Monday, 30 November -0001

Sea and Sandcastles

Ice cream, kite flying, rock pooling and paddling – there’s nothing quite so nostalgic as a traditional British beach holiday, even when it’s raining, says Brian Vine

Written by Brian Vine

The epic unreliability of the British weather means that only repeated annual visits to a seaside resort can be sure to yield at least some memories of fun-filled, sunny days. Which is why my wife Jane has grown up with so many fond recollections of those holidays in Flamborough, and why, once we were parents ourselves, we took our children to Constantine Bay near Padstow on the north coast of Cornwall, staying in the same room in the same hotel for the same 10 days every summer for 10 successive years. Creatures of habit? Not at all. Sometimes we paid someone at the hotel to make our sandwiches; sometimes we made them ourselves.

I suppose it's something to do with us being an island nation that the seaside appeals to us so. In the United States and even in larger European countries such as France there must be plenty of people who have never set foot on a beach, but in Britain paddling in the sea is practically a birthright. Not that this was so before the invention of the railway and subsequently the motor car. When the novelist Charlotte Brontë first set eyes on the sea in the mid-19th century, she was described by a companion as 'quite overpowered, she could not speak till she had shed some tears... she made stern efforts to subdue her emotions... for the remainder of the day she was very quiet, subdued and exhausted.'

At around the same time that Charlotte Brontë was making stern efforts to subdue her emotions, a canny entrepreneur called Thomas Cook was chartering a train for his first commercial excursion, from Leicester to Loughborough, just eleven miles away. It was 5 July 1841, and though even Thomas Cook can hardly have suspected such a thing, the very dawn of the era of mass tourism.

Cook's first trip to the seaside was from Leicester to New Brighton, on the Wirral peninsula, in 1845. The following year he took his rail-trippers to Fleetwood in Lancashire, then on a steamer to Ardrossan on the Firth of Clyde, where they got back on a train and chuffed into Glasgow, to be greeted, such was the significance of the occasion, by the city's brass band. Once the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 had enshrined full public holidays at Whitsun and over the first weekend in August, organised excursions to the seaside in particular were commonplace. By the turn of the 20th century most working-class folk in even the most landlocked towns knew what it felt like to feel cool seaside sand between their toes.

As a general rule of thumb, applicable pretty much all over the world, the less accessible beaches are also the best beaches. Take the beach at Constantine Bay in Cornwall, which at the height of summer is a threehour drive from Bristol, the nearest large city. It is just about the finest beach I know, the kind of beach that belongs on the front of one of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, forever stuck in the 1950s, a beach of kite flying and French cricket and sandcastles and rock pooling.

For us, the beach meant weeks of wholesome family activities. The British on holiday are great, if covert, people-watchers, and Constantine Bay is marvellous for peoplewatching. And while it's unacceptably sizeist to make muttered asides about elephantine women laboriously changing into frilly blue sundresses, it is also irresistible. I can remember as this particular spectacle unfolded 50 yards or so away, and then my fatherin- law, Bob, quietly informed us what his late mother Nellie, born and bred in Hoyland Common, would have remarked had she been with us. 'She'll tek some britchin'.

My parents-in-law went with us to Cornwall every August. Even when they become grandparents my kids will remember Bob's sandcastles: enormous yet intricate, with forbidding dungeons and slate staircases and windows framed with empty mussel shells. His castles were not classic English crenellated jobs, but more like Saracen fortresses, invulnerable to all infidels but not, alas, to the incoming tide. 

In our 10 consecutive summers at Constantine Bay, people, including ourselves, became more and more sophisticated in the ways they set up for the day. Where simple windbreaks had once been enough, the tent-and -windbreak combo gradually gathered in popularity, and by the time we spent our last holiday there in August 2007, the tent-windbreak-brick-builtbarbecue combo seemed to be catching on.

And yet for all the growing sophistication of the encampments, the beauty of the beach at Constantine Bay, of any great beach, lies in its simplicity. Ultimately, what the British are after on holiday are simple pleasures, the more so for those who have left complicated, stress-fi lled lives behind. At Constantine Bay the most effective antidotes to stress come in the form of a £2.95 fishing net and a £3.50 bucket.

