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THE MAIL ON SUNDAY

20 September 1998

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WHY I HAVE NEVER LOST MY LOVE FOR THE BRITISH SEASIDE

by Ian Anderson

The crowds are thinning in St. Mark's Square as the light begins to fail. That faint, ever-present, tangy aroma of the sea, not entirely pleasant in the case of a warm and overcrowded Venice evening, brings rushing back the memories of all things summery, wet, and wonderful: the seaside madness of childhood long gone.

I have a decision to make. Should my wife and I join the rush for the twilight vaporetto trip to the airport? Or should I postpone the race home and simply relax a while longer by the water's edge with wife, spaghetti vongole and a cheap but eminently cheerful light and dry white wine-with-no-name? The decision is easy. We pour another glass of the dry white (with no name) and linger.

The truth is, I do like to be beside the seaside. Such attachments never fade away. They can even be rekindled in Venice. Here again I'm haunted by the magic of that special place where the sand-meets-the-sea-meets-the-sky . That magic never fails to draw us all back to tiptoe between the tides in search of ... well, there's the mystery.

For those of us brought up in the Fifties and Sixties, the British music hall tradition of our parents directed us to the dubious pleasures of Bognor, Blackpool or Brighton rather than today's package holidays on the Spanish costas. More the boisterous boardwalks of New Jersey than the contemporary family Florida frolic. But for me, the lure of the beachside had less to do with the vacation pilgrimage than actually growing up and living close to the interface of sand and sea: the water's edge.

My first recollections of bucket-and-spade adventures on a boyhood beach are centered around the area of Fifeshire, in Scotland's central region, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth, the estuarine access to the capital city of Edinburgh.

As every curious child does, I obeyed with rare compliance the parental order to build castles from soggy sand, only to see them washed dismissively away by the advance of the cruel but fascinating tide; knowing instinctively that this primal need to construct, construct, construct against the certainty of a watery demise must be followed to conclusion.

The delights of treading the intertidal zone, so temporarily for the taking, must linger, I am sure, throughout life. The found objects, whether seashell, old rope or driftwood, are a seductive treasure trove of opportunity. We marvel at their origins.

I recall, aged 12 or 13, tramping the firm, wet sands at low tide in search of booty after my parents moved the family south to the bingo and slot-machine seaside town of Blackpool. I came across an unmarked can half-buried in the sand and, kicking it carelessly toward the seas, discovered it to be intact and filled with something.

Cat food, perhaps? Baked beans from the Orient? No, when opened gingerly with a pocket-knife it turned out to be packed with Player's Naval Cut cigarette tobacco, presumably of government issue and lost by some drunken sailor returning from shore leave. As a serious ex-smoker, I can now look back with mixed emotions on that 'lucky' day that may have sent me spiraling down the nicotine path.

In my early thirties, we bought the 15,000 Strathaird estate on the Isle of Skye, one of the Hebridean islands off the west coast of Scotland. In a flash, all of my childhood dreams of boats and buoys, rock pools and lobsters, winkles, mussels, and prawns were finally about to come true.

With our own two young children growing up, we savoured the summers of exploring the shoreline, sometimes on foot between the tides, sometimes by boat, often returning with our dinner.

The ancient hill fort of Dun Ringill guards the entry to Loch Slapin close to Kilmarie House, which we renovated to some semblance of Victorian splendour. Spar Cave, set in the cliffs and accessible only for a few minutes by land at the very lowest of tides, provided scary moments of the subterranean version of where the land meets sea.

Now, of course, they have built the wretched bridge to the mainland, ruining the notion, at least, of Skye's splendid isolation. Or maybe not quite forever, given the 20-year design parameter of the bridge construction.

Having tired of the unreliable weather and the quite reliable mosquitoes, we left, after 15 years of building up our fish farms and fish-processing business, to the quiet and rural setting of deepest Wiltshire. We are about 100 miles west of London, and it feels about as far from the sea as you can get in the U.K.

Back in venice, our meal finally over, we boarded the vaporetto for our journey home. One thing I feel sure of as I stand, hair streaming (OK, wishful thinking, I know), on the aft deck of the water taxi from St. Mark's Square to the Venice airport, is that someday I will live and work again in a seaside town. Not, perhaps, with bucket and spade in hand, but with flute, paintbrush, or merely the mighty quill as the tool of expression.

For, in that sublime meeting of land, sea, and sky lies the soul and source of all human experience. Not forgetting, of course, spaghetti vongole, wife, and wine.

But not necessarily in that order, dear.


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Photograph shows Ian Anderson, aged 8, building castles on the beach at Lytham St Annes, near Blackpool, in 1956.

Note: this article was originally published in 'Hemispheres', the United Airlines on-board magazine, in August of this year. This subsequent British reprint has been re-written slightly; however, I have taken the liberty of retaining a couple of sentences from the original which were edited out of this version. ABJ