Scene at the beach

I applied for a Debenham’s credit card the other day. I didn’t want one, but I did want the 10% discount. The sales assistant fired questions at me, entered my answers on her computer and then announced that I’d failed. I wasn’t allowed the card but she still gave me the discount. So perhaps I won after all.

I think the thing that put Debenhams off was when asked about my occupation I said I was a professional beach goer. If I’d told them I was a teacher I’d no doubt have an extra piece of shiny purple plastic in my purse right now. But it’s week six of the summer holidays and the only things in my head are tide times, weather forecasts and not forgetting the matches to light the barbecue.

Not that I would forget, because going to the beach is the thing that I am best at. I was already pretty good at it, but that time in Australia really consolidated it. Turned the A* into an A* double distinction plus. Or a 9 as they seem to be calling it these days. If you’ve got a 9 in going to the beach you’re not going to forget the matches.

Not everyone is as good at going to the beach as I am, and these people all come together once a year on the August bank holiday weekend to demonstrate just how bad they are at going to the beach. They find it so difficult and so traumatic, that they vow never to return, and keep that vow until the next August bank holiday, when they forget about the previous year and decide to do it all over again. This means they never improve their skills or enjoyment of going to the beach and would certainly never think of doing a cartwheel while they were there.

Once the decision has been made to go to the beach, the first thing everybody has to do is get ready. For me this is very easy. I’ll have been to the beach the day before, the day before that and the day before that ad infinitum, so many of my things will already be in the designated beach bag. My kitchen cupboards are stocked with beach and barbecue fodder, my car is full of surfboards and sand. The sock drawer hasn’t been touched for weeks and I’ve swapped underwear for bikinis seeing as I’m in the sea every day. You have no idea how much this infuriated the lingerie lady at Debenhams when I requested a bra fitting, but that’s another story (literally – I’ll publish it next week).

Other people do not have a designated beach bag. They will have to go into the loft to look for the picnic blanket and whilst they’re up there they will find a broken kite, two deckchairs from the eighties, a sun umbrella and the game of boule that they couldn’t find last year. They will decide that all of these items are essential for today’s beach trip and they will spend ages packing all these things into the car before squeezing in the rest of the family.

Once everyone is squashed into the car, it’s time to drive to the beach. For me, this usually means taking the Renault Clio on a mile and a quarter journey down one lane, the sort of lane that is too narrow for two cars to pass each other in opposite directions, so you have to reverse into a passing place if someone comes towards you. Normally the road is used by surfers and locals, everyone knows how to reverse and I get to the beach in seven minutes.

But not on a bank holiday.

Hundreds of cars that don’t usually go anywhere near a narrow country lane are suddenly crammed bumper to bumper into a bottleneck where there are so many cars and so many people not understanding what to do, that nobody goes anywhere. Some of the drivers are terrified of reversing or have forgotten how to do it, some refuse to reverse because they are terrified of scratching their giant cars on the unforgiving stone walls and hedges, whilst other drivers perhaps wouldn’t have minded reversing into a space if they hadn’t packed their car with so many windbreaks, tents and deckchairs that they can’t actually see out of the back windscreen.

Not that anybody should need to reverse. On a sunny day, on a road that leads only to the beach, why would anybody be travelling away from it before 6pm? But some people arrive at the beach, baulk at the £8.50 car park entry fee and say “Sod that Susan, we’re not staying here.” These people then turn around and meet the other hundred cars travelling towards the beach. An hour later and they’re still fighting upstream against a never ending procession of vehicles, wishing they’d paid the £8.50 and stayed at the beach after all.

You can tell this photo was not taken during the bank holiday weekend because it’s not sunny and there’s no traffic on the road

Those of us travelling towards the beach spend minutes at a time sitting with our engines off, waiting for it to be our turn to shuffle slightly forwards, and sometimes backwards, in the Great British Bank Holiday Narrow Lane Car Dance. Locals will open gates and direct cars into fields to create space on the road so that other cars can come past; fields full of tourists are then left wondering if it will ever be their turn to get right of way (answer: no). Farmers bring their largest tractors onto the road, chuckling to themselves because they don’t actually need to go anywhere, but for them taking to the lanes on a bank holiday weekend is a compulsory sport.

