A little sea-bathing will NOT set me up forever

A little sea-bathing will NOT set me up forever

This is, I suppose, the inevitable post in my series on those towns offering water-based cures in the 18th and 19th centuries. For while drinking and bathing in spa water had quite a good run, eventually they were overtaken by a new cure: sea-bathing.

The transition from spa towns to seaside resorts was not absolute, or instantaneous. The town of Scarborough did much to promote the transition, for it became popular for its spa waters, but also had the advantage of a seaside location. According to Phyllis Hembry, as early as 1732 the Duchess of Manchester was trying it, and by 1735 John Setterington’s Perspective Drawing of Scarborough shows the first bathing machines on the beach:

Scarborough, 1735

As with the popularity of drinking and bathing in spa water, various tracts written by physicians regarding its efficacy helped in the rise of the popularity of sea-bathing. Royal patronage helped as well. In 1788, George III and his family visited Cheltenham, one of the spa towns. The waters don’t seem to have done him any benefit, for in November of that year he went mad, and in June of 1789, Weymouth was the place where a cure was sought for him. The town went a bit king-mad themselves, going so far as to house a band in a bathing machine, playing “God Save the King” when the royal personage dipped into the sea.

It doesn’t seem to have worked very well for the poor mad king, but the purpose of bathing machines was supposed to be to maintain the privacy of the bather; the machines were drawn, usually by a horse, into the water, and the bathers, having changed within the machine, submerged themselves on the opposite side from the shore. Many towns also enforced segregated bathing, either by having the sexes use different locations, or by having men and women bathe during different hours of the day. Things had, it appeared, evolved from the days when co-ed naked bathing was done at Bath. I had thought that none of these wooden huts on wheels could still be extant, but was pleasantly surprised to find Queen Victoria’s still in place at Osborne on the Isle of Wight (and later learned George III’s is still at Weymouth):

Front of Queen Victoria’s bathing machine.
Back of Queen Victoria’s bathing machine.

Osborne House itself I liked much better than I was expecting, I believe because I was expecting something more on trend with the Victorian era: gothic and utterly crammed full of furniture and bric-a-brac. Osborne, however, is largely Mediterranean by way of late Regency, in its exterior design, and the interior is also largely restrained late Regency.

Osborne House exterior and garden.
Osborne House, interior.
Osborne House, interior.
Osborne House, interior 360.

The exception at Osborne House: this exuberant dining room from an extension to the house, clearly tied to Queen Victoria’s role as Empress of India.

Perhaps it makes sense that most of Osborne House was comparably restrained, for it was a replacement seaside home, for the royal family, and the place it supplanted was decidedly not restrained. Author Louise Allen writes in The Georgian Seaside: The English resorts before the railway age that it was Scarborough, Margate and Brighton that vied “for the title of the first true seaside resort,” but it was Brighton that ultimately became the most fashionable, and this was due to another royal patron, the Prince Regent, later George IV.

It was the Prince Regent’s residence, the Marine Pavilion, later redesigned into the Royal Pavilion, which helped turn what had been Brighthelmstone, a small fishing village, into a highly popular seaside resort. I visited the Royal Pavilion there, and unfortunately photography is not allowed, so I cannot share with you all the ostentatious ridiculousness of it all (no wonder Victoria and Albert made their seaside house more subdued by comparison!), although John Nash’s exterior certainly gives good hint that nothing normal is to be housed inside. And I can share a Regency print of one of the rooms:

Exterior of the Royal Pavilion.
Regency-era print of the Banqueting Hall.

I have to admit that I had long avoided Brighton as a stop on my itineraries, in part because Lydia and Wickham had given it a negative association in my mind, and in part because my previous experience with the English seaside has taught me that it generally comes in two forms: picturesque and untouched, or tarted up and full of candy floss, arcades, and stag and hen parties. Brighton, known for the “dirty weekend,” seemed likely to be the latter.

Boy was I surprised. Most of the tarted up bit is reserved for the pier (and even that isn’t too bad), and what remains on land is a whole lot of gorgeous Regency era buildings. Unlike Bath with its handsome stone, they’re brick with an exterior render, but that made the buildings even prettier, in the sunlight.

