The following piece was first published in the Daily Telegraph on August 21 and went on to win the Telegraph’s Just Back travel writing prize (£1,000) for 2009. I hope it brings back happy memories of seaside holidays.
The tide retreats, tugging at emerald rocks and sucking footprints from the sand. Kids in football shirts pose for family albums holding lines of mackerel caught with milk-bottle tops. A queue for 99s snakes past the rock emporium. A man with a mermaid tattoo and eyebrows like a Scottie dog barks out times for the next boat trips. Punch and Judy starts at two, according to the hands on a chalk board. The easy-listening stall plays Billy Fury’s Halfway to Paradise. A fruit machine rattles silver into a punter’s sweaty hands. The sea breeze changes direction, carrying the clatter of cutlery and a coach chugging into second for the slow climb to Happy Valley.
I’m sipping nuclear-hot tea. Tracey prods me. “I can get you a tartan travel rug if you want.”
There are two age groups on this beach. Toddlers run with arched feet across ridges left by the retreating tide. They prod jellyfish with spent lollipop sticks and skim pebbles into the surf. Beyond the high-tide line, grandparents empty packet sugar into orange tea and nibble at cold sausages and muffins liberated from guest-house breakfasts. Yorkshire terriers in monogrammed jackets yap at their feet. They talk about home, as if Stoke or Blackburn were in a different time zone. They moan about how the wind farms have ruined the bay. They gaze at the darkening sky. The talk is of weather and operations.
I’m stuck in between; an irrelevance. My feet are making troughs in the sand. Joe and Jacob are digging, hacking at the shells and shingle that lie beneath. Joe holds the spade like a pick, bringing it down in an arc over his shoulder.
“Some working-class throwback. Not from your side of the family, then,” Tracey says. I tell Joe to carry on digging. He’s a good 12 inches down. He’s learned about the world being round in reception class.
“Keep going and you’ll reach Australia,” I say.
He frowns, unsure, but keeps digging. The spade strikes something brittle. He reaches into the hole and pulls something out. It’s a splintered mussel shell.
“Did you hear about the shrimp that went to the disco?” I say.
Tracey groans in anticipation.
“He pulled a mussel.”
She’s always been a difficult audience. “You know what they say about blokes becoming their dads.”
She’s right, of course. We’re here because my dad brought us here as kids. I turn to answer as the first heavy raindrop detonates against my forehead. Tracey clips Jacob into the pushchair and crams the blanket and spades and juice cartons into pockets and carrier bags. I grab Joe and we run. The beach clears in seconds. We find the last table in Forte’s coffee shop. Rain drums on the glass.
“Go on, you know you want the cream tea,” Tracey says. I pull a face.
“To go with your tartan blanket.”