Beside the Seaside Bird's Eye View


Beside the Seaside

First transmitted in 1969, Bird's Eye View traces the origins of the British seaside holiday, said to lie with King George III.


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Transcript


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BBC Four Collections -

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specially chosen programmes from the BBC archive.

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Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee For those in peril on the sea.

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MUSIC: "Sea Symphony (No. 1)" by Ralph Vaughan Williams

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# Behold

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# The sea

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# Itself

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# And on its limitless, heaving breast

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# The ships

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# See, where their white sails

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# Bellying in the wind

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# See, where their white sails

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# Their white sails

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# Speckle the green and blue

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# See, the steamers

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# The steamers

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# Coming and going

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# Steaming

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# In or out of port

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# See

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# Dusky and undulating

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# See

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# See, the long pennants of smoke

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# Behold

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# The sea

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# Itself

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# And on

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# Its limitless,

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# Heaving

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# Breast

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# The ships... #

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They feared it most who knew best

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The sea that hits the rocky west

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To merchantmen it might bring wealth

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But it was dangerous to health

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Far better live inland, and warm

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Out of the perilous wind and storm

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Safe from fresh air and suchlike harm

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In sheltered mansion, cot or farm

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Quality sent its sons and daughters

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In search of health to inland waters

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To Roman Bath or Cheltenham Spa

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Where the Chalybeate fountains are.

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To Cheltenham also came George III to be cured of biliousness,

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until his physicians advised him to take the sea-bathing cure in Dorset.

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So in July 1789 he went to Weymouth.

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It was then an unimportant fishing port, full of smugglers.

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The King stayed in a house belonging to his brother,

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the Duke of Gloucester.

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A statue on the front commemorates his visit.

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"God Save the King" on ribbons was hung on bathing machines,

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on the bonnets of the ladies, around the waists of the girls.

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Fanny Burney wrote, "The King bathes, and with great success.

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"A machine follows the Royal one into the sea, filled with fiddlers,

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"who play God Save the King as His Majesty takes his plunge."

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MUSIC PLAYS: "God Save The King"

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The country rejoiced in the King's recovery.

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The sea was no longer unfashionable.

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Moreover it was healthy.

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Where the monarch led, his subjects followed.

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To Lyme Regis, for instance, also in Dorset,

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came the genteel characters of Jane Austen's Persuasion.

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It was when jumping down on the Lower Cobb at Lyme -

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the Cobb is that stone wall which juts into the sea -

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that Louisa Musgrove, you will remember, sprained her ankle,

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closed her eyes and was taken by her companions to be lifeless.

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"Rub her hands, rub her temples. Here are salts - take them, take them."

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Grander folk went further west, to Sidmouth in south Devon.

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The Grand Duchess Helene of Russia set her double eagle

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there on Fortfield Terrace,

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whose cheerful stucco front looks on to a cricket ground

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and the cricket ground is swept by breezes of the English Channel.

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The wars against Napoleon stopped people going abroad -

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hence resorts like this.

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Sidmouth is a sort of Cheltenham-on-Sea,

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the sea quite often as calm and gentle as the Thames.

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Behind that comely row of sunny lodgings,

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ornamental cottages were built, by men of means,

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out of sight of the water but within sound of the shingle shore.

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It was to Sidmouth that a younger brother of George IV came

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with his wife and infant daughter.

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He was the Duke of Kent.

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He despised the vulgarities of his brother's Brighton.

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He liked the country and the rock-strewn shore.

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One day in 1820

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he got his feet wet here at Sidmouth,

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contracted pneumonia and died -

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there, in that ornamental cottage

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he'd built for himself, his wife and daughter -

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his daughter, Princess Victoria.

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Could it have been her cradle memories of this southern shore

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that made Victoria, later England's Queen,

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build with her husband Albert, Prince Consort,

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this Italian palace - Osborne - on the English Channel?

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"The dear Prince is constantly occupied

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"in directing the many necessary improvements

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"which are to be made," wrote the young Queen Victoria in 1845.

