Skegness, on the North Sea coast of the east of the country, is one of England’s most famous seaside towns. It is home to the first holiday camp, set up by Billy Butlin in 1936, which I visited last month ago for a conference on seaside development and culture. You can read my thoughts on the conference by clicking here. I spent my spare time over three days in Skegness as a flaneur, experiencing the town and its promenade areas at a walking pace and recording my observations in pictures. This is the first of a two-part post, in the next post I’m going to sketch out some preliminary thoughts on the general form of the promenade, investigating the layered methodology that we keep encountering.
My first observation on Skegness’ promenade is that it has a similar morphology to the promenade at Teignmouth, which I blogged about here. Skegness unrolls backwards from the sea, leaving a layered pattern behind as it has developed. Firstly we have the beach itself, a stretch of golden sand bordering the cold North sea:
Separating the encroaching sands from the built environment is the most obvious strip of the promenade itself:
This first layer of the promenade is, at this point fairly level with the sands and the protection offered is for those brave enough to admire the views on a bracing October day. Walking parallel to the beach, the promenade takes you over the pier itself:
Descending, we are confronted with a pair of signs that inform us not only of the particular economic rationality of seaside spaces, but also of the aspirations of the planners and architects who constructed them:
Despite the regal naming of this strip however, the demands of coastal defences have imposed a less aristocratic and more brutally utilitarian aesthetic on the post-pier promenade:
The next layer of the promenade is a strip of sand and a path, separated by a low wall from the main walkway. This forms a mirror image of the area that it borders and appears to be used mainly by dogwalkers and cyclists. It doesn’t run the full length of the promenade, but forms an interesting feature mainly because of the way it separates the sea from a small moat. Yes, a moat.
The moat seems to be there to protect the fun fair, Skegness Pleasure Beach from invasion. There is small bridge providing entrance from the sea-side,which brings you to a locked gate in the off-season.
The fair, seen from the promenade, presents a skeletal sillhouette. A ferris wheel is an iconic image of leisure and childhood that can’t help but excite the viewer, but it is precisely this suggestion that produces a profound melancholia when confronted with a deserted fair ground.
This walled-off, empty space is foreshadows the pleasures of summer as well as pointing backwards to the time when the queues for attractions like these would be managed in the same way to those at Disneyworld or Thorpe Park now. The high walls around the fair ground are a reminder that the very democratic form of cultural capital that is embedded in the seaside town has always been propped up by an entrepreneurial and exclusionary capitalism. The uncomplicated, unmediated and hence unexploitable pleasures of viewing the fair from the promenade or to look across the elegant steelworks
and out to sea, are denied by the wall that simultaneously obscures and invites you to move from the position of viewer to consumer.
The photo above shows the first mock-promenade that I have come across. The pleasure beach’s own promenade stands between the final layers of the promenade proper and the funfair. It breaks all the ‘rules’ of promenades; it has no view to the sea and runs both vertically and horizontally in relation to the coastline. It clearly exists only to extract profit from seaside visitors but borrows the symbolism of the liminal space of the promenade in its marketing. This excess of this strange dialectic, that which cannot be consumed by the negation of the natural, appears to be the liminal – leaving a space that produces such dissonances, culturally and architecturally, that it cannot be simply synthesised into the form of the seaside economy but instead announces its incongruity as a way of explaining itself. Turning your back to the sea and walking out through this gate, from this space of managed liminality into the hyper-capitalism of the final layer of the promenade you are immediately confronted with seaside commodities, ice creams, doughnuts, inflatables and alcohol. In the next post, I’ll pick up on these themes and start to think about the general spatial form of the promenade that we might be groping towards on this blog.