Sara Maitland: A day on the beach offers freedom, beauty and childlike fun, whatever your age

'We return to the coast, even though the British weather cannot be relied on and our children are all grown up'

Comical image of two children standing on a sandy beach by the ocean. They both grip wafer cones containing vanilla ice-cream which melt and drip around their hands, ensuring a sticky mess. The boy has almost eaten all of his ice-cream, while the little girl looks up at him with a bemused and withering look
Published: July 21st, 2022 at 7:52 am

On the evening of my mother’s funeral, the weather was glorious and we decided to go for a picnic on our favourite beach. Regular readers will know I have an enormous family, plus – on this occasion – my ancient aunt, my mother’s best friend, who had come from the USA, and her son, who had delivered a moving eulogy in the church. Because we live on the Galloway coast, we are all used to the extremes of the tide. At high tide on this particular beach, you can dive safely off the cliffs into deep water and, at low tide, even quite small people can paddle out across the sand to an island about a half mile off the shore. We had a lovely evening.


When I tell people this story I can get some funny looks. The logistics of organising a picnic for more than 30 people, ranging in age from over 90 to under five, is in itself somewhat labour-intensive and, under the circumstances, strikes many as not merely bizarre but wildly inappropriate. I believe they are wrong – that we made an emotionally sound choice. Presumably there are some people who never played on the beach as children or who lived so near to it that it was more like a boring backyard than a magical playground. But for many of us, as children the seaside represented three quite separate joys: freedom, beauty and parental playfulness.

Silhouettes of people on a beach
Murlough Beach (National Trust), near Newcastle, County Down, Northern Ireland./Credit: Getty

Free of restrictions

Unlike in the park or even on the hills or in the woods, there are no set pathways on beaches and generally fewer restrictions of any kind. You can pick up shells, mess about with the sand and stones, dig holes, build castles, splash each other and make a large volume of noise without giving offence. And because of the open nature of most beaches, your grown-ups can keep an eye on you from further away. Moreover, the dangerous things are obviously dangerous, so the restrictions make more sense from a younger age. Drowning feels scary in a way that accepting sweets from strangers does not.

Check out our round-up of Britain's best beaches.

The beauty of nature

I don’t remember when my appreciation of natural beauty first kicked in, but the beaches of Galloway were a major part of what triggered this abiding joy. One particular pleasure is the constant movement between stability (forever) and variety (right now): always the same beach and always changing, different. Tide and weather add to the variety of season and hour. On most beaches there is a balance between close-up details and distant horizons as well as between land and water – always changing, always constant.

Time to play

On the whole, when you were on the beach, the grown-ups were more relaxed. ‘Playing’ clearly felt more appropriate to them there than at home. We always had a sandpit when we were little, but I do not remember my father getting into complex construction games there the way he would on the beach. Table manners can also be forgotten on a beach in a very undemanding way. Since our picnic on that both sad and oddly pleasing evening, I have become more conscious of the desire – not just mine, but so many people’s – to be beside the seaside. Large numbers of us return to the coast, even though the British weather cannot be relied on and our children are all grown up. It still offers freedom, beauty and playfulness.

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Top image credit: Getty Images


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