And today we’ve got a smug pedestrian. She’s walking gleefully past every car, she can’t wait to convey the same message to every driver: “It’s gridlocked, all the way to the beach. You’ll never make it, you might as well turn around and go home now.” She’s positively thrilled to be the traffic oracle, leaning into every car, imparting the news like a smiling assassin. As she walks towards my car, grinning like she’s won the lottery, I put on my dark sunglasses, wind up my window and give her the death glare. “Trot on love, and take your prophecies of traffic doom elsewhere.” Her face falls and she stumbles by, temporarily wounded, but picks herself up in time to inflict schadenfreude on the driver behind me.

The Prophet of Traffic Doom is wrong and I do get to the beach, it takes 41 minutes instead of 7, but I’ve been doing Devon Bank Holidays since 1986 and I knew I’d get there in the end. In the car park the shouting has already begun. All these people who don’t usually come to the beach are now removing all of the junk they transported from the loft to the boot, and scratching their heads as they try to work out how to carry it all down to the beach.

“Ruby, do we really need to bring the inflatable unicorn?”


“Are you really going to use it?”


“Right, then you have to carry it, otherwise we’re going to leave it in the car, do you understand?”

All that Ruby understands is that there’s no way she’s going anywhere without the unicorn, there’s no way she’s going to be carrying the unicorn, and actually she’s going to insist that she needs to be carried as well. To demonstrate her point she starts screaming as loudly as she can, and sure enough her Dad scoops up Ruby, the unicorn and many other things that he now wishes he’d left at home.

I have my favourite places to sit on the beach, but on a bank holiday, you just choose the first patch of sand that hasn’t been claimed and isn’t in the middle of somebody’s game of frisbee. The beach is buzzing. There’s a man loudly reading from a manual as his confused mates attempt to follow his instructions to assemble a tent. There’s a group of children playing French Cricket and giggling every time their ball smacks an unsuspecting sunbather. There’s a Mum who is speaking so loudly it seems that she’s not addressing the child in front of her but instead asking everyone else on the beach if they want to have a wee wee, and there’s an angry Dad telling his son that he “won’t tell you again.”

If only this were true. Everyone on the beach knows that when a parent starts the “I’m not going to tell you again” routine, he is in fact going to tell the child again and again and again, until the rest of us are far more frustrated with the Dad than he ever was with the child.

As I unpack my designated beach bag, I quickly become aware that I have an Oscar on my left and my right. Although both Oscars belong to two different families, they are both attracting the same frustrated shouts:  “Oscar, stop it. Oscar, get off the blanket you’re too sandy. Oscar, come here now. Oscar, I won’t tell you again.” One Oscar is a cocker spaniel and the other is a boy, but they seem to be committing identical crimes of getting sand everywhere and invading personal space.

When one of the Oscar families leave, they are quickly replaced by another family who set up their base and head to the sea. The umbrella not wanting to be left behind quickly dislodges itself from the sand and goes flying across the beach, turning somersaults as it whips along the sand. I run after it and rescue it but not before it’s smacked a teenager in the face. I’m not sure why I apologise to him because it’s really not my fault that someone else’s umbrella has smacked him in the face, but he accepts my apology and I return the umbrella to its original home, lying it down so that it can’t take off again. This confuses the umbrella’s owners when they get out of the sea, their umbrella was clearly the marker to help them remember where their things were. I wasn’t exactly sure what my neighbours looked like, but when I see a family wandering around looking confused – much like me every time I come out of a Tesco Extra and realise I’ve got no idea where my car is – I decide it’s probably my umbrella neighbours and go over to help to reunite them with their things. They were wandering off in completely the wrong direction and if they’d given me a pound for every time they told me how confused they’d been when they couldn’t see the umbrella, I could have paid for at least three more cars to get into the car park.

When you sit near other families, you quickly learn everyone’s names, because they all shout at each other all the time. “Duncan are you going to light the barbecue or are you just going to stand there like a lemon?” “Henry threw sand at me,” “Poppy won’t play with me,” “Jessica, stop it,” “Oscar I won’t tell you again.”

