibus up the M6 for their “summer holiday”. While the trip to Blackpool (inevitably) ends up in carnage, some of the women do find a sense of escape from the tedium of their domestic lives: the older members end up entertained in a strip club, while another character publicly kisses their Afro-Carribean boyfriend. What’s more fascinating, though, is how they are treated by the white locals: some mingle and flirt with them, showing them the sights, while others reject them with racist bile, kicking them out of their tea shops. Thirty years on, and this sense of juxtaposition – of ethnic minorities being simultaneously drawn to and rejected by the seaside – still rings true. Just before the pandemic, my Nan’s community centre sent a full coach of Asian women to Skegness, where the geographically and economically deprived local population overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, and the recent housing of asylum seekers in local hotels led to protests. And while sheer joy exuded from my train back from Southend last summer (Bollywood music blasting in every carriage, an abundance of aunties donning £1 primark flip-flops), I still remember visiting Exmouth a few summers ago and being constantly stared at, the concept of a mixed-race family seeming to confuse or anger locals.
The story is also complex when it comes to LGBTQ+ people and the seaside. Brighton may well be the UK’s “queer capital”, but it is also an anomaly; seaside towns are often some of the hardest places to grow up queer. Indeed, Brighton’s comparatively high rates of suicide and drug abuse emphasise the cost that comes with merely escaping, not addressing trauma. What an indictment of Britain in the 1980s that Derek Jarman could only find comfort and solace completely estranged from it, relocating from London to the isolated headland of Dungeness. What an indictment of successive governments that thirty years after the AIDS crisis which Jarman had to grapple with, Sarah O’Connor still characterises the seaside as the edge, both physically and metaphorically. Her piece concerned Blackpool, with its transient population of dispossessed single men in their 40s, but it could apply equally to the village of Jaywick Sands, the most deprived area in Britain and ever prone to coastal flooding, or Margate, where thousands of looked after children are shoved from other local authorities. Some never even make it to the edge – the asylum seekers barged on the Bibby Stockholm, or the Filipino fishermen left to die at sea.
This is by no means the whole picture, and there are, of course, some thriving urban conurbations next to the sea: Brighton has already been mentioned, but think too of St Andrews, Bournemouth, Falmouth, Aberystwyth. These successful seaside towns, although not without their problems, tend to host universities. Students are economically valuable to any given place, contributing to the part-time labour supply, and often spending their disposable income in local shops, pubs and clubs. Such potential has not always been actualised, though, with seaside towns representing some of the largest built-up areas in Britain without a university, such as Blackpool, or Torbay.
It is not rational to place agents of economic growth next to the sea, because their propensity to expand (as UofG has done so extensively) is limited. But the alternative is to allow these settlements to remain stagnant. One of the biggest barriers to achieving full employment in seaside towns is the seasonal nature of work, yet universities create jobs all year round, not just in the summer. Actually building campuses in seaside towns and cities – such as the expansion of the University of Essex to Southend in 2008 – is the progressive solution to the chicken and egg problem we have at present. The lack of young people means seaside towns remain stubbornly Tory and have dire nightlife, but because these places are often conservative and – let’s face it, dull – which young person would want to move to one? UofG students may be happy to make the trek to Troon on the one sunny afternoon in May, but this will not revitalise its economy overnight. The lack of students is why I came away from Margate last summer hating the emptiness of the place; there was a gaping chasm between the dilapidated HMOs and the Turner Contemporary; between the White British and Roma working classes and the hipster artists decamping from the capital.
Unless seaside towns host the next generation of universities, becoming attractive enough for young people and minority groups to live in them, they will continue to stay away, because there are newer, more exciting and more welcoming things out there. I want to go abroad and see my friends that live there, before the climate emergency escalates to render this impossible or irresponsible. I want to make the most of my youth in the UK, and go out in places which have clubs and bars that stay open after 11. I still want to go to the seaside, but at present I have no reason to, apart from reliving my childhood.
My last trip to the seaside was in March, with a uni friend. We were exasperated and exhausted by Edinburgh’s cramped, claustrophobic city centre. The National Gallery was boring. We paid £14.50 each for mediocre ramen. “Beach?”, I chimed in. I’ve been back to Edinburgh multiple times since then, but I haven’t been back to Portobello beach. Why would you make the trip to Edinburgh, just to end up at Portobello beach?