Caravans, spa towns and seaside resorts: a brief history of British holidays

As life continues to be affected by COVID-19, summer 2020 is one like no other. With more Brits opting for a 'staycation' this summer, Julian Humphrys takes us on a brief journey through the history of holidaying in Britain…

Sunbathers on Blackpool beach in 1954. (Credit: John Chillingworth/Getty Images)

Who were Britain’s first tourists?

Britain’s first tourists were pilgrims. Whether it was travelling overseas to Santiago de Compostela, Mont Saint Michel or Jerusalem – or in Britain to places like Lindisfarne or Canterbury – a religious pilgrimage offered a break from an everyday routine, and the opportunity to see somewhere new. And, like today’s tourists, medieval pilgrims liked to bring home souvenirs. Pilgrim badges were bought in large numbers while the well-off might even splash out on a holy relic.

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When did the craze for cultural tourism take hold?

From about 1600 to 1800, no young gentleman’s education was truly complete until he had been on the Grand Tour, when he would travel around Europe in order to view Classical and Renaissance art and architecture in situ. For many, it was a chance to ‘sow their wild oats’ and, as the contents of so many British stately homes will confirm, indulge in a huge shopping expedition.

When did people start going on caravan holidays? Eugene Byrne explains more…

In 1885 William Gordon Stables (1840–1910), a former naval surgeon turned author, took his specially-designed caravan, the ‘Wanderer’, drawn by two horses, to Scotland. He also took his manservant Foley, who did his washing and cooking, and rode on ahead on a tricycle to check the roads and bridges could take the two-tonne vehicle.

Stables’s bestselling book about his adventures started a craze for recreational caravanning. The Caravan Club was formed in 1907 and wealthy folks went off on adventures with their servants and horse-drawn homes.

Caravanning declined after the First World War until the appearance of new lightweight caravans, which could be towed by car. So caravanning as we know it now really began in the 1930s, as it came within the financial reach of the middle classes – although it was prompted as much by the American craze for ‘tin can tourism’ as by Stables.

By the way, the best performance by a 1930s caravan in a British film is at the climax of Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944), and if it doesn’t have you crying buckets, you’re not normal.

By 2010, The Caravan Club had around 370,000 families on its list, which amounts to a million people in all, about half of the UK caravanning population. 

So did anyone holiday at home?

By the end of the 18th century, they had no choice but to. Partly because of the activities of one Napoleon Bonaparte, continental travelling had become too dangerous for a Grand Tour, and so potential tourists started exploring their own country. They indulged their love of the picturesque with the aid of such publications as William Gilpin’s Observations on the River Wye. Others had always preferred a less exotic holiday, basing themselves in spa towns like Bath or Harrogate.

A depiction of a Georgian Bath chair.
A depiction of a Georgian Bath chair. (Getty Images)

All these seem to be holidays for the rich. What about the less well-off?

The real growth in popular tourism began when railways made travel cheaper and quicker. In July 1841, Thomas Cook organised the first ever package tour, arranging for a rail company to take 570 temperance campaigners from Leicester to Loughborough for a shilling a head.

Two holidaymakers enjoy the heatwave on the beach at Blackpool in July 1934. (Credit: E Dean/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Two holidaymakers enjoy the heatwave on the beach at Blackpool in July 1934. (Credit: E Dean/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The initial beneficiaries of cheaper transport were the middle classes. Yet, by the last quarter of the 19th century, the tradition of the British working-class holiday was firmly established, especially to seaside resorts such as Blackpool, which were now within easy reach of the industrial cities of the north.

Julian Humphrys is a writer and historian. You can follow him on Twitter @GeneralJules

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine in June 2014