Sunday, 15 July 2007

Beside the Seaside

Yesterday's Guardian came with a supplement offering a guide to the British seaside. Now I'd have to say, I'm a big fan of seaside resorts, both in and out of season, so I read it pretty much cover to cover (I had plenty of time on my hands, as our return to the cricket field was shortlived – we were bowled out for 66, lost by seven wickets, and were home well before 7).
Among the trivia included was the fact that the hamlet of Coton in the Elms, Derbyshire, is the furthest place from the sea in Britain (at a mere 67 miles). And that was what really set me thinking.
Last year, I read a poem in Anon, by Caroline Cook I think, gently poking fun at British poets' obsession with the sea and watery landscapes, and offering a more exotic, colourful alternative. It was a fine poem, and she definitely has a point, but that little factoid mentioned above probably explains an awful lot. Coton's only just down the road from here (maybe ten miles), and we definitely feel as landlocked as it's possible to get in Britain (there was even that rather bizarre 1920s song Ashby de la Zouch By The Sea which made great play of that), but even so, it's hard to escape the fact that we're a collection of not particularly big islands. If you go to the top of Bardon Hill, a couple of miles from my home, on a really clear day, it's said that you can just make out the North Sea. I don't know about that, but you can certainly see Boston Stump, right on the Lincolnshire coast. I suppose it's inevitable, therefore (especially given our weather), that there's an awful lot of dampness in British poetry.
That said, when I was a kid it was a really big deal, once a year during the summer holidays, to go away to the seaside. Catching that first glimpse of the sea was a moment on a par with waking on Christmas morning. Most people round here used to go to Skegness, but although we occasionally went on daytrips to Mablethorpe, in north Lincolnshire (where my dad's family are from), most summers we went down to my maternal grandparents' house in Bridgend, South Wales. It's only a few miles inland, and we spent most days at the beach. At Porthcawl there was Rest Bay, with wide, safe sands and a view of Port Talbot, looking like some strange sci-fi city, beyond the golf club, and Coney Beach, with its fairground and constant smell of doughnuts. And then there was Ogmore-by-Sea, which had cliffs and rockpools, sand and shingle, and an excitingly dangerous estuary we weren’t allowed to go anywhere near. The two were separated, incidentally, by Merthyr Mawr dunes, which doubled for the Middle East in Lawrence of Arabia.
We did go to other places as well. Weymouth, Westward Ho!, Tenby, New Quay, Aberystwyth. But, reading the supplement yesterday, it struck me that I don’t actually know the British seaside as well as I thought I did. Suffolk, most of the south coast and south-west, the north-west coast, and Scotland are all a mystery to me. I need to get around more.
I did eventually get round to the joy of Skeggy, where Leicester holidaymakers are known as 'Chisits', from their habit of asking "how much is it?" about everything. In my first job as a newspaper reporter, we had to go there on a certain day on the summer, with a photographer, wait to be stopped by readers who recognized us from back home, and then pay them a tenner. All very Brighton Rock.
But favourites? Well, anywhere in north Norfolk for birding, Northern Ireland's Causeway coast for scenery, back to Ogmore for a bit of everything, and for a good old-fashioned seaside resort, Scarborough. I've never been there for more than a couple of days at a time, but you can't beat it. It even made its way into my chapbook, in the imaginatively titled Poem, although it was a friend's experience of it that got mixed up with mine somewhere along the line to make the poem happen.


LouAnn Muhm said...

I love the poem entitled "Poem." And I don't think it's possible to get more landlocked than I am here in Minnesota (although we do have a lot of lakes). How lucky you are to be so near to so many various coastlines!

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks very much, LouAnn. A few people who have bought the book have said it's their favourite.
We are lucky to be near so much coast - I don't think Brits can really get their heads round what it's like to live in the middle of a really large landmass.

Kirk Wisebeard said...

one of the things i really love about living in leicestershire is the fact that everything is so close.... mountains, sea, woods, cities.. and none more than a few hours drive away... drove to wales the other week.. 170 miles in 4 hours, and in the middle of the mountains.. twenty miles more and we were at the seaside.... you're never far from the sea, that thing that makes us so british... protecting and separating... we really are at the edge of the world.. our entire culture based on our islands being as far away as you could run... once here, there was nowhere left to go...