Pamela Wade on how we beat them Brits on the beaches.
I grew up on the edge of what is now Red Zone Christchurch, and my go-to bit of seaside was North Beach. Cold, grey and boisterous, it set the bar low — but a recent visit to England has now elevated that bleak stretch of sand, fully exposed to the chilly afternoon easterly, to an ideal so impossible to achieve by stay-at-home Brits that it's little wonder they troop off to Spain every summer.
Spending the recent August Bank Holiday in Kent was, in all other respects, a sheer delight. Pretty villages, pubs hung with flowering baskets, friendly locals out walking their shiny dogs, green rolling countryside marked off by hedgerows, leafy copses, historic castles, the dazzling glamour of the White Cliffs of Dover: it was glorious, and I enjoyed every moment. Almost.
In a rare event, the holiday weekend coincided with a stretch of blisteringly hot weather, chalking up the remarkable record for the Monday of just over 33C, which would be equally newsworthy here in New Zealand. Naturally, everyone — everyone — headed for the beaches.
In Kent, it was elbow-to-elbow. Baring expanses of skin that were either glaringly white, glowing red or covered in tattoos, the locals marked out their territories with colourful striped windbreaks, sun umbrellas and towels. At charming little Whitstable, they clustered in the scant shade thrown by the ranks of wooden breakwaters that march down the beach, sat awkwardly upright on folding chairs, or gathered, noisily merry, in the shoreside garden of the Old Neptune pub.
And some of them were in the water. It was so hot — I was so hot — that I braved the crowds, got into my togs, and walked down to the sea. I'll admit that the tide was out — but in New Zealand, that just means you have to walk a bit further to reach the water.
Here in Whitstable, first I winced over a long expanse of pebbles, before gratefully reaching the sand. Except, it wasn't sand: it was soft, squelchy mud pretending to be sand. I immediately sank in past my ankles, sucked down so far I struggled to walk. Having at first recoiled from the mats of slimy green weed spread over the surface, I quickly learned to step on them, appreciating the traction they provided.
But it was still no good. I walked out, and out, and out, and got no deeper than mid-shin. The people I'd spotted in the water, now that I was closer, I could see were lying down, not swimming. Eventually I gave up and, frustrated and disappointed, went back to my accommodation for a refreshingly cold shower.
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In the interests of scientific experimentation, I did try again the next day, when the tide was much higher and I could see other people properly submerged in the waves. When I got into the water though, every step gathered more strands of weed around my ankles until they were each trailing a scarf of slimy green. My Kiwi contempt for this pathetic excuse for a beach was complete.
Now, I do have more evidence for this opinion. On that same trip, I went to Deal's long stretch of bright pebbled beach, where the water was offputtingly murky. I visited Margate too, where the harbour was so pretty but the sandy beach was almost invisible under all the throngs of people.
Previously, I've been to the seaside at Fleetwood, Blackpool, Southport and Weston-super-Mare, where the sea is either eye-squintingly distant at low tide or thickly fringed with people when it's in. I've been to Morecambe, North Berwick, Cromer in Norfolk, to Salcombe, Weymouth and Brighton. It's been the same story virtually everywhere: either nothing but sand, or unappealing sea on the other side of an obstacle course of marked-out territories.
It's no wonder to me that English seaside towns are most notable for everything but their beaches: piers, funfairs, pubs, rows of shops selling tacky Kiss-Me-Quick hats and equally tacky sticks of rock, plus stacks and stacks of plastic buckets and spades for frustrated kids to at least build castles with all that sand.
England is a wonderful place to visit, and I'm a big fan — the scenery, the history, the towns, the food, the people — but the beaches? They're pathetic. Go to scoff derisively, and then come back home to New Zealand and appreciate the real thing that we have here: our long empty stretches of soft sand, and the clear, blue, sparkling sea.
I know I'm spoiled, now living in Auckland and especially on Waiheke close to the glories of Oneroa and Onetangi; but even back at North Beach, as summer approaches, Christchurch people will be drawn to the sea, to unspoiled nature and their own space in it.
Maybe, though, they might want to copy that windbreak idea…