The Great British seaside in September. Is there any better place for a daytrip during an Indian Summer? It was, of course, why we settled upon a small village not far from Milton Keynes when we moved out of London twenty years ago. Alongside proximity to family, house prices, the prospect of a village school, a toddler with another on the way and a new job.
Now that might sound strange – the Milton Keynes bit – but it isn’t, not really. Because the city of roundabouts is a moderately convenient two hours plus a tad from the Lincolnshire coast, Norfolk, the Essex hotspots of Clacton and Southend, parts of North Kent (given the support of a free-flowing M25), Sussex, Dorset, North Somerset (admittedly, that really only means Weston Super Mare) and even the Isle of Wight is doable for a day out.
With such glories almost on our doorstep, it’s no surprise that over those twenty years we’ve managed one visit to Ventnor – for research purposes – and a day in Sarfend-ahn-Seyu. But hey. The weather forecast predicts the hottest day of the year, and in September (for only the fourth time in history). The daughters are, for the first time, both about to leave for university and so there may not be too many more opportunities. (When did that toddler and toddler-to-be grow up?)
There’s agreement that this is too good a chance to miss, and Hunstanton is the destination. Thirty-two degrees is predicted, and a quick google indicates miles of golden sandy beaches, so we load up with sun cream, towels, hats, and the box of giant-sized Old Maid cards. (Is there a better game ever invented?) Dressed in shorts, t shirts and not much else (although alone I’ve packed the swimming trunks) we set off at 8.30. It’s misty, cloudy and cold. What better guarantee that later these record September temperatures will be sending us a neat shade of bronze?
Two hours twenty says the RAC route planner. (Come back AA, all is forgiven.) The first issue is a mile of traffic waiting to join the A428 north of Milton Keynes. With a neat trick, I race up the (relatively) clear lane to the M1, circle the Bedford bound roundabout, with its multiple sets of traffic lights, and save approximately minus two minutes. Meanwhile, the sun beats through the open sunroof, through a thick band of low cloud, admittedly. Daughter in the back turns on the heated seats. (Sunroof; heated seats…bet you’re impressed. I’m a writer, I have a posh car. I might even finish paying for it one day.)
Somewhere around the A1 south of Peterborough (and that’s a God-Forsaken place, isn’t it?) we give up the ghost, turn off the air conditioning blowers (yes, I’ve got those too) and close the sunroof. The sun is occasionally spotted, silhouetted through the thick grey blanket above.
Which leads us to Wisbech. Or specifically, the land around it, and the bizarrely straight A47. Houses dot this flat landscape, each seems slightly run down, or odd in some other way. I notice one, a long white building, and although its roof is normal at both ends, it appears as though a slice has been taken out of the middle. This is not the result of some East of England tornado ripping over the flat terrain, but sometime in the past an architect has actually designed it this way. Weird. Two disused garages, with peeling flying canopies, have been turned into car washes. Somebody clearly thought buying up both was a good idea. One for the eastbound lane, one for the west. The eastbound example is closed, the west blocked with red and white cones. It’s deliverance country meets Wicker Man land.
I’ve often thought of retiring to Wisbech. I remember it from Anglia TV growing up. There was always somebody from Wisbech on the local news, and it seemed a good mixture of the room where it happens allied to countryside idyll. I wonder now whether these stories were just about the latest gruesome mass murder by the Witch of Wisbech, or satanic cults and somehow the content of the news washed over my head. Maybe that explains why my parents would never take up my request to take a day trip to Wisbech in the Triumph Herald.
Look, I realise that sounds a bit harsh, and for all I know Wisbech is that perfect mix of well-equipped town and charming countryside. Just, by now our laughter about the cold, the grey and the lack of sun is becoming a bit forced. We need a diversion. We soon get one.
