If the country were to bring in an international valuation company to value its assets then one of its most valuable holdings would certainly be its xxxx miles of coastline, lakes, riverside and canal banks. Humans are drawn to the sea and in an increasingly crowded, stressful and fast paced world, views out to oceans, bays, marshlands and mudflats are becoming more valued. Add to that the increasing hassle of air travel and then this national asset must be accumulating in value.
I have always been drawn to the water. I was conceived in room 16 of the art deco Midland Hotel overlooking Morecambe Bay and spent the first part of my life crabbing in Morecambes boating pools, digging for ragworm with my Pop on the mussel beds and then fishing for flatties off the stone jetty. Some memories wernt so joyous but perhaps were character building —being “encouraged to sing Cliff Richards terminally naff “Congratulations” in a talent contest on Harry Grahams Bandstand and being dressed like Tarzan and sitting on the back of a float during the carnival. I can still smell the mixture of vinegar and olive oil that my mum used to smear on me to get me brown on Heysham beach!
Morecambe was joyful place, where my nan had a choice of piers to go dancing on, where my mum had cool coffee houses like Brubecks to hang out in and where I had a choice of beach activities and an amazing Lido. It saddens me when I go back to my birth town that all of this has gone and the joy that I remember is conspicuous by its absence.
Morecambe’s tale is a common seaside one, but there are sign of life. In Morecambe, the wonderful Winter Gardens variety hall (where my wrestling dad held me up in the ring) is being gradually brought back to life and the Midland Hotel is being lovingly restored. Nationally seaside lidos and theatres are being re-evaluated. There are foresighted mavericks like Jane Wood in Littlehampton and her Heatherwick designed beach café. But more often than not they are just isolated pockets amongst poorly executed development. Many seaside town councils think that there is nothing wrong with letting Lidl take the place of some guest houses on the seafront or allow Morrisons to be the gateway building to the town centre. They allow chi chi residential apartment blocks to replace landscaped rose gardens on the seaward side of the coastal road whilst repeating the misguided mantra “because we need the jobs, we need the investment” when what they are doing is selling the towns crown jewels with not a chance of getting them back for many a generation.
I live by the sea now in West Sussex, where the National Trust ensure that this bit of coastline retains its value, but here where there are strips of coast owned by resident groups, their nimby attitude denies visitors of a decent café and even the chance to allow our kids to try out a full array of watersports, so there arnt too many visitors!
And the problems don’t just lie with the sea. Our canals and urban rivers have been rediscovered as “placemaking” assets but just as their value gets realised, some daft councils allow them to become dominated by residential, missing the opportunities for the UK to bring a bit of the Stockholm, Copenhagen and Amsterdam waterside café culture that we line Easyjets pockets to visit and forcing me off the towpath when I’m out running!!
Its time we started a national audit of the value of waterside to the nation. Maybe we need a “Waterfront Minister”?