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VIOLIN MUSIC PLAYS

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That melody for the violin is Prince Albert's own composition.

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MUSIC CONTINUES

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"It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot -

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"valleys and woods which would be beautiful anywhere,

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"but all this near the sea - the woods grow into the sea -

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"is quite perfection.

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"We have a charming beach quite to ourselves.

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"And then we can walk about anywhere without being followed and mobbed.

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"Drove down to the beach with my maids

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"and went into the bathing machine

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"where I undressed and bathed in the sea

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"for the first time in my life.

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"It was delightful until I put my head under the water."

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MUSIC CONTINUES

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"And last not least,

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"we have Portsmouth and Spithead so close at hand

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"that we shall be able to watch what is going on,

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"which will please the Navy."

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The Isle of Wight prospered.

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Ryde, so near to Osborne, grew in size.

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The whole island was fired by the Royal example.

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Facing the Channel on the seaward side

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rose Ventnor's lodging houses, tier on tier...

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The island's health resort in sunny pride

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by terraces descending to the pier.

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The National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest,

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built just west of Ventnor, in 1868 -

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empty, now that they've found other cures for consumption.

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How many a pale face looked its last out of these windows?

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How many prayers were offered for sufferers?

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How many prayers were made by suffering patients?

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Echoes of weak coughs along deserted corridors. Empty.

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In a coign of the cliff between lowland and highland

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At the sea-down's edge between windward and lee

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Walled round with rocks as an inland island

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The ghost of a garden fronts the sea.

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The sea as a cure for illness - 1868.

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In the next year the pier at Clevedon in Somerset

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was being built.

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The sea as a source of pleasure,

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for little steamer trips to Chepstow, Newport, Cardiff,

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Lynton and Lynmouth, Flat Holm and Steep Holm

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and other places of popular resort.

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At the opening ceremony, they said,

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"We believe it the commencement of better times for our fair Clevedon."

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It was.

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As the Great Western Railway Guide Book in 1884 said,

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"An excellent esplanade faces the sea.

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"Good beaches, gardens and shrubberies, and large modern villas

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"built along the edges of the lofty sea-cliffs,

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"with churches and chapels, public schools,

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"lodging and boarding houses, hotels, dining rooms,

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"public gardens and excellent shops."

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The sea as a source of pleasure.

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Steamer trips round the bay!

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These verses from long-forgotten songs

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remind me of the Victorian trippers' traditional fear of the sea:

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Those horrible pistons They make my heart thump

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As the paddling wheels go round

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Are they churning the ocean up into a lump

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Or will we all be drowned? Hey ho! Or will be all be drowned?

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Oh, the paddle paddle steamer What a clever little schema

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That ever she inveigled me from shore

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Now I know I can't escape Perhaps we're sailing for the Cape

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And I'll never see old England any more, no more.

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But if the truth be told,

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the man of wealth added some pleasure to his search for health.

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Tropic Torquay, overlooking historic Torbay:

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the balmy climate, the Palm Court Orchestra.

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ORCHESTRAL MUSIC PLAYS

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This was the time of the holiday hotels with commanding names.

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Grand, Imperial, Majestic, Palace.

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"Well, we've come here every year and they make us very comfortable.

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"They know us, you see."

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"You've left yourself wide open.

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"I shall have to take two of yours."

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Huff!

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"Check."

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Exclusive Bournemouth Where the tide came twice

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And children played with children who were nice

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Where parents dozed in after-luncheon ease

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And lovers longed to touch each other's knees.

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Hydraulic power delights the old and young

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Steam traction! Let its praises now be sung.

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BRASS-BAND MUSIC PLAYS

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TRAIN WHISTLE BLOWS

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Steam down the valley Steam below the hill

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The factories empty Lodging houses fill.

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MUSIC CONTINUES

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The long expresses glided by the shore

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And towns grew where were never towns before

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Compartments packed and holidays begun

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It's go Great Western to the coast and sun.