No, not that beach. Not yet at least. Something much more memorable. Like pretty much everybody else, I was saddened when the Queen died last year. Saddened in a way which, to be honest, surprised me. The theatricality of that march in Scotland was really moving, with the repetitive yet haunting pipes. As with most of the country, to me the Queen was an ever present, a symbol of continuity and stability. Her death was unexpected, because she was going to live forever. Except, she didn’t. But, again like most of the country, while it’s still a bit sad, mostly I’m over it now. Unfortunately, it seems, the people of King’s Lynn aren’t. Of course, they probably know the Queen personally. Or at least have had to swerve round a falling royal pheasant or Prince Phillip in a Land Rover. Anyway, the thought hit me as we entered Queen Elizabeth Way on the final leg to Hunstanton. This leg was clearly fractured, because we hopped along for thirty minutes basically without moving. As though the peoples of this odd little town were following a funeral cortege led by a geriatric on a go-slow. Eventually, mid-way between two roundabouts, the traffic clears, with no apparent reason for the delay.
Above, the cloud is as thick as ever.
A hasty reappraisal of the Sat Nav tells us that Heacham North Beach is not Hunstanton, and we enter the town, almost immediately turning left and through an industrial park of the sort you’d expect in a remote coastal settlement a mere thirty miles from Wisbech. A metropolis of identical chalets faces us. We pass two amusement arcades, one large, one much smaller, with the sort of holiday grockle shop – the sort that sells Hunstanton fudge made in China – to which I am strangely drawn. A massive car park, sort of a grassy field with white lines drawn on it, awaits. There are four other cars on it. Opposite is a huge fun fair, closed for now, but no doubt opening any minute. It took us, thanks to King’s Lynn, nearly three hours to get here.
I don’t care. We’ve arrived. Seaside. I can’t get the grin off my face.
The Daughter from the Back Seat (as opposed to the Daughter from the Front Seat) is starving, and I wouldn’t mind a drink. We negotiate the car park ticket machine. (It doesn’t take a card and requires coins to be poured into a slot in vast quantities – by the way, coins are little round things we used to use to buy small items in shops.) Then head to the grockle shop. I ask if they take a card, the lady behind the counter looks at me as though I’ve insulted the manhood of her eldest son. They do. Albeit very slowly. One ice cream with a chocolate flake, one tub (small – there’s also medium, large and bumper) of candyfloss, one cappuccino and two glowing blue cups of something icy cold and thick – I’m reminded with a shudder that somewhere along the Norfolk coast there’s a nuclear power station – later we head for the ‘four miles of golden sands’, which we are promised are somewhere beyond a concrete wall which looks not unlike a Soviet style gulag.
We pass through the silent rides, and the totalitarian impression is heightened by a sign, frighteningly making it clear that the bumpy slide thingy can be ridden four times only, and anybody trying to sneak a fifth will be sent, without trial or right of appeal, to the Sheringham salt mines. Or something. (We later discover that the fairground is now closed until the weekend. It’s a surprise, because despite it being the first day of school for most – RAAC permitting – there are still quite a few children to be seen wandering up and down the promenade or shivering into the sea.
We find a bench and the various versions of sugar are consumed by the daughters (they may be at university, but they don’t really grow up) while I sip my OK coffee and smile in nostalgic delight. I am determined to go round the Sea Life centre, and in the distance, what is clearly an esplanade railway carriage sits next to a large boat on wheels. I am going to try both. I might be past retirement age (I’m a writer, retirement is never a possibility) but I never really grow up.
Back seat daughter is defeated by the candy floss; it has made her thirsty so she has gulped the thick blue stuff and is close to vomiting. Front seat daughter has taken a couple of sips of the said sludge and is suffering the same side effects. A counter effect is needed food wise, and there’s a Costa nearby. It is attached to the sea life centre. I look out over the Wash. It’s really huge. I assume I will be able to see Skegness, Boston and the inlets of the three ‘Great British Rivers’ (too lazy to look them up, might be the Ouse, the Nene and another one) but all I see is a wide expanse of grey sea, which turns disturbingly brown as it closes on the shore. Although, the grey sea might be grey cloud.
The Costa is OK, staffed by a friendly lady who notices herself that we have ordered one toasted sandwich and not, as the till says, thirty-nine. But Sea Life is a let-down. It’s a building about the size of a triple temporary classroom, one of which being occupied by the Costa. You can’t buy a ticket – clever – so to find out the cost you need to scan one of those checky codey things. Which reveals that the ten-minute opportunity to look at fish in captivity is going to cost us – deep breath – £75. Seventy-five quid. Still, there’s an otter tunnel near the razor topped wire fencing. *
It’s grey, cold, the beach is a weird dark brown colour, certainly not golden, and littered with seagull feathers, rocks and fag ends. We almost paid £75 to look at a couple of fish tanks. I beg the girls to accompany me to the boat and the train. Being kindly sorts, tolerant of an aging father with a dodgy heart and dodgier decision making, they agree. The boat charges £20 per person for the Wash experience. (My washing machine offers the same for 10p of electricity and a soap capsule) and anyway, the next cruise is not until 5.15. The railway carriage, on which I really had pinned my hopes, is a Mr Whippy stall.
