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Book Review At the edge of the horizon

A photographic album of Britain’s seaside shelters brings back fond childhood memories for TOM KING

Pages

Seaside Shelters
by Will Scott
(Heni Publishing £14.99)

Throughout my childhood my brother and I made frequent visits to our grandparents in North Wales.

Their retirement destination of choice, Llandudno, wasn’t the most exciting place to spend a weekend and apart from a toboggan run down the Great Orme and a beach without sand — to my eight-year-old mind an essential ingredient for seaside fun — there wasn’t an awful lot to do but watch Independence Day on VHS and take long walks along Llandudno’s expansive ‘front’ to the pier at the other end.
 
About halfway along that Spartan promenade we would pass a drab construction of concrete and creosoted pine, which seemed to be populated by the same three people each time.

A shelter quite out of keeping with the cast-iron magnificence of the pier and the tall Victorian hotels that lined the route, it was more of a bus stop — serving a route lost to the waves, its inhabitants trapped in an endless wait for a journey that would never come — than a carefully placed monument to coastal contemplation.
 
I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see the very same structure feature in Will Scott’s Seaside Shelters, a celebration of these quintessentially British erections, which are seen, in a range of different architectural styles, standing firm against the wind, the rain and the years.
 
From ornate Victorian and Edwardian edifices supporting weather vanes (Clevedon) and clocks (Frinton-on-Sea) — sometimes both (Broadstairs) — via Art Deco’s graceful simplicity (Hastings) to utilitarian brutality (Colwyn Bay) these designs are testament to the horizon’s enduring appeal.
 
Through Edwin Heathcote’s brief but incisive introduction we learn that seaside shelters are “a product of the railway age, which made cheap travel possible for the masses,” when workers and their families could spend their hard-won leisure time away from cities choked with smog and breathe instead the coast’s bracing air.
 
Initially representing the “architecture of municipal generosity and pride,” Scott traces their evolution into structures that have “devoted themselves to the view without attempting to distract from it.” I thus found myself becoming retrospectively fond of that way-marker on the promenade of my youth — the seating at all four points of its compass protected from the elements by the (remaining) glass panels, which punctuate, rather than obliterate, the horizon.
 
This is a melancholic but curiously captivating book. The pictures are simple, mostly unpeopled and elegantly framed.

The often dilapidated shelters — drifted rubbish, rotting timber, broken glass and, I fear, the faint smell of urine — serve as a metaphor for the state of the towns they inhabit.

They are photographed without filters or black and white dramatics, presented as we would see them in real life, structures that serve the “young and old, homeless, left-alone, cantankerous or drunk.”

A place for an ice cream, a bag of chips, a can of cider, a cheeky spliff and a teenage fumble, but most of all, whether the storm be raging without or within, a place to sit and to stare.

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