BOGNOR REGIS, England – Not much has changed in the 40 years that Jean Sheppard has called the numbers of Crown Bingo here in the heart of Bognor Regis, one of Britain’s oldest seaside resorts, about 60 miles au south London. Regulars always line up before the doors open at 11 a.m., hoping to take their choice padded seats in a converted cinema built in the 1930s.
When the games start, there are no distractions.
“We once had an elderly lady here whose family came to tell her that her husband had passed away,” Ms. Sheppard recalled recently. “And that woman said, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do for him now,’ and kept playing.”
The other constant over the years is the decline of Bognor Regis. Like most resorts across the country, the city’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s is the stuff of dark memories. Bognor and its many rival destinations – Brighton, Hastings, Margate, Skegness, Blackpool and others – were once teeming with summer travelers who filled the beaches, seafood shacks and game rooms looking for a good time. and, for those lucky enough to encounter a cloudless sky, a tan.
Then in the 1970s came the rise of inexpensive jet travel and overseas tour packages. For the same price as a trip here, a family could fly to the beaches of Spain, where a blazing sun was essentially guaranteed. The seaside resorts of Great Britain have entered an economic free fall from which they have never recovered.
“Pubs have closed, theaters have closed, a lot of buildings have been demolished,” said Ms Sheppard, speaking after her shift on Sunday night. “We’ve been talking about regeneration for years, but no one seems to know how to do it.
Now, the limitations imposed by the pandemic are succeeding where all else has failed – at least for now. Government-imposed restrictions and warnings on air travel have dampened the national appetite for overseas travel. Brits are still allowed to travel to Spain and elsewhere in Europe, but unless you travel to Gibraltar – where infection rates are low – you must quarantine for 10 days after you return home and pay. for two Covid-19 tests.
Last week, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the policy would soon be reviewed and liberalized. This good news was offset by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, who on Thursday urged all European Union countries to demand that British travelers self-quarantine upon arrival.
Thus, cities like Bognor Regis receive a second look. There were over 180 new players last week at Crown Bingo, said Jenny Barrett, assistant manager. And for the first time in decades, hotels here are posting occupancy rates well above 90%.
“This weekend we are at 95 percent,” said André Gonçalves, manager of the Beachcroft hotel. “And our prices have gone up about 20 to 30 percent.”
The owner of the mini golf course just off the beach promenade, Paul Tiernan, is relishing the benefits of a renovation at the height of the pandemic. He refurbished and cleaned the entire course, in part because during containment there was nothing else to do. Lately over the weekend there has been a queue stretching around the corner and across the street.
“Britain’s seashores are experiencing a massive renaissance wherever you go,” he said. “Everyone is just filling their boots. “
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Mr. Tiernan sat in a chair near the edge of the first hole on his course, directly in the line of fire of all overzealous putters. He moved to Bognor Regis 50 years ago as a child, making him just old enough to have glimpsed the last vestiges of the city’s heyday.
“There was a jetty over there,” he said, gesturing to the other side of the street. “Honestly to God, it was beautiful. At the back, there was a pavilion. And there was a theater there.
Today the pier is short and looks dangerous. Across a different street is a vacant lot with nothing but debris from a building that burned down four years ago in what Mr Tiernan called questionable circumstances.
It’s a long slide from when Bognor was prestigious enough to serve as a convalescent home for King George V, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, after lung surgery in 1929. The royal connection was commemorated when ” Regis, “Latin for” de la King, “was added to the town’s name. But its most famous connection to the monarchy is the story – surely as bogus as it is amusing – that his last words were alliterative criticism and rude by Bognor, uttered after assistants suggested that he would soon be well enough to return. (Polite version: “I don’t want to go to Bognor.”)
James Joyce left more amicable impressions after a stay here in 1923. “The weather is very fine and the country here restful,” he wrote to a guest. Joyce researchers believe he picked the unlikely name of “Finnegans Wake” main character, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, from a nearby cemetery.
The flow of people from the outside accelerated when entrepreneur Billy Butlin opened his second Butlin’s Holiday Camp here in 1960, bringing his vision of a family vacation, filled with vigorous activities and all-inclusive buffets, to the south of the country. Today, Butlin’s here is one of only three original ones still in operation, and it’s oddly isolated from the rest of the city. A fence stands between the ocean and the Butlin campus, which features a massive, shiny structure that resembles a circus tent from the future.
The logic of a seaside summer camp with little beach access, designed around indoor fun, seems baffling. Until it started to rain, which he often did last weekend. Bognor boasts of being the sunniest place in the UK, a title claimed by other cities as well. Even when the weather is nice, the beach is not really welcoming. It is made of small stones, which are only comfortable to put on if you bring a futon.
Water rarely exceeds 60 degrees, a temperature described by the National Center for Cold Water Safety as “very dangerous.”
“We all have wetsuits,” said Sara Poffenberger, a Briton who wiped herself with her son and grandson. “But a lot of Brits will swim without wetsuits and tell you the water is boiling.”
The beaches here helped Bognor Regis claim the title of UK’s worst resort town in a 2019 survey of 3,000 holidaymakers by Which ?, a consumer publication. Bognor and the other inhabitant of the far end of Clacton-on-Sea received low marks for their “attractions, scenery, peace and quiet and value for money,” according to the publication.
Reviews like this explain why even optimists think Bognor’s boomlet is unlikely to last. The business owners here understand that they are reaping the benefits of what could be described as exceptional circumstances. One day soon, normal will return.
“Next year every man and his dog will go abroad,” said Tiernan, sitting at his mini-golf course. “But next year is next year, so I’m making the most of the moment.”