Serious Sandcastles and Red-backed Lobsters

Beach Sandcastle at Dymchurch

It’s a funny thing about the seaside.

You might think if kids lived on a sunshine coast they would be drawn to the shore – begging bedraggled parents to take them to the beach ‘again, again’.

But that wasn’t my experience as a child. From what I remember (and much of my childhood is hazy on early memories).

And perhaps it wasn’t so surprising, given the family circumstances. Mum and Dad were on an unswerving path to splitting up and eventual divorce. Mum would be left to bring up two (and then three) sons on her own. In a nice big house but with no car – and no desire to learn to drive.

We got around on foot or by bus. Usually on foot.

We would walk to Hythe’s town centre – a long narrow High Street – and back. To and from school. To the library.To the Royal Military Canal. But rarely maybe even never to the shingle beach be-decked by fishing boats.

The only time we spent a proper day at the beach was when friends or cousins visited from London or the Home Counties. They had incentive. They lived inland. They had the means. They had cars.

Cars meant Dymchurch – a seaside village five miles south west of Hythe. It’s big attraction? It’s wide sandy beach which, when the tide was out, appeared to stretch for miles.

Routines and Rituals

The routine was the same, whichever friends or relatives were with us. Take the coast road. Park in the little car park opposite the shop selling buckets, spades and inflatables (and ice cream). Wait at the crossing. Cross the road holding an adult’s hand at all times. Walk don’t run. Up over the embankment. Down the stone steps.

And there was the beach. A few pebble-laden bits to walk over and then you were onto the sand.

Towels and picnic rug laid out. Sit on the rug. Get undressed to your swimming trunks or costume. Then ‘Go’!

This didn’t launch a Baywatch-style run for the waves. Not for me, at least. I would always turn to my sky blue bucket and yellow plastic spade first. Some people are born swimmers. Some love to wade or wander along the shoreline. I guess I was just a castle builder.

I was fascinated by sand. Dry in places. Damp in others. Wet elsewhere. I found a ‘spot’ and began digging. Fill the bucket. Turn it over. See the castellated block of sand stand tall.

If the ‘mixture’ wasn’t right, of course, the sand would only partially come out. And that would frustrate me. I think it was the first signs of a perfectionist nature emerging. You had to work at getting the right consistency of sand.

With experience there was less reliance on the bucket. With my elder brother Rob, we would dig a circular trench and use the dug sand to build a castle of our own design. The rough, rounded gouge in the sand would become our moat when we channelled water into it.

Absorbed in building a giant golden fortress fit for King Arthur, I had no idea of time. If making sandcastles were an Olympic sport, commentators would have described me as being ‘in the zone’.

I could have stayed there for hours. Maybe we did. And it was only when the incoming tide gradually began to worm its way around our fine-grained defences and caused the edifice to crumble that my thoughts turned to the sea.

Only then would I have a paddle. No more. Unlike our cousins, I wasn’t interested in ‘going in’.

Perhaps this forged my deep respect for the sea – and water in general. I never learned to swim properly (despite lessons). I have always had one eye on safety and preservation around the blue stuff. Especially after a close call when 21 (which is a story for another time).

Packing up to leave from the beach was always an organised affair for the adults. Dry yourself off. Brush the sand from your toes. “Don’t want half a beach in the car” cousin’s dad would say.

The Price You Pay

It was only when home, as the evening kicked in, that the toll of our beach labours would begin to show – and be felt. Regardless of whether sun cream had been dabbed on us earlier or not.

“You’ve caught the sun”, mum would say. No kidding. My neck was red. My neck was sore. My shoulders and back were red. They were sore, too. A throbbing, burning sensation that tore at the flesh.

We were like red-backed, sour-faced lobsters ready for the pot.

But then there was the instant, but temporary, relief of the cooling calamine lotion as mum would rub it into our skin. It helped a bit but never made sleeping easy.

I still visit beaches. Still do the occasional sunbathe. But I’m happy being on the sand, in the shade. More likely to read a book than head for the water. I still like to paddle my feet in the waves and occasionally get in to the water up to low-waist high.

That’s more than enough for me. I’m more observer than activist on the beach these days.

Adventures on the hills (well, they felt like hills) would come a little later in my childhood and mountains would not feature until my 20s.

Beaches are not what draw me to the coast. The sea, that’s another matter. The hypnotic rolling of the waves can hold my attention for hours.

What’s your relationship with coast? Is there a skill you lack (like my ability to swim) which you’ve wanted to learn or has held you back? How can you have people absorbed by your every word they forget the world around them?

My goodness. Is that the time?


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