Why we like to be beside the sea

Richard Porch considers the blurred coastal edge, a place where eternal forces exist in daily friction with the tidal ebb and flow

People are drawn to the sea even if they are not going to venture out onto it or make sport with any of the creatures that live in it. They like being near it so it is no accident that some of a town or city’s most desirable housing will be located there. It is reckoned that properties close to water are worth 20 per cent more than those not.

Even the drabbest shingle beach addressing a pewter-grey stretch of water emptying into some nondescript estuary will attract people. There they will sit or stand, walk the dog beside it or simply stare out into its watery depths. Given that Wales now has a coastal path some 870 miles long, we are well placed to exploit the interface between our land and sea. When you think that tourism contributes more than £2 billion to the Welsh economy or 7 per cent of its GDP and supports 100,000 jobs, the coast is an important selling-point in terms of Wales’s tourism offer.

TOMORROW: Edging the estuary

Peter Finch reports from the Welsh coast along the Severn, where there is enough water to drown us all.

Why are we so attracted to the sea? Perhaps it is the eternal rhythm of the waves hitting the beach or the tides twice a day approach and retreat. Or is it the dimensional and physical changes wrought in a beach as the tide creeps up it, or that the sea changes colour depending on the weather or the light.

I think people like to be beside the sea so that they can silently commune with it. They derive pleasure from its very otherness and the fact the forces that act on it are so vast and unknowable. They acknowledge they are in the presence of something utterly inscrutable, something that only the gravitational pull of the moon and the planet’s weather can control or affect.

That communion takes different forms. Some people sit in the protective cocoon of their cars eating chips and drinking from flasks of tea. Others expose themselves to a daily walk along its shore, collecting shells, drift wood or scanning hopefully with their metal detectors. That this takes place in all weathers and all seasons tells us something about the attraction of the littoral.

Moreover, sea air is deemed bracing and therefore therapeutic. As a result the sea-land nexus is thought physically beneficial as well as psychologically so. This was emphasised in the 2001 Census when respondents were asked how their health had been in the previous 12 months. The results were interesting. They showed that 1 per cent more people who lived within half a mile of the sea considered they had better health compared with those living more than 30 miles inland. Imagine what those numbers must add up to across the population.

A recent study by the University of Exeter also considered other health factors such as age, gender and whether people lived near parks. Perhaps most surprising was that people living in deprived areas thought coastal living as healthy – affluence was not an issue. Another study found that a visit to the coast or seaside was deemed more relaxing than a visit to the countryside.

In truth the reasons why the sea-land interface seems good for you are more prosaic. The opportunities for reducing stress (walking along the beach) and physical activity (climbing cliffs or sailing) all contribute to personal happiness. The other great factor might be climatic. Coastal climates mean winters are milder (often snow and frost-free) and summers are cooler because of the insulating effect of the sea. So the fact there is a tradition in Britain of seaside holidays should not surprise us.

It surely is no coincidence that the coast is also a place where some natural topography not normally available to urban dwellers is revealed. This may take the form of an abrupt transition between the land and sea in the form of steep cliffs or something more gradual whereby a beach modifies the way the land gives way to the sea via dunes. In Wales the coastal edge is frequently defined by being part of a national park, field system or nature reserve.

The fishing industry of another age created many seaside towns while some continue to offer traditional seaside holidays despite the siren call of cheap foreign travel. Swansea may not be thought an obvious holiday destination, yet tourism spend contributes almost £180m annually to the city’s local economy supporting up to 5,000 jobs directly and indirectly. And this is in a region where public sector jobs tend to dominate.

In the UK seaside tourism contributes £3.6 billion to the economy, supporting 210,000 jobs in 121 coastal resorts. In the age of the iPod and the Internet it is somehow very satisfying to note that seaside tourism employs as many people as the whole of the telecommunications sector.

The seaside has evolved its own architectural genres in the form of lighthouses and piers. The latter are a marvellous piece of leisure infrastructure and a conceit. They offer a faux-maritime experience without you ever having to risk getting your feet wet. Because most were built in the 19th Century as landing stages for pleasure boats or ferries they are also a heritage experience, a bit like a stately home on stilts above the waves.

What are they after all except a construction kit made of cast iron that heroically defies the corrosive effect of salt water, sea air and the pounding of the sea? You can walk, sit and even be entertained on them. On a seasonal basis they are home to pavilions, kiosks and of course the people who fish from them. They are a type of over-water architecture that facilitates harmless pleasures, a kind of linear mall that juts out to sea.

Lighthouses seem to personify man’s attempt to defy the forces of the sea. Often built on rocky promontories or stony islands many are only reachable when the tide concedes access. I was taken out to the Mumbles Lighthouse off Mumbles Point by people from Trinity House many years ago and was able to climb up into the light. This lighthouse was designed and built in the late 1790s by the Swansea-based Georgian architect William Jernegan (1753 – 1838). Jernegan was an unusual architect of the period in that he not only designed three quietly dignified Georgian terraces in Swansea (that still survive) but also tried his hand at designing a blast furnace hall for the copper smelting industry there. He designed the Mumbles Lighthouse with an unusual octagonal platform that had two coal-powered braziers that functioned as the ‘light’. A man had to walk out there twice a day to light them in all weathers. It was later enclosed and achieved the form we see now.

An even more arresting lighthouse (or what is left of it) can be found a few miles to the west at Whitford Point, off the Gower. It was built in 1865 by a local engineer and is the last wave-washed cast-iron lighthouse still to be seen in Britain. It had fallen out of use by the 1930s and now presents a haunting Gothic shell to the tides. Accessible for only a few hours every day the cast-iron carapace then partially disappears for the rest of the time beneath 20ft of water.

Structurally it has an elegant tapered stem comprised of seven large cast iron rings to which were bolted thick plates with external flanges, apparently to facilitate ease of replacement. Its base is 6.71 metres in diameter and reduces elegantly upward to a lantern and balcony with a 3.5 metre diameter. The balcony, its brackets and the lantern to the lighthouse were designed in an altogether more delicate style and offer a marvellous counterpoint to the muscularity of the rest of the lighthouse. Its interior is inaccessible. In its wave-washed dereliction it represents a poignant symbol of man’s attempt at an intervention at the blurred edge where the land meets the sea, a place where eternal forces exist in daily friction with the tidal ebb and flow.

Richard Porch is a freelance writer and commentator on the architecture and design scene in Wales.

Also within Culture