The Total Joy of an Uncool British Seaside Holiday

I always used to be jealous of my friends’ family holidays. When taken for a British coastal break, they all went somewhere chi-chi and charming, more British Riviera than Bognor Regis. On their summer hols, my friends were served cream teas on mismatched vintage china, they spent the days in independent galleries, mingling amongst other middle-class families from the home counties, they stayed in artsy, converted cottages and their parents drank local craft ale. Oh, how I longed to be taken to St. Ives, to Salcombe, to Southwold. I yearned to go anywhere but where we would inevitably end up, the land frequented almost exclusively Rotary Club coach trips and cagoule-toting teenagers begrudgingly studying coastal landforms: Swanage.

When asked where my family spent our summer week away, I would always answer with a vague and brief ‘Dorset’, hoping people would assume it Lyme Regis or Sandbanks or just anywhere that didn’t still have a thriving branch of Wimpy. My family has taken a holiday to Swanage every year since my mother was a child. There are countless photos of my siblings and me in sun hats making mud pies on the sand and being dragged over the waves in an inflatable dinghy by our Granddad. As adolescence came upon me, I grew to be slightly embarrassed of the familial tradition of the Swanage sojourn, but in recent years I’ve really come to appreciate the total, unfettered joy of a shit British seaside holiday.

I love Swanage because it is unashamedly, unironically, unchangingly, un-Instagrammable. For reference, you wouldn’t find avocado on toast anywhere- if you venture out for brekkie, it’s a full fry-up from a local caf or a bacon bap eaten in the bliss of a 1960s seafront beach hut. The fish suppers are served not on slate, but in grey paper dappled with grease, best eaten on a rainy evening, a few vinegar-soaked chips snaffled on the walk home. There’s no artisan, local-made gelato, but pure white Mr. Whippy and toxic blue scoops of bubblegum ice cream in a wafer cone. The bakeries serve iced finger buns, mammoth wedges of dense Dorset apple cake, sausage rolls and coronation chicken sandwiches- it is all glutinous, gluttonous and glorious. A few chicer establishments have crept in in recent years, and sure, they’re more aesthetically pleasing, serve flat whites and have free wifi, but the town is still refreshingly unfashionable. It is low-key and low-pressure in its comforting lack of cool.  

Apart from a tiny WH Smiths, a Boots and the recent disappointing additions of a Harry Ramsdens and a Greggs, many establishments in Swanage are still independent, owner-operated and incredibly niche. One shop is purely wall-to-wall friendship bracelets. Another still proudly sells table lace by the metre. My favourite shop on the seafront seems to specialise, oddly enough, purely in handkerchiefs, fleece jackets, offcuts from commercial tray bakes and sweets close to their sell-by date. My sweet tooth and love for a bargain are both satisfied by buying a huge tray of cheap brownie or flapjack trimmings, along with three cans of apple Tango for a quid. There used to be a great junk shop, a rabbit’s warren of old golf clubs and incomplete melamine tea sets. One particularly rainy week we bought about 8 VHS tapes to watch in the holiday flat, despite the fact it was 2010. The charity shops are ten a penny, and you can pick up two paperbacks for two pounds to read on the beach. One year when I got over my intense embarrassment of the Swanage holiday and invited 3 friends along, we found a treasure trove of innumerable copies of Pick Me Up in the local Sue Ryder, and delighted in lying on the sand reading stories like ‘Why I Married My Breadbin’ or ‘I Still Walk the Ghost of my Alsatian’. Again, a few cutesie jewellery shops and delis are dotted around the town as well as a lovely, local chocolate shop but for me, centre stage on the high street is still reversed for a gift shop that sells personalised holographic bookmarks and coconut ice by the quarter pound.

If you somehow grow tired of sitting on the beach, building sandcastles, dipping your toes in the waves and listening to the hourly announcements of the Punch and Judy show, you can get up to any number of other uncool activities in Swanage. You could migrate to the bright lights of the arcade, wave goodbye to £5’s worth of 2ps on the slots, challenge your brother to a salsa competition on the dance machine or spend three hours collecting points from shooting basketball hoops and whacking moles, only to end up with enough to cash in for a tiny plastic water pistol or a single Maoam. You could go to the tiny museum which never changes but I visit every year. You could go crabbing. You could venture out to sea on a pedalo. You could stroll along the pier reading each of the tiny plaques on the planks- some recount happy memories, others desperately sad commiserations immortalised in shiny engraved brass. A plaque for my Grandparent’s Golden Wedding is there somewhere and each year I make it my quest to locate it. You could even walk along the Jurassic coast, through woods and up hills to the huge stone Victorian globe at Durlston and ponder just how fortunate you are to be right there.

@misformiles took this. He's great.

@misformiles took this. He's great.

Luckily, by the time I was about 16, I got over my bout of Swanage-induced shame and brought my friends along. And after all that fuss and worry that they would find the whole thing totally passé, they bloody loved it too. Swanage actually turned out to be the setting of one of my favourite evenings to date with my pals, when in a drunken haze fuelled by strawberry mead and blackcurrant wine, we danced the night away to sea-shanties played on pipes at the Swanage Folk Festival and went skinny dipping in the freezing cold September sea.

My Ma still rents a flat every August in Swanage and each year it is still a total delight to return. And so, my dear Swanage, I'm sorry to have forsaken you and thanks for forever being a breath of fresh, salty, unpretentious air, a step back into the past and a nod to my younger years. It is such a total joy to be reminded of my childhood through the taste of 99 ice creams and to drink in the unashamed, unpretentious uncool of a British seaside holiday.