Terrace houses, in Brighton.
Terrace houses, in Brighton.
360 of a square in Brighton.

Brighton shore and pier.

Brighton was also where I made my first attempt at sea-bathing. Although I’ve been to the coast in England many times before, often in August, I’d never before attempted to go swimming. This is because I am a HUGE wimp when it comes to cold. Although the sight of the hearty Brits out swimming in 60-degree weather was impressive, I’d never wanted to join them. In the US, I consider swimming weather to be above 90!

But it seemed necessary to give it a shot, in keeping with the theme of the trip, and Brighton seemed a good place to do so. After all, it was August, and ought to have been warm enough. Yet the weather in Brighton when I was there was a bit chilly, for late summer – I don’t think it got above 70, and it was a cold 70. All I managed was to wade in with my pant legs rolled up, and I knew that was all I should attempt, because nobody was swimming, except a crazy little kid near me. This pretty much made my feet completely numb, which was good because Brighton’s beach is shingle, and I had not brought water shoes, so the walk back to my sitting spot on the beach was slightly less painful. I really could have done with a bathing machine to get past the rocks!

On Brighton beach, in attempt #1.

So while I enjoyed Brighton, the stop might have been considered a failure, for I did not manage what could really be called sea-bathing, and I did not get a husband. This wasn’t my last shot at sea-bathing, however, for I went to the Isle of Wight a bit later in the itinerary. The weather was certainly a bit warmer – warm enough, at least, to be wearing my swimsuit – but windy, when I went to Alum Bay and rode a chair down to the beach. It was yet another shingle beach, so I gritted my teeth and went in. I managed to make it up to my waist in the frigid water before I decided that was quite enough and made the foot-aching walk back to my towel.

Freezing in beautiful Alum Bay.

I had one last shot at sort-of sea-bathing, for I went to Lymington after the island, and Lymington has an open-air pool dating to 1833, which is fed by sea water. The weather was even worse when I got to Lymington, however, although I did go and have a look at the pool. It’s not so genteel as it once must have been, for now it’s filled with an inflatable obstacle course, although it was quite populated. This was clearly because all of the kids were wearing wetsuits, which seemed a wise plan.

Lymington’s historic pool.

Ironically, at the very end of my trip, there was a true heat wave, and the weather got up into the 80s. Somehow, it feels like there is a 30-degree difference between 70 and cloudy and 80 and sunny, in that country, and I considered bailing on my London plans and hieing back off to Brighton. I did not, however, and so in my cold-wimpiness, I failed at sea-bathing.

I particularly failed when you consider how the hearty Georgians did it, for it was considered best to bathe when it was quite cold, so seasons could extend into November. I couldn’t even do this in August, and they’re jumping off the back of a bathing machine in November?!?

Jane Austen, who captured the rising popularity of the sea resorts in the fragmentary Sanditon, was one of those hearty people. After her family had moved to bath, they holidayed at the seaside, including Sidmouth, Lyme Regis, and Worthing, which may have been a model for Sanditon. Austen enjoyed sea-bathing, writing:

The bathing was so delightful this morning, and Molly so pressing with me to enjoy myself, that I believe I stayed in rather too long, as since the middle of the day I have felt unreasonably tired. I shall be more careful another time, and shall not bathe tomorrow as I had before intended.

So Jane Austen clearly had a goodly tolerance for cold, but was she a strong walker, a la her most famous heroine? That shall have to wait for next time. Until then, I thought I’d leave you all an excerpt from the working draft of the next book in my series, A Season Lost, which shows another offering of the seaside resorts that I think I would have preferred: the option to bathe in warmed sea-water.

I’ve cut text that references two spoilers and isn’t necessary to understand the rest of the passage, but there are mild spoilers as to what some of the plotlines will be in this particular book, so do be warned:

The day following her conversation with Elizabeth Darcy, Anne de Bourgh did something she did not think she was supposed to do. In truth, she did several things she did not think she was supposed to do.

