The Dawn of Summer Breaks

Throughout Joseph Pennel’s book Highways and Byways of Dorset, is an almost incessant theme of the loss of old ways of life, old buildings, and sensibilities; none is more so than the changes brought by ‘steamer folk’ or tourists. Yet despite his complaints, he is in sympathy with the new working class desperate for a summer holiday and the need to accommodate and entertain them.

“Old Swanage has gone; the features which made it unique among the Southern sea towns have been swept away, so that in a few more years it will be indistinguishable from the host of “developed” red brick coast resorts on the shores of England. Its stretch of sand, its blue bay, its rolling downs, and its healthy site are still happily left to it.

Swanage devotes itself body and soul to a hearty multitude called by the townfolk “the steamer people” and by the less tolerant “the trippers.” They come to old Leland’s ‘fishar towne’ in their thousands, so that in August the beach is as “jolly” and as “ripping” as Hampstead Heath in holiday time. Probably none in these islands deserve a holiday more thoroughly than do the “Steamer people”, for when they are not “tripping” they are busy with every kind of useful work. None enjoy a holiday so well. If they are a little over-exuberant, a little destructive and untidy, and if they have caused the land to be planted with notices that “Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, their untrammeled enjoyment must excuse much.

For the dedication of the steamer people Swanage has made most liberal provision. On the cliff’s edge is Durlston Castle, a stronghold of the Bank Holiday period, in which are combined the architectural features of a refreshment buffet, a tram terminus, and a Norman keep. Close to this is Tilly Whim, reputed to be a smugglers’ cave, but in plain fact a disused quarry. It is approached by a dark, sloping tunnel, in the descent of which the women scream, while the men support them copiously. Every available surface in this smugglers’ haunt is carved with the names or initials of steamer people, while the ground is littered with their bottles, their egg-shells, and their paper bags. The enterprising developer of the estate about Tilly Whim has a fine literary taste. He has named every stone seat after some famous poet, and has engraved in many places improving sentiments upon slabs of local marble. This, in one spot the implores the steamer people to “Look round, and read Great Nature’s open Book,” while in the cave, where the quarrymen fashioned kitchen sinks, he beaks out into Shakespeare in the following depressing strain:-

“The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;

And, like the baseless fabric of a vision,

Leave not a rack behind.”


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