And then something magical happens.
The sun breaks through. People on the promenade suddenly get a spark in their stride, a lilt in their lollop. The promenade doesn’t turn into the French Riviera, but then, why should it? As a multi-striped traditional seaside resort, I realise that Hunstanton is what it is. And actually, that is to be celebrated. I think I last came here with my older sister when I was about eleven, so half a century ago, and remember nothing (something increasingly common) except loads of starfish on the beach. Indeed, I had serenaded the girls with my own rendition of ‘Seasons in the Sun’ (look it up, Terry Jacks and the 1970s – great song) most of the way north and east. The starfish were gone, but in the far distance the cliffs (to be fair, they may have been houses – eyesight is another fading sense) and the tall Victorian houses (these definitely were houses) looked a bit sort of familiar, in a ‘I may have been here before, or it could have been somewhere else’ sort of way. We decided to go to the amusement arcade.
Well, wasn’t this terrific? Every machine you played pumped out tickets, and occasionally cash too, and you could turn these tickets into tremendous prizes: key rings, diamond bracelets, merchandise from films of the nineties. We were away. I’d been saving up all my coins (see above) since we last visited a beach and had loads. Some of which were still legal tender. Then, almost straight away, I lifted a Disney elephant from the grab machine. First time ever. I felt like a real he-guy, despite the candy-coloured striped t shirt and pastel green shorts. Earlier, weirdly, a man on the promenade was walking with his wife, evidently a holiday maker, and was carrying a saw still wrapped in its protective cardboard. I’d wondered why (and which seller of rock and dodgy toffee also did a line in household tools) but now I knew. Clearly, he’d too won a cuddly toy on the grabby machine and decided a life of DIY was for him. Never too soon to start.
Then, and it gets better, I won the jackpot on a fruit machine. Cleverly, this was paid in tickets rather than cash. Who wants fifty quid is pound coins when you can have a wadge of paper? I won five hundred of them. To be distributed one at a time. Earning the admiring glances of the other arcade goers, there I stood, festooned with tickets and a Disney elephant. Front seat daughter won a glowing ball, and back seat sibling discovered the faux coconut shy, and a hidden talent for knocking down the plastic spheres. Tickets poured out.
Suffice to say, when we left later, happy, contented and victorious, we were carrying not only the elephant and glowball, but a cuddly panda, a cuddlier bunny (ready to occupy a place on the sofa of daughter’s hideously expensive student flat in Manchester, to which she will soon, sob, sob, move) and four lollipops. Colour – marbled green; taste – none. The owner must have been glad to see the back of us, we nearly bankrupted him. All those prizes and we can’t have put more than £50 through his machines.
We celebrated our success with another visit to the grockle shop. Three more ice creams (back seat daughter drops hers in the deserted fairground – she has a habit of doing this) some fudge for the wife (she’s working and couldn’t come. I was working too, preparing this blog, but it’s not really work, is it?), and a stick of rock. None of us eat it, but, you know, when in Rome.
It’s about 2.30 and as we sit looking out to sea, realising that yes, the Wash really is very big (or Russia have bombed Skegness into oblivion) the 5.15 sailing has set off. This weird looking lorryboat drives into the sea, then chugs at an incredibly slow speed for a while, before turning and heading back. Definitely a bargain at £20.
We head home soon after this, and I ignore the sat nav and devise my own route to avoid the jams Queen Elizabeth Way. It adds twenty minutes to the journey but we pass through some nice woodland and get the fairground thrill experience of turning right across the A47.
That’s the thing about the British seaside, once the sun shines, everything looks rosy. Thank goodness that our weather is so predictable, and the forecasters always get it right.
*For the sake of the lawyers, there’s no razor topped fencing, but there is some unpleasant looking fencing; and cheaper (but still hideously expensive) tickets are available.