Every summer its rock pools are full of lawyers, stockbrokers and captains of industry, metaphorical big fish in literal small ponds, carefully parting fronds of seaweed in search of those ever-elusive Cornish crabs. You sometimes see them muttering to themselves, all their cares and worries condensed into the quest for a crab bigger than the one they caught the day before. Usually they have kids with them, but quite often not. After all, the measure of a good beach is one on which we can all regress to childhood.

One sunny day in 2004 I quite lost myself with my sons Joe and Jacob playing a game of cowboys and Indians in the dunes, to the extent that I spent an hour shuffling on my belly through spiky grass, cradling a piece of driftwood that, in my head, had become a Model 1873 Winchester rifle, only, suddenly and embarrassingly, to spot my boys, who had got bored but hadn't bothered to let me know, back on the beach playing Frisbee.

Watching them from afar, I marvelled at the way in which my sons were inextricably part of, and yet completely insulated from, everything else happening on the beach. I was reminded that what I love most about a fine, versatile English beach on a warm summer's day is the variety of unfolding activities: the games of Frisbee, cricket, football, paddle tennis, catch, piggy-in-the-middle, children burying their dads up to their heads in sand, dads making sand racing cars and rowing boats for their kids; the kite flying, rock pooling, sandcastlebuilding and paddling; the windbreakerecting, sandwich-making and barbecuing; the walks back and forth to the car, the loo, the ice-cream van; the arguments, the tears, the laughter.

But perhaps the point is that I have stood on beaches all over the world and never seen a comparable kaleidoscope of activity. 

Cream Teas, Traffi c Jams And Sunburn: The Great British Holiday by Brian Viner (Simon & Schuster, £12.99).

Constantine Bay is on Cornwall's north shore, three miles from Padstow, and 11 miles from Newquay.

TOP 10 BRITISH BEACHES By Alexandra Grainger

1.DUNSTER BEACH, WEST SOMERSET Has both pebbles and sand, and is surrounded by a nature reserve. There are 200 beach huts here, and a sheltered bay for swimming. The medieval town of Dunster, stuffed with cream tea outlets, is a short walk away.

2.GREAT BAY, ST MARTIN'S, ISLES OF SCILLY Best beach on the Scillys and because it's only accessible by foot, it's also quiet with white sands, a cobalt-blue sea and shoals of colourful fi sh.

3.GWITHIAN TOWANS, CORNWALL This three-and-a-half-mile-long expanse of golden sand is stunning. Just around the headland is Godrevy Lighthouse, which inspired Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

4.HOLKHAM, NORFOLK This beach counts the Queen as a visitor, and played host to part of the filming for Shakespeare In Love. On three miles of sand you can sunbathe, or you can ride along the beach. Delightful and secluded.

5.HOLY ISLAND, NORTHUMBERLAND Holy Island was an early centre of Christianity and is haunting and beautiful. It has a castle, a ruined priory and the sands are deserted. Grey seals and rare birds are often sighted.

6.JOSS BAY, KENT Attracts the younger, surfer crowd. Easily reached from London, there is a decent groundswell and is hugely popular in summer.

7.MANORBIER BEACH, PEMBROKESHIRE The castle above the beach was the setting for The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and I Capture The Castle. The beach is beautiful and surrounded by imposing cliffs.

8.PORTHCURNO, CORNWALL A beautifully dreamy beach, made even better by the open-air Minack Theatre that over looks it.

9.SINCLAIR'S BAY, CAITHNESS, SCOTLAND The blue water is incredible and it is hard to fi nd a more atmospheric beach. The site is visited by porpoises and whales and there is not crowded.

10.WEST WITTERING, WEST SUSSEX Near Chichester, this beach combines wide sands, clear water and coastal wildlife. Swimming is safe, and when the tide is out you can walk around East Head, the nearby sandy spit.

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