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MUSIC CONTINUES

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MUSIC ENDS

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In fact, it was the railways

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which made the mid-Victorian seaside resorts.

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On bank holidays, they were crowded out.

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I want to take us off to somewhere

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where the sun shines brightly

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and the tourists tarry

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Some people call it Weston-super-Mare

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And others call it Weston-super-"marry"

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"Mare" of course is Latin for "the sea"

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And Mare is what here it's said to be.

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On this particular Whitsun Weston's hey-day

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Excursion trains arriving every minute

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The town was cramm'd like rallies on a May Day

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You wouldn't have thought more people could get in it

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The roundabouts went round The swings went swinging

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The warm sea sparkled and the Earth was singing

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Yes, everything seemed paradise at Weston

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That Whitsun afternoon beside the sea

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No-one looked backward Everybody pressed on

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To minerals and to ices and to tea

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Even the people walking on the pier Were unaware of trouble waiting near.

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MUSIC PLAYS: "I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside"

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How innocent and kindly was the funning

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All dedicated to the god of sport

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The driving and the diving and the running

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Fresh air and freedom - will they all be caught?

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MUSIC CONTINUES

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What thins the crowd, what darkens and what chills?

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A mighty rainstorm from the Mendip Hills.

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THUNDERCLAPS

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All put your macs on! Run for shelter fast!

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Crouch where you like until it's fine again

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Holiday cheerfulness is unsurpassed

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Why be put out by healthy English rain?

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Are we downhearted? No, we're happy still

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We came here to enjoy ourselves - and we will.

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BAND LEADER: Now, we invite you to join in and sing with us.

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Now, really let it go.

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Enjoy yourselves and sing heartily.

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Right away, please.

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# What a friend we have in Jesus

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# All our sins and griefs to bear

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# What a privilege to carry... #

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BETJEMAN: What's true of Weston's true of more than most

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No - EVERY resort along the coast

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When everybody's feeling safe and warm

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Unheralded arrives the summer storm

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Those are the things the posters do not show

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Those are the headaches of the PRO.

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BAND LEADER: Really open your mouths and sing.

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This is the best air in the British Isles. Take advantage of it.

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# Have we trials and temptations?

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# Is there trouble... #

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BETJEMAN: The model village shut and still it's raining

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Queues for the cafes and the sea-fronts bleak

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Go to the pictures, then? I'm not complaining

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But didn't I see that film the other week?

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As for our lodgings, we're in quite a fix

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They never want us back till after six.

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# Jesus knows our every weakness

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# Take it to the Lord in prayer... #

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BAND LEADER: Singing very well, but come on,

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we can do far better than this.

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Let's sing that last verse once again, please.

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THEY SING

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BETJEMAN: Yet this is quite the friendliest place I've hit on

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The air's a tonic and the sea's a treat

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Of all the merry coast resorts of Britain

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Its sunshine record would be hard to beat

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Look on the bright side and we'll all feel better

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And if we're wet Well, those out there are wetter.

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Escape - escape from the holiday crowds - over Saltash Bridge.

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Saltash Bridge by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, 1859 -

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the first railway link between Cornwall and England.

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Cornwall - not another county, another country.

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For years, an all-day journey by train

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and a wild reward at the end of it.

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No piers, no pierrots.

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With what delight did late-Victorian artists

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bring their oils and watercolours

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to paint the flaming gorse and amethystine sea.

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Have the rocks faith that thus they stand

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Unmoved, a grim and stately band

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And look like warriors tried and brave

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Stern, silent, reckless o'er the wave?

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CLASSICAL MUSIC SWELLS

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Thy way, O God, is in the sea Thy paths, where awful waters be

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Thy spirit thrills the conscious stone:

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O Lord, Thy footsteps are not known!

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By train from suburbs of the big towns, by trap and wagonette,

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past fern-stuffed hedges, from the oil-lit country station,

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schoolmasters came with promising pupils,

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undergraduates on reading parties,

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doctors with thin wives and freckled daughters.