The umbrella family’s black sheep is called Bailey. He doesn’t actually seem to be doing anything wrong, but the Mum is repeating the same monologue “You’re not listening to me Bailey. I’m telling you. I won’t bring you here again if you can’t listen. No that’s it, you’re not going anywhere. You’ve had your chance Bailey. You can just sit there now and watch everybody else have fun.”

It’s true that Bailey isn’t listening. But it’s also true that Bailey’s a dog. A very quiet dog, who seems very happy sitting under the umbrella, doing his best to ignore the lady delivering the angry tirade. Bailey and I exchange a glance. It’s clear to both of us who the annoying member of that family really is. I should have left her wandering the beach looking for her umbrella after all.

Further down the beach a Dad is furious with his children because they are covered in sand. Or at least he thinks they are. He clearly hasn’t ever played that game where you bury someone up to their neck in wet sand. His children have just a little bit of sand on the backs of their legs, but he is shouting at them to go back to the sea immediately and wash off EVERY GRAIN OF SAND otherwise they won’t be getting back in the car and he’s going to leave them here.

I think that sounds like the better option. If I was his child I’d be plastering wet sand all over my body to make sure I did get left behind. It’s the middle of the day, the car is going to be a sauna when they all get into it and they are going to have to battle through the narrow lane traffic for at least an hour if they leave now. That will make him far angrier than a few grains of sand on the back seat of his car.  And he’s going to be REALLY furious this evening because his skin has gone really pink and that’s going to hurt. There’s no way he’ll be bringing those kids back to the beach any time soon.

Sand does seem to strike fear into a lot of grown men. They agree to come to the beach as long as they “don’t get sandy” – but then they wear those serious trainers which sand just loves. Sand secretes itself into every eyelet of a lace up trainer and works its way into the sock, it gets stuck in the velcro, the tread and onto the fabric. I could rinse my flip flops every night and not a grain of sand would be left, but these sand haters who come to the beach once a year in their trainers will still have bits of sand hiding in their shoes next Easter.

Not everyone likes sand as much as Putney does

As a professional beach goer I know to wait until later in the day to join the ice cream queue, I also know to have my money ready and at least three different ideas of what I want because on a bank holiday the staff are speedy and the stocks run low. The lady in front of me doesn’t know any of this but she does want everyone in the queue to know exactly what each member of her family has requested. “Matilda wants a double raspberry Magnum,” she says in a loud voice to her toddler daughter who’s unlikely to be any help in remembering the order or carrying it back to the rest of the family. “And Tallulah’s having a salted caramel cone.”

Many of the people in the queue know it’s unlikely that Tallulah will actually be having a salted caramel cone, because this lady is clearly an amateur and won’t be able to make it out of the shop, down the steps and over to her family with seven ice creams and a toddler in tow before the salted caramel cone melts all over her hand. Professional beach goers know that if you want a cone you have to go and get it yourself so that you can keep the ice cream under control by licking it into shape (literally) all the way back to where you’re sitting. If you’ve sent someone to get your ice cream for you, you either need to ask for something that comes in a packet or be comfortable with letting that person lick it for you.

Loud lady gets to the front of the queue and discovers the shop has run out of five of the ice creams she was supposed to be getting and so she has to think on her feet but why she thinks someone who ordered a white chocolate and cookies Magnum is going to be pleased with a milk flavoured Mini Milk is anyone’s guess.

Once her ice creams are ordered she explains to the young shop assistant in a loud and patronizing voice that she’s only got very large notes and holds out a £20 as if she’s expecting the teenage lad won’t ever have seen one before. Without missing a beat he tells her the total cost of her ice cream purchase is £19.50 and a ripple of laughter makes its way down the rest of the ice cream queue. The lady slinks off juggling the toddler, her 50 pence change and all of the ice creams. Tallulah’s salted caramel is already dripping onto her fingers by the time she passes me.

There are definite winners and losers of bank holiday beach days. Ice cream shops rake in the profits, whilst Loud Lady’s family probably felt quite underwhelmed when presented with their unrequested Mini Milks and Tallulah’s melted salted caramel. The guy who owns the beach car park will be feeling a lot luckier than the sand haters who paid him £8.50 to come to the beach, getting sunburnt and ruining their best trainers in the process.

