Karen Kay column - seaside specials: lure of the ocean

PUBLISHED: 11:28 25 July 2014 | UPDATED: 11:28 25 July 2014

Karen Kay, writer and broadcaster. Picture by Ian McIlgorm © IAN MCILGORM 2012..

Karen Kay, writer and broadcaster. Picture by Ian McIlgorm © IAN MCILGORM 2012..

© IAN MCILGORM 2012..

When we swap our beeches for beaches the very effort required ensures that pebbles, sandy stretches and crashing waves create marvellous memories

Living in Bucks, we have the interesting claim of being as far from the coast as it’s possible to be in England. Granted, it’s not like being in the Midwest of the USA, but it does mean that nipping to the beach is more of a palaver for us than for most of the British population.

Like many who have grown up here, I spent childhood connecting sand and sea with annual summer holidays: from the vast expanse of Woolacombe in Devon’s family-friendly coastline, to the warmer waters of Majorca.

However, it was a month long trip to the USA at the age of 11 that demonstrated the true novelty of being on the coast for this Bucks girl. I recall our drive from Florida to Miami, eating fresh oranges, Pac Man ice creams, and lapping up the enormity of everything in this exciting new land. Then my mother stopped our rental car and two small girls ran, fully clad in our polka dot ra-ra skirts (yes, it was the Eighties) into the glistening waters of the Atlantic. We couldn’t contain our delight as we dived headlong into the warm water lapping onto Cocoa Beach’s white sands. For girls normally surrounded by the meadows and beech woods of Bucks, this was a world of fantasy made real.

My husband, in contrast, spent his youth idling away hours with pals on the beaches of Antrim, Northern Ireland: leaping into freezing waters and cycling along a winding, coastal road. It is a raw, rugged landscape, with rocky cliffs, vast dunes and sandy strands – the local vernacular for beach. Though not particularly passionate about the activities that occupy many inhabitants – being neither a sailor nor surfer – he is happier when near water. It is where his heart lies and feels like ‘home’.

I’ve grown to love those stunning seascapes: the Giants Causeway, the dunes that form a backdrop to Royal Portrush Golf Club, the eerie ruins of Dunluce castle, the beautiful National Trust beach at Portstewart, or the picture-book seaside scene at Portballintrae.

Yet, for me, these experiences are still the stuff of holidays. It may take under two hours to drive to the pebbled fringes of Brighton, but such excursions are special. They are an escape from daily life, requiring effort to enjoy: packing a car with buckets and spades and windbreaks and a picnic, or filling a suitcase with swimsuits, sarongs and suncream.

I feel immensely privileged that we are surrounded by the bounteous Bucks countryside that led our nation to be labelled a ‘green and pleasant land’, and equally lucky that I can enjoy the contrast of escaping to the coast when I need a break.

Let girls thrive

A bright, smiling nine-year-old girl was clambering over a climbing frame in the park. She was clearly enjoying her escapades, joyfully lacking in self-consciousness as she turned upside down and swung around the bars. Hers was a carefree demeanour, challenging her body to balance, to hold strong, to bend, to stretch, to move with the agility of a cat.

Nearby, boys of a similar age were playing an informal game of cricket, and some girls were making daisy chains in the grass.

My heart sank as her mother bemoaned this nimble, uninhibited behaviour with a tone of exasperation: “Why can’t you be more like a girl?” she complained to the youngster, who looked crestfallen.

Assuming she would gain support from a fellow mother, she turned to me, and I couldn’t resist challenging her preconceptions. Why do we instill gender stereotypes into children from an early age, encouraging boys to be active right from the word go and subliminally sending the message to girls that sport is a ‘boy thing’?

Even at infant school, you hear girls claiming they’re ‘just not sporty’, echoing dismissive statements of parents who fail to encourage them to enjoy the physical rewards of activity.

Is it any wonder we witness young girls who refuse to engage with PE lessons, whose youthful bodies are incapable of bending to the floor, and who have the early seeds of body image issues sown? Research has shown that girls who continue with sport or other regular physical activity throughout their teenage years have higher self esteem and generally perform better at school.

A grandmother’s plea to ‘run around and get some fresh air’ was not just a bid to gain some peace in the house: it stemmed from the wisdom of women who knew that stimulating the circulation and keeping muscles toned was a good thing. You concentrate better when you have a good oxygen supply to the brain: you sleep better when your body is physically sapped. And you are less susceptible to ill health if you keep yourself in good shape. Let’s give our girls a chance, and celebrate their youthful desire to move, not quash it at the outset.

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