BOGNOR REGIS, England — Little has changed in the 40 years that Jean Sheppard has been calling numbers at Crown Bingo here in the heart of Bognor Regis, one of Britain’s oldest seaside resort towns, about 60 miles south of London. The regulars still line up before the doors open at 11 a.m., hoping to nab their upholstered seat of choice in a converted cinema built in the ’30s.
When the games begin, there are no distractions.
“We had an elderly lady here once whose family came to tell her that her husband had passed away,” Ms. Sheppard recalled recently. “And this woman said, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do for him now,’ and kept right on playing.”
The other constant over the years is the decline of Bognor Regis. Like most of the country’s seaside resorts, the town’s heyday in the ’50s and ’60s is the stuff of dim memories. Bognor and its many rival destinations — Brighton, Hastings, Margate, Skegness, Blackpool and others — once thronged with summer travelers who packed the beaches, seafood shacks and amusement arcades in search of a good time and, for those lucky enough to encounter a cloudless sky, a tan.
Then in the 1970s came the rise of cheap jet travel and overseas package tours. For the same price as a trip here, a family could fly to the beaches of Spain, where blazing sunshine was essentially guaranteed. The resort towns of Britain went into an economic free fall from which they have never recovered.
“Pubs have shut down, theaters have shut down, lots of buildings were knocked down,” said Ms. Sheppard, speaking after her shift on Sunday evening. “There’s been talk about regeneration for years, but nobody seems to know how to do it.”
Now, the limitations imposed by the pandemic are succeeding where all else has failed — at least for the moment. Government-imposed air travel restrictions and warnings have curbed the national appetite for overseas trips. Brits are still allowed to fly to Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, but unless you’re heading to Gibraltar — where infection rates are low — you must quarantine for 10 days after returning home and pay for two Covid-19 tests.
This past week, the British health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the policy would soon be revisited and liberalized. That good news was offset by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron of France, who on Thursday urged all countries in the European Union to require British travelers to quarantine upon arrival.
So towns like Bognor Regis are getting a second look. There were more than 180 new players last week at Crown Bingo, said Jenny Barrett, the assistant manager. And for the first time in decades, hotels here are reporting occupancy rates well above 90 percent.
“This weekend we’re at 95 percent,” said André Gonçalves, a manager at the Beachcroft Hotel. “And our prices are up about 20 to 30 percent.”
The owner of the mini golf course right next to the beach-side promenade, Paul Tiernan, is relishing the payoff from a renovation during the height of the pandemic. He refurbished and cleaned the whole course, in part because during lockdown there was nothing else to do. Lately, on weekends there has been a waiting line that extends around the corner and down the street.
“British seasides are having a massive renaissance, everywhere 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 of his course, directly in the line of fire of any overzealous putters. He moved to Bognor Regis 50 years ago, as a child, which makes him just old enough to have glimpsed the last vestiges of the town’s halcyon days.
“There was a pier over there,” he said, pointing across the street. “Honest to God, it was beautiful. Right at the end there was a pavilion. And there was a theater there.”
Today, the pier is short and looks hazardous. Across a different street stands an empty lot with nothing but debris from a building that burned down four years ago under what Mr. Tiernan called dubious circumstances.
It’s all a long slide from the days when Bognor was prestigious enough to serve as a place for King George V, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, to convalesce after lung surgery in 1929. The royal connection was memorialized when “Regis,” Latin for “of the King,” was added to the town’s name. But its most famous link to the monarchy is the story — surely as false as it is amusing — that his last words were an alliterative, impolite put-down of Bognor, uttered after aides suggested that he’d soon be well enough to return. (Polite version: “I don’t want to go to Bognor.”)
James Joyce left behind kinder impressions after a stay here in 1923. “The weather is very fine and the country here restful,” he wrote to a patron. Joyce scholars believe he picked up the improbable name of the lead character of “Finnegans Wake,” Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, from a nearby cemetery.
The flow of out-of-towners picked up 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, the Butlin’s here is one of only three originals still in operation, and it is curiously walled off from the rest of town. A fence stands between the ocean and the Butlin’s campus, which features a gleaming, massive structure that looks like a circus tent from the future.
The logic of a beachside holiday camp with little access to the beach, designed around indoor amusements, seems baffling. Until it starts raining, which it did often last weekend. Bognor boasts that it’s the sunniest place in the United Kingdom, a title claimed by other towns as well. Even when it’s sunny, though, the beach here is not exactly inviting. It’s made of small stones, which are comfortable to lay atop only if you bring a futon.
The water rarely gets much above 60 degrees, a temperature described by the National Center for Cold Water Safety as “very dangerous.”
“We all have wet suits,” said Sara Poffenberger, a Brit who was toweling off with her son and grandson. “But lots of British people will swim without wet suits and tell you the water is boiling.”
The beaches here helped Bognor Regis earn the title of worst U.K. seaside resort in a 2019 survey of 3,000 holidaymakers conducted by Which?, a consumer publication. Bognor and the fellow bottom dweller Clacton-on-Sea received low ratings for their “attractions, scenery, peace and quiet and value for the money,” the publication found.
Reviews like this explain why even optimists believe Bognor’s boomlet is unlikely to last. Business owners here understand that they are banking the upsides of what could most charitably be described as exceptional circumstances. Someday soon, normal will return.
“Next year, every man and his dog will go abroad,” Mr. Tiernan said, sitting at his mini golf course. “But next year is next year, so I’m enjoying the moment.”