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The British and Holidays

Traditional seaside holidays

The British upper class started the fashion for seaside holidays in the late eighteenth century. The middle classes soon followed them and when they were given the opportunity (around the beginning of the twentieth century), so did the working classes. It soon became normal for families to spend a week or two every year at one of the seaside resort towns which sprang up to cater for this new mass market. The best known of these are close to the larger towns and cities.

These seaside towns quickly developed certain characteristics that are now regarded as typical of the ‘traditional’ English holiday resort. They have some hotels where richer people stay, but most families stay at boarding houses. These are small family businesses, offering either ‘bed and breakfast’ or, more rarely, ‘full board’ (meaning that all meals are provided). Some streets in seaside resorts are full of nothing but boarding houses. The food in these, and in local restaurants, is cheap and conventional with an emphasis on fish and chips.

Stereotypically, daytime entertainment in sunny weather centres around the beach, where the children make sand castles, buy ice-creams and sometimes go for donkey rides. Older adults often do not bother to go swimming. They are happy just to sit in their deck chairs and occasionally go for a paddle with their skirts or trouser legs hitched up. The water is always cold and, despite efforts to clean it up, sometimes very dirty. But for adults who swim, some resorts have wooden huts on or near the beach, known as ‘beach cabins’, ‘beach huts’ or ‘bathing huts’, in which people can change into their swimming costumes. Swimming and sunbathing without any clothing is rare. All resorts have various other kinds of attraction, including more-or-less permanent funfairs.

For the evenings, and when it is raining, there are amusement arcades, bingo halls, dance halls, discos, theatres, bowling alleys and so on, many of these situated on the pier. This unique British architectural structure is a platform extending out into the sea. The large resorts have decorations which light up at night. The ‘Blackpool illuminations’, for example, are famous.

Another traditional holiday destination, which was very popular in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, is the holiday camp, where visitors stay in chalets in self-contained villages with all food and entertainment organised for them. Butlin’s and Pontin’s, the companies which own most of these, are well-known names in Britain. The enforced good-humour, strict meal-times and events such as ‘knobbly knees’ competitions and beauty contests that were characteristic of these camps have now given way to a more relaxed atmosphere.

Modern Holidays in Britain

Both of the traditional types of holiday have become less popular in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The increase in car ownership has encouraged many people to take caravan holidays. But the greatest cause of the decline of the traditional holiday is foreign tourism. Before the 1960s, only the rich took holidays abroad. By 1971, the British were taking 7 million foreign holidays and by 1987, 20 million. These days, millions of British people take their cars across the channel every year and nearly half of all the nights spent on holidays away from home are spent abroad.

Most foreign holidays are package holidays, in which transport and accommodation are booked and paid for through a travel agent. These holidays are often booked a long time in advance. In the middle of winter the television companies run programmes which give information about the packages being offered. People need cheering up at this time of the year! In many British homes it has because traditional to get the holiday brochures out and start talking about where to go in the summer on Boxing Day. Spain is by far the most popular package-holiday destination.

Half of all the holidays taken within Britain are now for three days or less. Every bank-holiday weekend there are long traffic jams along the routes to the most popular holiday areas. The traditional seaside resorts have survived by adjusting themselves to this trend. (Only the rich have second houses or cottages in the countryside to which they can escape at weekends.) But there are also many other types of holiday. Hiking in the country and sleeping at youth hostels has long been popular and so, among an enthusiastic minority, has pot-holing (the exploration of underground caves). There are also a wide range of ‘activity’ holidays available, giving full expression to British individualism. You can, for example, take part in a ‘ murder weekend’, and find yourself living out the plot of detective story.

An increasing number of people now go on ‘working’ holidays, during which they might help to repair an ancient stone wall or take part in an archaeological dig. This is an echo of another traditional type of ‘holiday’ - fruit picking. It used to be the habit of poor people from the east end of London, for example, to go to Kent at the end of the summer to help with the hop harvest (hops are used for making beer).

Britain is a country governed by routine. It has fewer public holidays than any other country in Europe and fewer than North America. (Northern Ireland has two extra ones, however). Even New Year’s Day was not an official public holiday in England and Wales until quite recently (but so many people gave themselves a holiday anyway that it was thought it might as well become official!). There are almost no semi-official holidays either. Most official holidays occur either just before or just after a weekend, so that the practice of making a 'bridge', is almost unknown. Moreover, there are no traditional extra local holidays in particular places. Although the origin of the word ‘holiday’ is ‘holy day’, not all public holidays (usually known as ‘bank holidays’) are connected with religious celebrations.

