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Home arrow Archive: Earlier Fringes arrow Archive: Brighton 2012 arrow Bathing machines to beach huts
Bathing machines to beach huts
Published on Sunday, 20 May 2012

4 stars

The Old Courtroom (venue website)
18, 25 May, 2:00pm-3:00pm
Reviewed by Darren Taffinder

 Suitable for age 18+ only.

I wish my history teachers had been more like Kathryn Ferry. At my school history was boring – a bit like reading a story with all the best parts taken out. As I’ve gotten older, the likes of Horrible Histories on CBBC have proved to me that history is anything but dull. And in the right hands, even the humble beach hut can be fascinating.

It’s hard to appreciate that prior to the advent of what is now known as the ‘seaside’, things along the coast were pretty grim. Brighton wasn’t just a quaint, sleepy fishing village; it was clinging on by its fingernails. In the early 18th century a storm swept away over a hundred houses, and the town was been reduced to begging a sceptical parliament for the money to shore up its sea defences. The sea was not beautiful. It was where you worked, and often where you died.

Then came along a medical revolution. Seawater in the 18th century was a little like the super foods of today – from leprosy to madness, it could cure anything if you just had enough of it. The question was how to get people into the water while maintaining their modesty, and in Scarborough, 1721, you have the first sighting of what would become known as the bathing machine.

The evolution of bathing machines to beach huts may not sound like the most interesting topic for a talk, but Kathryn Ferry’s passion is infectious. Information seemed to burst out of her, and I really enjoyed her use of images to make the subject pop into life. A Punch cartoon about the perils of forgetting which bathing machine was yours, an illustration of children being dunked by an ogre-like dipper, a holiday snap of a 50’s family posed in their beach hut – all proved genuine enhancements to her talk. It’s one thing to say that there were 250 bathing machines in Brighton in the later part of 19th century alone, but it’s quite another to see a photograph of them crowded on the beach, and to imagine what it must have been like to be there.

I also liked the narrowness of the theme. By focusing just on bathing machines and beach huts, you really got a sense of how the seaside has changed over the last three centuries. Often when I run past the beach huts in Hove I can’t help wondering what sorts of people own these sheds by the sea – quirky people apparently. There’s something quintessentially British about it, a place for a cup of tea and to take shelter when it rains. And as we know, it rains a lot here… there are no beach huts in Florida.

I enjoyed the talk so much that I stayed on for Ferry’s second session, at 4pm, about seaside architecture. To be honest I didn’t find that one quite as engaging, but I think that simply confirms that the first was so good. If you’ve only got an hour, then, opt for the beach huts. It’s a great talk for anyone who’s interested in the British seaside.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.