Talk Report: 2018-09-09

Report on Elizabeth Rhodes’s Talk ‘Oh I do like to be beside the Seaside.’

On Wednesday 12th September, the first talk of the new season to U3A members was by Elizabeth Rhodes with an apposite theme as Summer came to a close. Titled ‘Oh I do like to be beside the sea side!’ the talk took us on a lightening tour of travel and holidays right through the ages.

We may have guessed that travel for its own sake began before the 19th century. Nevertheless, probably everyone was surprised to see the first picture was of a stone age group fishing by a river! Elizabeth pointed out that since the dawn of time men and their families have moved with the seasons, and we may imagine that new horizons have always fascinated mankind. A tapestry depicting feasting in Renaissance times reminded us that festivities, feasting and celebrations of holy days have developed alongside most of the religions of the world. Elizabeth pointed out that the very first holiday souvenirs were the pilgrim badges worn by those who visited shrines and holy sites in the middle ages.

We have been visiting different and interesting places for a very long time but it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that travel for its own sake began. The privileged and wealthy could and did spend months and even years travelling on the continent. On their ‘Grand Tour’ the upper classes (often young men accompanied by their tutors) could be suitably excited and enlightened by all they saw. In this case the ‘souvenirs’ brought home were often the paintings and sculptures that now fill our great houses and museums.

At the end of the eighteenth century the Napoleonic wars put an end to foreign travel for some years and it became fashionable to explore the wild and beautiful areas of the United Kingdom itself. The romance of the Lake District and Scotland delighted our travelling ancestors and poets such as William Wordsworth immortalised these reactions.

This was travel for the rich and privileged. Enter one Mr. Thomas Cook to introduce travel to those further down the social scale. Thomas was a cabinet maker turned preacher who was an active member of the Temperance Society. As he saw it, drink was the problem that most beset the working classes.

If only large numbers of people could be transported by train to temperance meetings, this would spread the message to great numbers of people. “The thought suddenly flashed across my mind as to the practicality of railways and locomotives for the future of social reform” said Thomas. In 1841, he organised 500 people to be taken by train from Leicester to attend a temperance meeting. This, costing one shilling per head (5p!) was one of the first ever ‘days out’ for the people. A careful planner, Thomas Cook learned fast and was soon escorting large groups of people around the country by train. His excursions became more ambitious, and he issued some of the first guide books explaining the places to be visited. It was he who organised transport for workers to visit the Great Exhibition at Chrystal Palace in 1851; 150,000 people travelled by train to London to experience the famous exhibition.

In 1855 Thomas Cook took his first groups overseas, personally conducting two parties from Harwich to Antwerp, then on to Brussels, Cologne, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and, finally, to Paris for the International Exhibition. Later Cook took groups to North America and Egypt and then, in 1872, he led his first world tour covering more than 25,000 miles. It was the Grand Tour for anyone who could afford it and travel for the masses had begun.

By the end of the nineteenth century, railways and buses were taking huge numbers of people to the coast. Victorians gathered where the train lines took them, and we saw images of bathing huts wheeled into the sea, of Punch and Judy shows and donkey rides on the beach, of piers with slot machines and glamourous girls provocatively revealing the odd ankle.

Later there were photographs from the 1930s: children triumphant by their sand castles and dozing grown-ups relaxing in deck chairs, formally dressed except for their bare feet enjoying the sand. Elizabeth reminded us of the working holidays of people who followed the herring fleet down the east coast each year, salting the fish as they were brought to shore. And of East Londoners whose only holiday each summer was picking hops in Kent.

Butlins and Pontins holiday camps grew after the war, as did caravan parks and holidays by bicycle for the more independently minded. From the early fifties onwards overseas travel, before prohibitively expensive, became possible. Travel companies such as Horizon came along with full colour brochures offering all-in packages to the sun. “All in flight, transfers and accommodation to Corsica £32-10s” The great British Holiday was truly established.

Elizabeth was thanked for an interesting and animated talk, full of unusual insights.