The British also seem to do comparatively badly with regard to annual holidays. These are not as long as they are in many other countries. Although the average employee gets four weeks’ paid holiday a year, in no town or city in the country would a visitor ever get the impression that the place had ‘shut down’ for the summer break. (In fact, about 40% of the population do not go away anywhere for their holidays.)

Holiday Facts and Figures

The following statistics are taken from Social Trends 30, 2000 edition, published by the Office of National Statistics, part of the Government Statistical Service.

Click to see Table 1

Day visits are a popular leisure activity. The 1998 UK Day Visits Survey collected information on round trips made for leisure purposes from Males/Females/All categories to locations anywhere in the United Kingdom. These leisure day visits increased by almost 15 per cent between 1994 and 1998 to over 5.9 billion. Overall the two most popular reasons for taking day visits away from home in 1998 were going out for a meal or drink in a café, restaurant or pub and visiting friends or relatives.

However, while men were more likely than women to go out for a meal or drink, the reverse was the case for visiting friends or relatives (Table 1). Women were also more likely than men to take a day trip to go shopping.

Tourist attractions

Blackpool Pleasure Beach has been Britain’s most popular tourist attraction for many years, and 7.1 million people visited it in 1998 (Table 2). The second most popular free attraction, and the most popular museum, was the British Museum. This attracted 5.6 million people in the same year, which was more than twice as many as in 1981. The most popular museums and galleries are in London, some of which introduced admission charges in the late 1980s. This affected the number of visits made to some of these attractions. For example, the number of visits made to the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in 1998 were about half the number made in 1981. However, funds have been  made available to permit free access for children from April 1999, and free access for pensioners from April 2000, to the currently charging national museums.

Holidays at home and abroad

While some people may visit tourist attractions on day trips, others may do so while on holiday. The proportion of British adults taking at least one holiday a year of four nights or more has fluctuated around 60 per cent for the last 25 years. The proportion of adults taking two holidays a year increased steadily up to 1995 when 27 per cent of adults did so. Since then the proportion has levelled out, and in 1998, 25 per cent of adults had two or more holiday breaks.

In 1998, 56 million holidays of four nights or more were taken by British residents. This was 36 per cent more than in 1971. The number of holidays taken in Britain has been broadly stable over the last decade while the number taken abroad has grown. In 1998 the number of holidays taken abroad outnumbered those taken in Great Britain for the first time: 29 million holidays were taken abroad by residents of Great Britain compared with 27 million domestic holidays.

Click to see Table 2

Spain was the most popular holiday destination abroad for UK residents in 1998 (Table 3). The number of visits to France and the United States were higher in 1998 than in 1971. Europe remains more popular with British holidaymakers in other parts of the world, while the United States is the most popular non-European holiday destination.

People aged 65 and over were the least likely to take a holiday abroad in 1998. Five per cent of men and 4 per cent of women going on holiday abroad were in this age group, although men aged 65 and over made up 13 per cent of the total male population, and women of this age made up 18 per cent of the female population. Those aged 45 to 54 were the most likely to take a holiday abroad. Men aged 24 to 34 spent, on average, the most money abroad on holiday — just over £464.

Among British adults aged 16 and over who spent their holiday (of four nights or more) in Great Britain in 1998, the West Country was by far the most popular destination, accounting for over a quarter of such breaks. Scotland and Southern England were the next most popular destinations while Greater London and Northumbria each accounted for only 2 per cent of domestic holidays.

Many people prefer just to relax when they are on holiday. The UK Tourism Survey found that over two in five British residents taking holidays in the United Kingdom engaged in no activity while away in 1998. Swimming, either indoor or outdoor, was the most popular holiday activity with 17 per cent of people engaging in such a pastime. Hiking and walking, and visiting heritage sites were also popular activities.

Click to see Table 3

Heritage is one of the six causes that receive funding from the National Lottery, which was launched in 1994. The distribution of income from the National Lottery was set out at the start of the license and amended by the National Lottery Act 1998. Over the course of the license, for each £1 spent on the Lottery, 50 pence will be returned as prizes and 28 pence will go to good causes. Some £8.3 billion had been raised for good causes by the end of October 1999, and nearly 47 thousand awards amounting to £7.2 billion had been distributed. Over two-thirds of the awards have been for less than £50,000.

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