Excerpt from Underwater to Get Out of the Rain by Trevor Norton, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Underwater to Get Out of the Rain

A Love Affair With the Sea

by Trevor Norton

Underwater to Get Out of the Rain
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 400 pages
    Jun 2007, 400 pages

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Bathers were indeed forcibly submerged by burly female ‘dippers’ – ‘hideous amphibious animals’, according to the artist Constable. The shock of those icy waters was fundamental to the cure, for it was well known that the ‘terror and Surprize, very much contracts the nervous membrane and tubes, in which the aerial spirits are contained’. Scarborough assured its patrons that it had the coldest water of all.

In all senses the melancholia, worms and putrefaction were washed away with the tide. This gave nature’s seaside sanatorium the edge over inland spas where, as Tobias Smollet feared, invalids with running sores might convert the warm baths into cauldrons of infection keen to dart into his open pores. Worse still, what if the bathwater got into the pump from which he drank the mineral water, and he was swallowing the ‘sweat, dirt and dandruff and the abdominal discharges of various kinds, from twenty diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below’? No, the chill and voluminous sea was undisputedly a safer kettle of fish.

The ‘beach’ had been invented and many city dwellers would see the horizon for the first time. They came to enjoy the whipping of the waves which ‘invigorates all parts’, and a confrontation with the ‘congenial horrors of unrestrained nature’. Others succumbed to a massage with freshly gathered seaweed, or simply admired the bathing beauties from afar while simultaneously celebrating the invention of opera glasses.

The lure of the seaside was that people were liberated to let their hair down in public, both metaphorically and literally. After bathing, a woman’s wet tresses had to be brushed and the beach was the only place where they might be viewed free from the nets and buns in which they were normally imprisoned.

As soon as the ‘lower class’ arrived, they seemed to ‘give up their decorum with their rail ticket and to adopt practices which at home they would shudder to even read of’. Indeed, ‘men gambol about in a complete state of nature’ and women frolic with only ‘apologies for covering’. In 1866, the Scarborough Gazette contained angry letters claiming that a healthy recreation had been turned into ‘an immoral and depraved exhibition’. On the other hand, traders knew from experience that ‘if first-class visitors are obliged to wear drawers when bathing . . . Scarborough will lose its fame’. New by-laws divided up the beach into bedrawed and knickerless sections.

Scarborough Spa prospered. The visitors’ book read like a Who’s Who of high society. The town published a weekly gazette to list all the important new arrivals. It was the first to have bathing machines and had forty of them by the 1780s. Arcades, a covered promenade and assembly rooms were built to occupy the bathers when they were out of the water or if, inevitably, it was raining. Seaboard towns all over Britain followed Scarborough’s lead, each boasting saltier water than the others, or younger female bathing attendants, or fewer of those wicked waves that ‘annoy, frighten and spatter bathers exceedingly’.

In the 1850s you couldn’t step on the English coast without tripping over a resort bulging with ‘attractions’. Visitors were deafened by the noise of barrel organs and brass bands.

But by the 1950s, when I came, even the grand buildings of Scarborough were about to fall on hard times. The desire to retire to the seaside to await death gave some places a bad name. Deadly Llandudno had the highest death rate in Britain.

In Whitley Bay, most of the iron railings had been melted down during the war and dropped on Hitler. The few that remained received their annual overcoat of royal-blue gloss, covering an under­coat of rust.

Copyright 2006, Trevor Norton. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Da Capo press. All reights reserved.

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