Recently I came across some photos of me from when I was about three or four years old. Three pictures really stood out and they were all taken on the South Devon coast. They show me with my Mum and Dad and Gran who lived in Exeter – either building sandcastles or going for a little wander.
Many of my earliest memories are from those day trips to the seaside – especially Dawlish Warren and Exmouth. Holding those slightly faded colour photos transports me back thirty years.
At Dawlish I can vividly remember the walk from the car park near the station up towards the sand dunes and the beach. First you had to pass the shops selling buckets and spades, deckchairs and beach balls before you made it to the sands. On the way back the smell of fish and chips wafted through the air and the temptation of an ice-cream with a chocolate flake was very strong.
And there was the stunning walk (though I was probably a reluctant walker aged 3 or 4-years old) pinned up against the railway on one side and the beach on the other between Dawlish Warren and Dawlish. Its a spot everyone knows now thanks to the drama of the railway line hanging above the crashing waves pretty much a year ago.
These memories of days at the seaside as children are part of our national DNA. Millions of Brits head to the coast every year. And there is a rich social history of the connections between the big cities and the nearest stretch of coastline. Begun with the expansion of the rail network and helped by the arrival of paid annual leave in the 1930s people from the East Midlands headed east to Skegness and the Norfolk coast while for the West Midlands it was Wales and especially Somerset. Its something that has been traditionally repeated across the land.
A day trip or holiday by the coast still excites families up and down the land. We took our kids to Lyme Regis for their first experience of the coast – paddling in the water and eating sand. When ever we go to a beach, whether in Cornwall or Pembrokeshire, as soon as we’re out of the car they’re off, running, laughing and having fun.
Its these powerful memories of ice-creams on the seafront, the smell of fish and chips or the laughter of children that enrich of our love of coast.
Paddling in the cold Atlantic in August, clambering over rocks to a hidden part of the beach or a car full of sand create those moments that we cherish and talk about as families. But its also a shared collective experience with people that you’ve never met before for those few hours that you have become a community based around that one place at the seaside.
Recently I spent time on the Exe estuary watching Brent geese fly in formation across the silver winter sunshine drenched mudflats. This was a place I knew well growing up and it felt good to be back; partly through nostalgia and partly through the freshness of the coast that day.
The seaside towns and the miles of golden sand that we visit as children and adults, though constantly changing, are a constant in our lives. Somewhere where we can vividly imagine a past of happy days and a place that we can return to physically or in our daily thoughts.