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Lured by King Arthur they came, Victorian romantics,

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to that holy island with its Celtic cells and chapel -

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a sort of Lindisfarne of Cornwall: Tintagel.

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CLASSICAL MUSIC SWELLS

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So all day long the noise of battle roll'd

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Among the mountains by the winter sea

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Until King Arthur's table, man by man,

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Had fall'n in Lyonnesse about their Lord

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King Arthur. Then, because his wound was deep,

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The bold Sir Bedivere uplifted him

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Sir Bedivere, the last of all his knights

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And bore him to a chapel nigh the field

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A broken chancel with a broken cross

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That stood on a dark strait of barren land

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On one side lay the ocean

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And on one lay a great water.

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Cornwall is milder on its southern coast, which has a holy island too:

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St Michael's Mount.

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What Mont St Michel is to Brittany, this is to Cornwall.

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A monastic site, later a fortress

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reached by a spit of land covered by water when the tide is high.

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Celtic saints came here and, later, Norman barons.

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Then King's men and Cromwell's men.

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Shrine, chapel, castle - later private house.

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A hundred years ago,

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JP St Aubyn very well restored its outer walls and turrets.

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Victorians liked it. So do we, who gaze across its battlements today.

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In best positions all along the coast

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rose the new castles of the newly rich.

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The well-appointed family hotels:

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the Headland, Newquay, 1891.

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Lifts to all floors.

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Electrically lit.

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Views of the sea from all the suites of rooms.

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The gaps between the large hotels were filled with boarding houses,

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tea places and shops, electric palaces and bright arcades.

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Newquay became indeed the kind of place romantics avoided.

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Cornwall's holiday town.

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But once below the level of the cliff, and on the lovely beaches,

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what a wealth of rocks and sand and long Atlantic surf.

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Whenever I surf, this is the sort of thing that happens.

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These are the experts - Australians, of course.

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What people really came to Cornwall for

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was picturesque villages like this. That's Port Isaac.

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Do you remember those Royal Academy paintings of King Edward's reign -

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the sturdy fishermen pulling the lifeboat out,

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the Methodists on a Sunday after chapel,

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the red-cheeked fishergirl with sea-green eyes,

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the quayside chat,

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the widow in a whitewashed room, "A Hopeless Dawn",

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an angry sea outside,

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the little climbing lanes of slate-built cots,

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the wharves and sagging rooftops,

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the seaweed-slippery quay?

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Cornwall became an artist's paradise,

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and the amateur photographer's as well.

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Those camera studies of weather-beaten skin,

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those sepia, slightly out-of-focus views of bollards on the quay.

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Posing for artists here in famed St Ives became quite an industry.

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There's something in most of us that wants to be what we aren't:

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a Cornish fishermen, a Cornish boatbuilder or sailmaker.

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We wear navy-blue jerseys and sou'westers if we can.

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We want to be taken for natives.

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That's because we feel the need of solitude and roots.

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We listen guilelessly to sailors' yarns,

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oft told to tourists while the seagulls scream.

0:35:240:35:28

The shrewd Cornish - independent, proud -

0:35:320:35:37

cash in on the foreigners, and small blame to them.

0:35:370:35:42

Look at Polperro down there. "Plenty of car parks on the way to the quay.

0:35:420:35:48

"And plenty of gift shops on the way to the car parks.

0:35:480:35:52

"It's economics, see."

0:35:520:35:54

The Mermaid's Ditty Box, The Witch's Boutique,

0:35:540:35:59

another car park and then Davy Jones's Diner

0:35:590:36:03

with a nice smell of fish and chips.

0:36:030:36:06

The Delinquent Piskey, home-made teas and Cornish clotted cream.

0:36:060:36:13

And then we're at the harbour.

0:36:130:36:16

MUSIC: "The Floral Dance"

0:36:160:36:19

There's not much money in fishing now.

0:36:190:36:22

Ferrying visitors, there's that.

