As with other destinations for respite and leisure, the amenities and entertainments available on the Kent coastline were outlined to readers in a range of printed texts. Alongside more formal travel guides, a number of narrative poems presented a lively picture of the experience of the late eighteenth-century holiday-goer. The Sea-side, an epistolary poem published in 1798, offers a notably upbeat account of a summer spent at Ramsgate. From the perspective of Simkin Slenderwit, the poem applies to Ramsgate the amiable satire and anapaestic metre that had been popularised thirty years earlier by Christopher Anstey’s The New Bath Guide (1766).
Across six letters written to his mother in London, Simkin relates the resort’s daily routines: early-morning bathing; consultations with physicians; afternoon socialising; evening balls. Simkin’s jaunty, ‘hand-gallop lines’ sketch portraits of the character types associated with the watering-place: its strutting doctors, bustling bathers, female romance-readers, and doddering dancers. As these caricatures suggest, the letters record not just jollity but ironies and misadventures. The ocean’s ‘catholic wave’, Simkin notes, cures not only the infirm and barren but rakish men and demi-reps (women of doubtful respectability). Describing an Assembly Ball, meanwhile, he relates how his brother Billy’s ‘delicate flesh-colour’d breeches’ become thoroughly stained with ‘gunpowder tea’ following a collision with a fellow carouser.
Despite these demurrers and mishaps, Simkin is a cheerleader for both the health benefits and the social ambience of Ramsgate. His letters applaud the bathing regime in patriotic terms: ‘Till noon, are the guides, the machines, and their drivers, / For the health of the nation most zealous contrivers’. He is also impressed by the sociable good humour on display during the weekly gatherings at Dandelion gardens, near Margate:
What possés from Ramsgate and Margate are seen
Repairing to lunch and to dance on the green!
All with hearts light as feathers they scud it along,
A mirthful, wide-grinning, and sport-loving throng.
Above all the other popular coastal resorts – Scarborough, Weymouth, Brighton, Hastings, and Margate – Simkin favours Ramsgate. Despite having to leave after six weeks (having exhausted his funds), therefore, he looks forward to returning, and the poem concludes by extolling the restorative effect of ‘these regions so healing to nerves and the spleen’.
As his name implies, of course, Simkin – like his namesake in Anstey’s New Bath Guide – is to some degree a naïve persona, whose simple-minded enthusiasm sometimes tips into bathos and hyperbole. Before bidding a final farewell to ‘ye sweet regions of washing’, he extols the pier as ‘that fabric stupendous! that monument dear!’ (it is worth noting that the ‘new harbour’ had also been termed a ‘stupendous work’ in guidebooks such as Hall’s New Margate and Ramsgate Guide). Yet the spirited sociability of Simkin and his fellow seaside-goers cannot be entirely gainsaid, and overall, the poem’s anonymous author offers a flattering, if sometimes ironic portrayal of the pleasures to be had from ‘Summerising at Ramsgate’.