The first was that she followed Mrs. Darcy’s advice, and decided to stop worrying about her blue mass, so long as she did not feel unwell. For the first time in all the years she had been taking it, she was separated from all those who had seen it as essential for the preservation of her health – her mother, Dr. Gibson, and Mrs. Jenkinson, and indeed, her concerned plea to Mrs. Darcy had been for the most part because they would have wanted her to take her pill.

Yet she had always desired a chance to attempt some other cures for the weakness of constitution that had always plagued her, and her dismissal by Mrs. Darcy – I do not think I would be so eager to take physic just for the sake of taking it – had recalled her to this desire. And so not only had Anne not called for Mr. Lock, she had also made inquiries with the hotel about going sea-bathing.

These inquiries were somewhat favourably answered. The sea was quite cold at this time of year, particularly in this year, when the weather was so poor, and sea-bathing might not be advisable to those with a weak constitution – this said with a particular look at her – but the hotel itself had very fine marble baths. One of these could be filled immediately with warmed sea-water at Miss de Bourgh’s request for three shillings six pence, or she might purchase seven baths for a guinea. Whichever she chose, she could bathe in the privacy and comfort that a young lady of her class would desire.

It had been a long time since Anne had considered herself a young lady. She purchased seven baths, and asked to partake of her first as soon as it could be prepared. [spoilers removed]

She made Rachel go with her, which was for the best, as she needed someone to help remove her clothes down to her shift, and, once Anne had recalled that said shift should be thoroughly soaked, to go back to her apartment for another. The room with her bath was small, and private, and mostly taken up with the deep marble bath tub that had been filled with Anne’s warm sea-water. Approaching it, she put her foot in, found it to be pleasantly warm, and proceeded to rapidly submerge the rest of her person. This was far from the first time Anne had bathed, but it was her first time in such a tub, and in seawater, and she found it a superior experience, as though she was somehow more buoyant, and in so being, soothed and comforted. Anne waited until the water had cooled to the point where it might chill her, and then had Rachel come back in and help her change into a new shift and her old dress.

As she was returning to her apartment, Anne thought again about the blue mass, and how she had skipped her dose, yet felt none the worse for it. Indeed, she felt refreshed, after her bath. But it had been a very long time since Anne had felt truly well, and she had no expectations that one bath should do away with years worth of headaches, a pervading fatigue of both body and mind, and an ongoing set of other maladies. In truth, she was not certain that anything could help her, yet she was going to try while she had the chance.


17 Responses to A little sea-bathing will NOT set me up forever

  1. Great pictures! I love the ceilings! The terrace homes in Brighton are gorgeous! I could swim in the cold oceans when I was younger but not so much now! I like Anne’s way of bathing in warm sea water…can’t wait for this book!!!

  2. Beautiful pictures and I love that bathing machine. Those panorama shots were awesome… slightly disconcerting… but awesome.

    • Thank you, J.W. — and yeah the 360s can be a little dizzying, I think! I like to include them where I’ve got ones that capture the scene, though, because I feel like you get a little more of the sense of being there.

  3. Wonderful pictures Sophie! I love the ones you can move around to get a complete view. I just love the buildings in Brighton. Beautiful! Great post.

    • Thank you, Teresa! I do think those 360s allow you to feel more like you’re in the location, which is why I like to include them where I’ve got good ones. And I agree with you on the buildings in Brighton — they were such a pleasant surprise.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I was surprised by the appearance of Brighton as it definitely was not what I imagined it to be. I laughed out loud when you said your trip was partly a failure because you hadn’t found yourself a husband, Lydia would be so disappointed in you:)

    • Hahaha, Lydia would be disappointed indeed! Brighton definitely was not what I was imagining, either, and I was really glad I finally gave it a chance. Thanks for your comment, darcybennet!

  5. Thank you for a great post, Sophie, as always. I love your pictures. I didn’t even know there were so many places that I really want to see. Also, it’s great how you work in teasers for your next post. I didn’t know I wanted to know, but now I must know if Jane Austen was a strong walker!

    • Aww, thanks, Summer! I feel like the places I want to see in England just keep increasing exponentially and I’m never actually going to make it to them all! I won’t spoil by telling you whether she was a strong walker or not, but I will say that in the spirit of more “immersion,” so to speak, I did one of the walks she did from Bath. 🙂

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