0:36:220:36:25

MUSIC CONTINUES

0:36:250:36:28

The Cornish have always been actors and singers - Henry Irving for one -

0:36:460:36:50

so there's the literary side,

0:36:500:36:53

and very popular it is with the tourists on warm evenings.

0:36:530:36:58

But bring your rugs and hot drinks just in case.

0:36:580:37:02

- ..blast me with his lightning! - No, no, Admetus,

0:37:070:37:11

you'll hurt him! Give me that. There!

0:37:110:37:13

- War, war, war! - No, no, Alcestis,

0:37:130:37:16

- that's no way to behave. - Kill! Kill

0:37:160:37:21

Was it for this I wrestled all night with death

0:37:210:37:24

on the leaden bank of Lethe?

0:37:240:37:26

Father!

0:37:260:37:28

DIRECTOR: Righto, everybody. That's fine. Back again, please, everybody.

0:37:280:37:31

Yes, take up your opening positions.

0:37:310:37:33

Up on the slab again, where you were to start with.

0:37:330:37:36

Take her hand. Yes, that's fine...

0:37:360:37:38

BETJEMAN: Minack Theatre, Porthcurno,

0:37:390:37:41

rehearsing The Thracian Horses,

0:37:410:37:44

a witty comedy set in Classical Greece.

0:37:440:37:47

I know no better-sited theatre.

0:37:470:37:51

Nature has made the Minack Theatre famed

0:37:510:37:55

Let's go to Minehead and see nature tamed.

0:37:550:37:59

'This is Radio Butlin calling!

0:38:020:38:05

'The time is a quarter past 12

0:38:050:38:08

'and lunch for first-sitting campers

0:38:080:38:11

'is now available.'

0:38:110:38:13

I floated over Butlin's between luncheon time and tea

0:38:180:38:22

And I wished that I was young again and as I used to be

0:38:220:38:26

When anticipated pleasure was as boundless as the sea.

0:38:260:38:30

When Peter came from Peterborough My goodness he was shy

0:38:390:38:42

When Wendy came from Wendover she felt she'd like to cry

0:38:420:38:46

But now they've formed a friendship which will lead to Lovers' Lane

0:38:460:38:49

For they hold each other by the hand when travelling on the train!

0:38:490:38:53

Shirl and Sheila just are friends For boys they do not care

0:39:050:39:10

They tell each other secrets in the safety of the air

0:39:100:39:14

Regardless of what's going on in chalets over there.

0:39:140:39:17

The twins inveigled Grandpa on the switchback by a trick

0:39:280:39:33

But Grandpa had the laugh on them For both the twins were sick.

0:39:330:39:38

"Hard luck, Norman! Never mind! I think there's a consolation prize -

0:40:010:40:06

"Now next, all of you..."

0:40:060:40:08

Look at this competition.

0:40:100:40:12

We've all come here to seek

0:40:120:40:14

The most cheerful, charming, chubby lass, Miss Venus of the week

0:40:140:40:18

Which of them do you think it is?

0:40:180:40:20

Now use your eyes and brains

0:40:200:40:23

Miss Harringay, Miss Stoke-on-Trent, Miss Widnes or Miss Staines?

0:40:230:40:29

WOLF-WHISTLE

0:40:290:40:32

I'm glad I came to Butlin's I hope you liked the fun

0:40:330:40:37

There's some of it in all of us Or almost everyone.

0:40:370:40:41

We don't all want to be organised.

0:40:580:41:00

But if we aren't, we seem to sprawl everywhere.

0:41:000:41:04

Look what's happened at Westward Ho!, North Devon.

0:41:040:41:08

We find a lovely bit of country and methodically we start to spoil it.

0:41:080:41:13

And it's not just true here, it's so along many miles of coast -

0:41:130:41:18

too many, I'd say.

