I’m in casual conversation with a colleague about an upcoming trip to West Sussex “Sure, Hayling Island can be nice”, he tells me, “just steer clear of the arcade in the middle”. Yet what may be gaudy for some is often fantastic ‘material’ for me so I decide to disregard the advice and head directly there. Besides, I have always been transfixed by those coin machines you chuck a 10 pence piece into and watch as it’s gleefully spat out, catapulting over the shimmering mound of silver, always landing far enough away to avoid causing the deluge of coinage that is so woefully out of reach.

Ambling along the sea front I spy many a relic that probably once shined in its day but now looks rundown, tired and in desperate need of some TLC. I locate the arcade my colleague warned me about but my attention is immediately drawn to the amusement park on my right, Funland. Its garish signage in sharp polarity to the swarthy sky. What first strikes me is how muted the place is. There are no joyful squeals of kiddies being thrown in the air by the various bilious contraptions, no jittery parents running after their euphoric youngsters. Brash signs about social distancing are in abundance, reminding people to keep 2 meters distance and to wash hands frequently – a necessity in the current times but still feels somewhat incongruous with an amusement park titled ‘Funland’. A stark symbol of irony midst a global pandemic.

I can’t help but wonder if the COVID pandemic might just be the very thing that the tumbledown British seaside needs to revive itself. I think of Margate, a place that has been on the rise for a decade fortified by the 2011 opening of the Turner Gallery and epitomized by the grand re-opening of Dreamland in 2015, the 150 year old theme park that went into decline in the early 2000’s but was lovingly resurrected after a local campaign. These collective efforts which helped slingshot Margate into the limelight with the ensuing gentrification and capital that such changes bring.

As the pandemic continues unabated and staycationing becomes the norm for the British population I wonder whether Brits can avoid the sheeple-like parade to the more ‘desirable’ South West coast in place of something a bit more rustic, a bit simpler, and undoubtedly easier on the purse stings.

As increasing demand for the more popular UK hotspots aka Cornwall and Devon have left many priced out by inflated Airbnb rentals and a lack of availability, cute guesthouses and B&Bs on the south cost are plentiful. Can we perhaps avoid the hoards and head somewhere a little less congested?

Herein lies my sales pitch, laid out simply and clear. Perhaps the way out of this pandemic for British seaside resorts is to ride the wave of retro charm and start dishing out doses of nostalgia like a candy floss stand at a village fair. Granted you may not be bewitched in quite the same way as you would be by the idyllic Cornish coast but what you don’t get in glamour is more than made up for in its wallet saving and simplicity. Trade in crowded sandy beeches and posh fudge for a pebbly beach, a stick of rock and space. A place where you can truly social distance.

Fighting against the strong gusts to get back to my car I realise i’m feeling quite heady from the wind and the sea air – I feel better today than I have all year. I haven’t even left yet but but I’ve already decided i’m going to make it my mission to hunt out some more unsung nooks of the southern English coastline try to do like the victorians once did, bring back some life and regeneration back to these bygone locales.

Practicalities

Hayling Island is on the South Coast between West Wittering and Portsmouth. The easiest way to reach it is by car from the A27.

By public transport trains go from London (Victoria/Clapham) to Havant and then then number 30/31 buses go from Havant to Hayling Island Beach.

There are several free car parks dotted around the beach and along Ferry Road towards Sinah.

I didn’t stop by but the Ship Inn, Langstone is located on the peninsula just before you cross over into Hayling Island. It overlooks the water and looks like an absolutely lovely place to stop and refuel.

Speaking of fuel, I noted that the petrol prices on the Island were the cheapest I had seen anywhere between London and the South Downs/South Coast.

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