Stepping back in time to era of opulence at the seaside

The Grand Hotel in Lowestoft in 1953. Picture: Archant

The Grand Hotel in Lowestoft in 1953. Picture: Archant

Did you ever step from a sandy beach and sink into the deep-pile carpet of a luxurious seaside hotel complete with chandeliers, soaring staircases and a piano-player tinkling the ivories? (Places like the old Grand at Southwold, say.) Steven Russell on a golden age

I like Premier Inns (love the mattresses) and Travelodges, but sometimes you dream of a stonking great hotel that takes the breath away. Something like TV's The Grand, or one of the majestic piles you see on Agatha Christie's Poirot. Trouble is, plush comes at a price…

Which is why I'm enjoying flicking through Karen Averby's paperback Seaside Hotels. I can mentally check in and out without having to reach for the credit card. For in 64 pages the architectural historian evokes a receding age of luxury and refinement – when imposing buildings dating from the Victorian era and later dominated the promenade or the top of the cliffs.

Grandiose giants such as the unnecessarily-named Grand Hotel at Scarborough – which, when it was finished in 1867, became the largest brick structure in Europe.

Not long after, Queens Hotel opened bang on the beach at Eastbourne – built in just 11 months.

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The mid to late 19th Century was the golden age of the grand seaside hotel, explains Karen, who is also a heritage research consultant specialising in the architectural and social history of buildings. She writes: 'a showpiece luxury establishment became a must-have for any successful resort; by the end of the Victorian era each seaside resort possessed at least one'.

Railway expansion opened up the coast, too, from 1840.

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Locations (including some close to home) were chosen for speculative developments of resorts, based on links between the would-be developer and the expected arrival of the railway.

'Lowestoft station opened following the incorporation of the Lowestoft Railway & Harbour Company in 1845 to build a harbour and dock railway' – promoted by entrepreneur and civil engineering contractor Samuel Morton Peto, 'who acquired nearby low-value farmland and common land to establish a pleasure resort of terraces of grand townhouses overlooking the beach'.

The initial phase stretched for more than half a mile along the seafront, Karen says – including Marine Parade, Wellington Esplanade and Kirkley Cliff. The Royal Hotel at the north end of the esplanade was built for hotelier Samuel Howett.

A second Howett hotel followed: the Harbour Inn. 'Rather tellingly, an early distinction was made between the 'inferior' Marine Parade and the 'pretentious' Esplanade where the Royal was located.'

Karen goes on to talk about the vast housekeeping and catering staff required to run the UK's grandiose seaside hotels of old.

Even opulence and ozone can't escape change, though, and our seaside jewels found themselves in a pattern of rising, falling and then rising once more.

Among the last hotels to be built in the truly grand tradition were those in Folkestone and Suffolk.

'At Lowestoft the imposing Empire Hotel on Kirkley Cliff was built in 1900 by caterers and hoteliers Spiers &Pond Ltd, and with 200 bedrooms was the largest seaside hotel in Britain of the time. Facilities were modern and fashionable, including electric lighting, lifts to all floors, a library and several restaurants.'

The following year the Grand Hotel was built at Southwold, as the town expanded northwards. 'Costing £30,000, the hundred-room hotel was modern through and through, with a lift to all floors, electric lights and central heating, and was luxuriously furnished by fashionable London suppliers...'

It was set in three acres, and guests 'could arrive by rail and travel to the hotel without necessarily entering the town itself, and once there were provided with ample facilities including tennis courts and exotic gardens, ensuring there was no reason to leave'.

Thing was, Karen points out, times were now changing fast. By the early 20th Century most seaside towns were 'practically fully formed and were attracting hordes of people from all walks of life as family holidays became increasingly affordable and en-masse factory day trips became common.

'Resorts such as Blackpool, Great Yarmouth and Bournemouth rapidly lost their appeal among the higher echelons of society and grand hotels began losing their clientele as the gentry took their custom to quieter and often adjacent locations' – Gorleston, in the case of Great Yarmouth.

The rise of the car, and roads, also made hotels more accessible and less exclusive. Then came the First World War, inflation and non-returning staff.

Building styles changed: from the Victorian gothic to the modernist Art Deco of the 1930s renaissance (Felixstowe's Cavendish Hotel one of the smaller-scale examples) and on in the 1960s to Brutalist.

In between, the Second World War saw beaches closed and mined, and many hotels used as hospitals or military bases. In the 1950s, guests expected more: private bathrooms, better food, better heating. Cromer's Metropole Hotel shut in 1955 and was replaced by flats; Southwold's Grand was knocked down before the 1960s dawned and became a site for bungalows.

In the 1970s the low-cost package holiday in sunny climes was a growing threat. In the 1990s, says Karen, 'Many grand hotels became severely run down and closed or continued to struggle.' The good news has been seaside rejuvenation projects, and successful hotels adapted to find a new place in the market.

The author doesn't appear downhearted by all these changes. She concludes that 'as the twentieth century progressed, the wealthy holidayed elsewhere and the grand hotel became accessible to more people; but older establishments needed to modernise to compete with new seaside hotels built for functionality. No longer the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, or restricted to hotel guests, these grand hotels are now widely accessible, whether for a traditional hotel holiday, a spa weekend away, an overnight business stay, or briefer visits for a luxurious dinner, an afternoon tea treat or a fancy cocktail.

'Lavish service, modern facilities, fine cuisine, tradition, heritage and architecture now form the grand hotel experience.'

Seaside Hotels is from Amberley Publishing at £8.99

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