0:41:180:41:21

Where yonder villa hogs the sea Was open cliff to you and me

0:41:220:41:27

The many-coloured cara's fill The salty marsh to Shilla Mill

0:41:270:41:32

And, foreground to the hanging wood, Are toilets where the cattle stood

0:41:320:41:37

Now, as we near the ocean roar A smell of deep-fry haunts the shore

0:41:370:41:43

In pools beyond the reach of tide The Senior Service packets glide

0:41:430:41:50

And on the sand the surf-line lisps With wrappings of potato crisps

0:41:500:41:57

The breakers bring, with merry noise Tribute of broken plastic toys

0:41:570:42:02

And lichened spears of blackthorn glitter

0:42:020:42:06

With harvest of the August litter.

0:42:060:42:08

Perhaps one day a wave will break Before the breakfasters awake

0:42:300:42:36

And sweep the cara's out to sea

0:42:360:42:39

The oil, the tar, and you and me

0:42:390:42:42

And leave in windy criss-cross motion

0:42:420:42:45

A waste of undulating ocean.

0:42:450:42:48

Out there it's solitude:

0:42:570:43:01

they can't build on the sea.

0:43:010:43:05

"They've taken our wind! Oh, no, she's going about! Stand by to gybe!

0:43:100:43:17

"Ready about! Lee O! Starboard!"

0:43:170:43:22

Can the sea be solitude? No, it's being developed.

0:43:370:43:42

Hark to the song of the water hogs

0:43:560:43:58

As they charge at us over the waves...

0:43:580:44:01

Executive chases executive Mercury, Volvo and Ford

0:45:330:45:38

"Steady, old man, with the steering - Your company chairman's aboard!"

0:45:380:45:42

"The sea's as smooth as a mill pond We'll open it up like a flower

0:45:420:45:46

"We'll drive and we'll thrust as competitors must

0:45:460:45:49

"And the prize of our driving is power."

0:45:490:45:52

I'm glad it's quiet again and I'm on foot.

0:46:440:46:48

You know that sort of holy hush there is in the land on Christmas morning?

0:46:480:46:54

The roads fairly empty, the sky almost free of aeroplanes,

0:46:540:46:59

and you begin to hear and see and smell once more.

0:46:590:47:04

The seaside can be like this

0:47:040:47:07

if you find an unspoiled stretch of it like this one in north Cornwall.

0:47:070:47:12

An enlightened landlord has saved this part.

0:47:120:47:16

Other bits have been saved by the National Trust and local authorities.

0:47:160:47:22

The developers have had more than their fair share of the coast.

0:47:220:47:27

A third of it is already completely built up.

0:47:270:47:31

We must keep the rest of it for the good of our souls.

0:47:310:47:35

George III took the seaside cure for biliousness.

0:47:410:47:46

We need the seaside cure for relief from anxiety and tension.

0:47:460:47:52

We need it to realise there's something greater than ourselves -

0:47:520:47:57

even if it only comes in little things:

0:47:570:48:01

turf, scented with thyme and mushrooms,

0:48:010:48:04

the feel of firm sand underfoot, the ripple of an incoming tide,

0:48:040:48:10

a salt breeze, the smell of seaweed -

0:48:100:48:14

that's where the cure is: at the sea's edge.

0:48:140:48:17

And all the time the waves, the waves, the waves

0:48:270:48:31

Chase, intersect and flatten on the sand

0:48:310:48:34

As they have done for centuries, as they will

0:48:340:48:37

For centuries to come, when not a soul

0:48:370:48:40

Is left to picnic on the blazing rocks

0:48:400:48:43

And seaside is forgotten

0:48:430:48:46

Still the tides Consolingly disastrous, will return

0:48:460:48:51

While the strange starfish, hugely magnified

0:48:510:48:56

Waits in the jewelled basin of a pool.

0:48:560:48:59

First transmitted in 1969, Bird's Eye View traces the origins of the British seaside holiday, said to lie with King George III. Concentrating on the South West, the flying camera captures the natural beauty and character of the British people beside the sea. The programme was written and narrated by poet John Betjeman, who was famous for being well versed in myth and mirth.


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