Beautiful Britain – Clacton-on-Sea

Nestled on the Tendring peninsula on the east coast of England, and providing seaside entertainment for the masses for over 150 years, the town of Clacton may seem like any other  British seaside town. Clacton came to prominence in 1871 when it was founded by Peter Bruff as a seaside resort, largely for Londoners to escape the city. He built the pier, which still stands today, and steamer was the main method of reaching the town until the road and rail system caught up.

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The heyday of the town was really the middle decades of the twentieth century when there was a Butlins Holiday Camp and many hotels and guest houses to entertain the day trippers and summer holiday makers. Then along came cheap flights to more exotic locations and, like so many British resorts, there was a significant downturn in the economy.

Even in the 21st century the town still has a significant number of visitors and people enjoying the sandy beaches, and going on the rides and other amusements on Peter Bruff’s original pier. When we were kids there were dolphins and orcas kept in the swimming pool on the pier, but thankfully that’s gone now.

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The landscape has also changed a bit with the offshore wind farm on Gunfleet Sands but all in all a pretty standard town that has had its ups and downs…  

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… Or is it?  

Well, there are two things that are also uniquely interesting about this town, so let me explain.

Firstly, Clacton was the site of the first civilian casualties in World War II when Frederick and Dorothy Gill were killed by a Heinkel bomber that crashed into their house on May 1st, 1940. Little is made of this fact, although I clearly recall a plaque on a bench on nearby Skelmersdale Road detailing this tragedy when I was a teenager.

Secondly, although Clacton is primarily known as a typical Victorian seaside town, the area slightly inland at Great Clacton was inhabited by the Celts and there is some evidence of Roman involvement too at the coast. The most amazing fact though is that during the paleolithic period, the area was used for flint mining and tool manufacture. And in 1911 there was uncovered the “Clacton Spear” a wooden yew spear which, at 420,000 years old is the oldest known wooden tool created by man.  It is, in fact, even older than Homo sapiens and was carved by our pre-ancestors Homo erectus.  An entire period of human development, Clactonian, was named after the town and describes the fascinating industry of flint working and tool making.

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By Chemical Engineer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
I lived in Clacton during my teenage years and was totally unaware of this significant piece of our history. Sometimes it truly amazes me how understated the British people can be. In many other places in the world both these events would have been used to develop another aspect of the town, with museums and themed activities, but not in this corner of Essex.

How Quintessentially British!

~Richard

But is it an Agrarian Vacation Schedule?

As we near the end of the school year I was prompted, whilst listening to NPR on the way to work, to compose a rant about the American obsession with not letting go of the old agrarian school calendar and the ludicrously lengthy summer vacation.

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As someone who comes from a different educational culture I have always found the extended break to be problematic. In the UK we are used to having a schedule of six-weeks at school followed by a week or two off school, with a longer 5-6 week break covering the end of July through to early September.  This allows kids to “let off steam” throughout the year.

In the US system I have struggled with my children having to continue through the school year with very few breaks* so that they can all be stacked up in the summer. This relentless routine doesn’t seem to allow them any respite time during the year and the summer is a lengthy period which, I am convinced, serves as an opportunity to forget what has been learned.

However, in researching what I considered to be an obsession with a throwback to an agrarian lifestyle, I found that my preconceptions and acceptance of this generally held belief are incorrect. It is oft quoted that we have the whole summer off because of the historical need for children to help on the farms during the times of harvest, however this is apparently not the case. For example, logically the busiest times of the year are the Spring (for crop planting) and the Fall (for harvesting) so letting students out of school during the height of growing season doesn’t really make a lot of sense from a labor-source perspective.  In fact, at one point older rural American school systems used to take the students from school during these times and send them back to school during the summer! It is a touch ironic that one reason quoted for the long summer vacation is actually due to increasing American urbanization during the late 19th century and early 20th century rather than the rural lifestyle –  the direct opposite of our well-held belief!

Hot summers and lack of air-conditioning made the new cities uncomfortable to remain in and therefore the more prosperous wanted to retreat to the coast or country to escape this situation. Similarly, the urban schools were just too hot for the students to concentrate on their lessons.

There does seem to be more discourse on this subject recently, although a search on the web indicates it has certainly been discussed for decades and, like anything that impacts our “tradition” there will always be staunch supporters to counter any thoughts of reform.

All this being said of course, I still think that US school year needs to be altered so that the students get more, shorter breaks that allow them to recoup their energy and mental faculties. But then, my children are going to be out of the school system in the blink of an eye, so I guess I’ll just grit my teeth for a few more years…

~Richard

* Our Spring Break is now just 3 days in our school district and Christmas break starts on Dec 23rd

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