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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.

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

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.