Earlier in the week, the BFI posted a clip of Clacton beach from the 1960s. The place was heaving. Everybody was dressed the same. The flat-capped men all wore dark trousers and white shirts, with braces. The women all had the same floral dresses and the same wave n’ curled hair. And nearly every child had something woollen on (in some instances, they’d been wrapped almost entirely in knitwear, until only their optimistic little post-war eyes could be seen peeping out). The whole scene wasn’t too dissimilar to those discoloured photos you see of Edwardians walking a coastal promenade, half-smiling, dressed as though en route to a royal wedding. These giddy days in 1960s Clacton were among the last of the golden age of British holidays, before cheap flights to the Med came along, with their guaranteed sunshine and midnight sprints to the loo. After that, a whole raft of coastal-visit stereotypes
Since that package-holiday-fuelled paradigm shift, however, the British seaside experience has plateaued again; it hasn’t changed much at all in my lifetime. The little beach shops still sell the same things: multicoloured gay-pride-
The only tidal change I’ve borne witness to is the cafés. Beach cafés used to broadly consist of shelves of tat and ‘local fudge’ (with a photo on the box of a generic seaside location, taken in 1979); their menus offered either sandwiches or, at their most exotic, toasted sandwiches. Their interiors reeked of Calor gas and melted cheddar. The proprietors often had a touch of Basil Fawlty about them: tall, infuriatingly middle-aged, with a sneering disregard for custom. Modern beach cafés have upped their game. Run by bouncy-haired entrepreneurs called Ed, and staffed entirely by sixth-formers in black, short-sleeved t-shirts, they’re the place to be. They sell paninis, porchetta, and locally-sourced muscles in big china bowls, all drowning in waves of side-salad. Such is the vigour of their business model, they remain open through the off-season, hosting Valentines’ meals and acoustic evenings every second Wednesday of the month. It was once the case that as soon as September hit, beach cafés were boarded up and imprisoned with rusty iron grilles.
I live by the seaside but seldom visit. I’m like Michael Collins in Apollo XI. I slowly float around the beach’s orbit as other people prance on its surface, playing ball games and planting flags. This week, though, inspired by the BFI clips of Clacton and the skin-melting sunshine, I went. It was a roasting hot day. The kind of heat that makes it humanly impossible to have a conversation without referencing it:
‘Yes, you’re right. It is hot.’
Because the school summer holidays hadn’t started, the sands were populated with a gentle crowd of solo swimmers and young parents with rock-pool-waddling babies in sun-hats. The friends I went with had no qualms about stripping off and rushing to meet the waves. I was a touch more reserved/scared. The day can be as hot as it likes – blistering the paint on lamp-posts and making the roads bubble – yet the second you get on the shoreline of an English beach, something happens. Science has its say.
With my jeans rolled up around my knees, exposing my pinkened shins, I squelched my feet seaward on the flat sand.
You can feel the North Sea before it touches you. Like walking into a haunted church. As you step closer, a breeze picks up. Having only just been part of a carnivalesque whirlwind of hot noise and sand, suddenly, you’re alone with the wind and the roar of an untamed beast. You weigh up the expressions on those already neck-high in the waves. Yes, they’re smiling, but every time they pop their head above the waterline, you’re certain you see them shaking off a grimace. You take one step closer. The sea’s glassy ripples splash between your toes and up, over your feet. They’re so icy, so like cold bathwater on a January night, that you’re compelled to emit a groan as they wash your skin:
Another step forward. The tide slips over your ankles. Your feet are so cold you can hear your toe-nails cracking. The sun is now powerless, nothing more than a screensaver, a photo of the sun projected onto the blue. Then comes the wave. The wave that makes a mockery of your decision to ‘have a little paddle’. The wave that makes a mockery of your decision to keep your phone in one pocket and your wallet in the other. The jean-soaker. The belt-drencher.
And it’s then, at your coldest and wettest, that something wonderful happens. The sun heats up. The wind dies down. The glassy ripples lap warmly. Everything is marvellous and you ask yourself why you don’t go into the sea more often. Whereas Victorians used to head to the coast believing it to provide physical healing, their modern-day descendants – i.e. us – go largely for an unspoken spiritual healing. (And we all know what kind of healing Marvin Gaye went there for; the cheeky so-and-so.) The seaside has magical powers. I always leave feeling enriched.
(Leaving the seaside, alas, is less enriching and usually requires a steep trudge up some sort of concrete ramp, which, once ascended, renders you isolated in the real world dressed like a pillock. Cars and buses hotly zip by, emitting suffocating grey plumes, caring not one jot for your day of surreal merriment down yonder.)
It was good to get a head’s up about this week’s heat. As adults, the weather doesn’t catch you off-guard so much. Other than those drongos who share Daily Express scare stories – Britain To Scorch In Six Week Fireball – first written in 2013, most people watch normal weather forecasts and have a realistic idea about what tomorrow will bring. When you were a kid, however, opening your curtains in the morning was pure pot luck:
‘Oh, my God – sunshine!’
‘Oh, my God – it’s snowing – I literally had no idea!’
Now, we plan ahead, thinking how best to implement the next day’s weather to our advantage. It’s not as fun as those dramatic childhood curtain reveals. My first thought upon walking into the light piercing through my kitchen window this morning, was this:
‘Ooh, perfect weather for drying.’
That was the extent of my ambition, my attempt to seize another summer’s day: to dry my bedding on the line, rather than in the tumble dryer. Then I made a plan to stay indoors, close to my electric fan, and write all day, with my white bedsheets flapping outside, pegged to the line like tethered ghosts.
And that’s what I did. And that’s what you’re reading.
And, now, I’m going to the beach again.
It’s one small step for a man.