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The history of seaside holidays in Norfolk UK

The seaside holiday is a great British tradition dating back to the 1700s and with such stunning coastline it is easy to understand why people have always loved to holiday in Norfolk by the sea.

From beautiful stretches of soft golden sands to characteristic pebbled beaches, quaint beach huts lining the coastline to the buzz of activity at the family resorts, there is something for all ages to enjoy in Norfolk.

Sea water – an excellent tonic

The first visitors to the Norfolk coast were the aristocracy and gentry during the mid-18th century. At this time, it was a common belief that sea water, like the spa waters of Bath and Buxton, had medicinal properties and could benefit those of a delicate constitution. Great Yarmouth attracted visitors for this reason, and the Bath House was opened in 1759 where guests could partake of seawater baths or take tea amongst fine company in the assembly room. A very brave few would also take a dip in the North Sea – but just for a few moments!

All aboard for the coast

Beachcombing and sea bathing developed as respectable middle-class pursuits in the Victorian era, combining healthful exercise with morally inspiring nature studies.

The prudish nature of Victorian bathing has left us the colourful legacy of beach huts, once wheeled bathing machines now left high and dry with – most notably at Wells – verandahs reminiscent of colonial India.

What better holiday for all the family.

With the coming of the Great Eastern Railway Company in the early 19th century, the Norfolk coast was opened up to all, not just the elite. Train travel was an efficient and affordable way to travel both for day trips and holidays. Previously journeys would have been made by boat or horse-drawn carriage, both of which were expensive and time-consuming.

In the 1840s the first trains arrived in Norfolk – in Great Yarmouth (1844), Hunstanton (1862) and Cromer (1887) – bringing labourers and clerks to mingle with the upper classes. The Norfolk seaside towns flourished with the increased number of visitors, with many staying in guest houses. However, not all were pleased with the new influx and, as a result the gentry decided to take their custom to new places. For example, some moved from Great Yarmouth to create a new destination in Gorleston.

Carry on campers!

The accommodation originally offered by guest houses was not for the faint hearted, with strict rules and stricter landladies! Gradually a new type of accommodation started to emerge during the late Victorian era – the holiday camp.

The first holiday camp in the UK was opened in 1906 at Caister-on-Sea but by today’s standards the camp was very basic with holidaymakers staying in tents and assisting with camp chores.

Move over Billy Butlin – the UK’s first holiday camp was in Norfolk

Now a far cry from its humble beginnings, the camp still thrives today, run by Haven with additional camps nearby in Great Yarmouth and Hopton. Another very popular holiday camp opened in 1924, Potters, which boasted of facilities such as brick chalets, running water and electric lights! However, the second world war brought about dramatic changes with many of the holiday camps being used as bases by the military.

Fifties and Sixties fun

It was after the end of the second world war that holiday camps really had their golden era during the 1950s and 60s. People hadn’t been on holiday for many years and some children had never seen the sea. Life had been incredibly hard and the public were in need of fun and entertainment.

The holiday camp could provide all this and more. With swimming pools on site, entertainment in the evenings, competitions including ‘Glamorous Granny’ and ‘Knobbly Knees’ plus plentiful food the camps offered all the right ingredients for an excellent and affordable family holiday. Hugely-extended trains would arrive in Great Yarmouth during ‘Factory fortnight’ bringing in thousands of holidaying workers from the Midlands.

Things to do in Great Yarmouth

Seafront humour Gt Yarmouth

A return to holidaying at home

During the 1970s the seaside holiday boom began to slow down. The promise of guaranteed sunshine in places like Spain meant many people abandoned the British coastline in favour of new destinations. The Norfolk coastal resorts have done much to entice visitors back to the area with the development of new attractions and annual events.

Since the end of the pandemic lockdown, many UK residents have been making the most of the county and deciding to ‘holiday at home’, enjoying Norfolk’s attractions, landscapes, wildlife and good weather. All the while, the coastline has remained as beautiful as ever – so come and see for yourself and maybe take some time to find out more about our fascinating history at one of the many museums in the area.

Top museums in Norfolk