The Great British seaside reinvention

It’s all very well getting misty-eyed about steamy-windowed seaside caffs serving up crab sandwiches and pots of tea but the reality is that the crab was always tinned and the teapot always leaked.

The deadline for this column falls squarely in the middle of my Cameron-esque seaside holiday in Cornwall. Fortunately, I won’t have to waste any time posing with half a pint to prove that we’re all in it together – I don’t rule out the odd local beer but seafood, ice cream and scones are far higher on my agenda.

Despite being the only person in the world to be blind to the charms of clotted cream, I’m as overexcited about the food here as I am at the prospect of launching the puppy into the shallows to see if he can swim.

When did this happen? When did the coast – once a liminal zone where normal gastronomic rules didn’t apply and people ate sinister-sounding stuff such as “rock and chips” and whelks dumped in polystyrene tubs like gobbets of old gum – become a more exciting place to eat than London, a city of eight million people and ten million fried chicken shops?

It was a revolution that took its time. While the rest of the country was rediscovering good food in the 1970s, the British seaside was in decline. People wanted to eat calamari in the sun, not kippers in the sleet, and the few that still came couldn’t stretch to much more than a bag of chips. So that’s what was on offer. That and souvenir rock.

Perhaps luckily, my family was never extravagant enough to eat out in the 1980s and 1990s: instead, my dad would lug an unwieldy cool box a couple of miles down the beach in search of an apparently mythical perfect spot, the rest of us scuttling to keep up as he dismissed anywhere near a dog, a hostile windbreak or anything remotely useful (an ice cream van, for example).

In the cool box would be sweating sandwiches filled with squidgy, warm Brussels pâté (already studded, in one of the great mysteries of life, with crystals of sand), bags of prawn cocktail crisps and plastic bottles of enamel-strippingly tart lemonade. For pudding, we’d trek to a distant van, coins clutched in sticky hands, for ice cream sandwiches – a lump of vanilla and vegetable fat wedged between two wafers as bland as anything served up before the altar.

This is a picture that already has a nostalgic whiff of austerity to it: it’s all chargrilled squid and dulce de leche ice cream at the seaside, these days. Even the yellow brick has had a makeover – now, it’s “white vanilla bean” in a Belgian waffle cone. (I’m secretly pleased that my nieces and nephews stubbornly refuse to be tempted away from a diet of chocolate and strawberry. The offer of a lick of salted caramel is met with shrieks of revulsion, under-tens being innately conservative in their tastes.)

It’s the baby boomers who are to blame for the seaside’s reinvention. In the 2000s, they flooded back in their Bodenclad droves, looking to re-create cherished memories of bucket-and-spade holidays for their children – but with better food. Gurnard goujons, rather than frozen fish fingers, for little Matilda. Local good, E-numbers bad.

The few businesses still standing responded enthusiastically: the pub in a coastal village in Norfolk that I’ve been visiting for 15 years or so now charges £8 for a crab sandwich and £16 for fish and chips. The latter comes with crushed, minted peas, which I take as a personal affront. That’s not progress – that’s culinary vandalism.

Not that I’m saying I regret the revolution. It’s all very well getting misty-eyed about steamy-windowed seaside caffs serving up crab sandwiches and pots of tea but the reality is that the crab was always tinned and the teapot always leaked.

If a couple of quid more and having to read a blackboard essay on the crab’s ancestry and early life are what it takes to get a decent lunch out of the wind, then, crushed peas aside, that’s a price I’m willing to pay. Although maybe not £8. We are all in it together, after all.


It's all about lobster and salted caramel ice cream beside the sea these days. Photograph: Gabriela Herman / Gallery Stock

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows again that Brexit means hard Brexit

The Prime Minister's promise of "an end to free movement" is incompatible with single market membership. 

Theresa May, it is commonly said, has told us nothing about Brexit. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn ran with this line, demanding that May offer "some clarity". In response, as she has before, May stated what has become her defining aim: "an end to free movement". This vow makes a "hard Brexit" (or "chaotic Brexit" as Corbyn called it) all but inevitable. The EU regards the "four freedoms" (goods, capital, services and people) as indivisible and will not grant the UK an exemption. The risk of empowering eurosceptics elsewhere is too great. Only at the cost of leaving the single market will the UK regain control of immigration.

May sought to open up a dividing line by declaring that "the Labour Party wants to continue with free movement" (it has refused to rule out its continuation). "I want to deliver on the will of the British people, he is trying to frustrate the British people," she said. The problem is determining what the people's will is. Though polls show voters want control of free movement, they also show they want to maintain single market membership. It is not only Boris Johnson who is pro-having cake and pro-eating it. 

Corbyn later revealed that he had been "consulting the great philosophers" as to the meaning of Brexit (a possible explanation for the non-mention of Heathrow, Zac Goldsmith's resignation and May's Goldman Sachs speech). "All I can come up with is Baldrick, who says our cunning plan is to have no plan," he quipped. Without missing a beat, May replied: "I'm interested that [he] chose Baldrick, of course the actor playing Baldrick was a member of the Labour Party, as I recall." (Tony Robinson, a Corbyn critic ("crap leader"), later tweeted that he still is one). "We're going to deliver the best possible deal in goods and services and we're going to deliver an end to free movement," May continued. The problem for her is that the latter aim means that the "best possible deal" may be a long way from the best. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.