An unlikely winner of the bank holiday weekend is a miniature schnauzer. He lives in a house so close to the sea that it has steps down to the beach and walls made of glass to maximise the view. You would think that someone who owns a house as expensive as this would be able to afford to feed their dog, but this dog is on the beach every night, raiding everyone’s food. He can get into bags and hampers better than the seagulls and on more than one occasion I’ve come out of the sea to find this dog on my picnic blanket surrounded by the pastry crumbs of the sausage roll I had been planning to eat for tea or polishing off the last of my sandwiches. The name on the collar says Cliffhaven but this is not the dog’s name, it’s the name of the house the dog lives in, an invitation perhaps that the next time their dog eats my tea I could go to their house and make myself a meal.

The locals have got wise to Cliffhaven and his scavenging ways. Now I never leave my base without zipping everything away. On a bank holiday though, Cliffhaven is in his element. People leave food out in the open whilst they go for a swim or build a sandcastle. Other people are so busy telling Oscar that they’re not going to tell him again that they don’t even notice Cliffhaven taking sausages straight off the barbecue or licking ketchup off the toddler’s face. Many people are pleased to see Cliffhaven. This never happens on a normal day, but today the newcomers encourage him over for a pat, Cliffhaven trots over, ignores the people with their outstretched hands and runs off with their burger buns instead. Cliffhaven wishes that every day was a bank holiday.

As afternoon turns into evening, many people decide it’s time to go home. It’s still really sunny and I won’t be leaving for at least another three hours, but everybody else is getting ready to go. Chaos reigns as people who don’t usually come to the beach work out how to leave it. People are trying to work out how to pack the tent back into the little bag it came in, how to carry the disposable barbecue up to the bin without burning their fingers, how to deflate the giant unicorn. Oscar’s Dad is yet again telling Oscar that he’s not going to tell him again, but Oscar doesn’t care, he’s covered in sand on top of a rock, he will come down at the very last minute and transport all the sand into the back of his Dad’s car. Children are crying because they don’t want to go home, parents are shouting because their child has lost a flip flop, one family is frantically digging in the sand because nobody’s seen the car keys since they arrived seven hours ago. Cliffhaven takes the opportunity to nose into their open bag and devour the leftover chicken.

Up in the car park, drivers are trying to remember how they managed to fit all the people and objects into the car this morning, because now it’s impossible to get everyone and everything back in. Then all the vehicles have another go at doing the Great British Bank Holiday Narrow Lane Car Dance as the hundreds of cars travelling away from the beach fight to get past the twenty cars going to the beach. These cars are filled with people who think they are smart to wait until the evening when the beach will be quieter and less crowded, but these people have not realised that they will simply just meet the crowds on the roads instead of on the beach.

Not me though. Whilst other people are battling through traffic, piling sandy deckchairs on the landing ready to go back in the loft tomorrow and discovering just how much their shoulders hurt because they forgot to put on suncream, I’m having my barbecue, watching the sunset and going in the sea. I’m still in the sea as twilight turns to darkness. I’m the last person to leave the car park. It takes me seven minutes to get home and another seven minutes to unpack and repack ready for tomorrow.

If the people who make the decisions about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to have a Debenhams credit card knew just how many people fail at being a professional beach goer, they may have considered my application with a  bit more respect.

I don’t really care though. Tomorrow they’ll be back at work, encouraging customers to apply for credit cards that they then won’t let them have and I’ll be back at the beach wearing the bikini I bought with that 10% discount.

6 thoughts on “Scene at the beach

  1. Very amusing! Was it Putsborough beach where you spent Bank Holiday? We used to go there when our children were young-about 40 years ago! It was much quieter then. Most people went to the other end. Enjoy the last part of your holiday before school starts. We are here in France until near the end of Oct planning to be home before B Day. One of these days we’ll catch up with each other!😄

    1. Yes it was Putsborough and I bet it didn’t cost £8.50 to get into the car park 40 years ago?! Hope the French beaches are just as entertaining as mine, and yes I would love to see you (at last!) when you get back!!

  2. What a brilliantly well-observed and very funny commentary on what really did occur last Monday. I witnessed it all with you and also enjoyed observing life on a British beach on a sunny Bank Holiday. And you are right, it happens every sunny Bank Holiday. XX

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed all your observations and brought back many memories. So funny and just wanted to keep reading more. Xx

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