Beside the seaside

The children had a checklist: wave jumping, ice cream eating, sandcastle building and lots of fish and chips. And I had mine: walks along the beach, with the sand between my toes. A little pot of winkles on the seafront. A picnic rug, and a spot of crochet. Happy children.

We fulfilled a few of these wishes in our very first afternoon there with Miss Stevens, who drove us over in her motor. She’d never been to Filey before, and I think she liked the way the waves crashed against the defences before retreating to leave behind a wide and sandy beach. Filey is the sort of beach resort I remember from my own childhood: lots of Edwardian boarding houses overlooking the sea, tea shops round every corner, and donkey rides up and down the sands. Chilly weather when you were hoping for the sun, and then, when you have just about given up, the clouds part and there it is, in time to warm you through. Nothing fancy, nothing new. Just spray thrown in your face by the high tide, and lips that taste of the salt air. Sticky fingers from fast melting ices, and sand in your socks. And then at night, tired out with bracing air and strolling up and down along the sands, sleep, with the shushing of the sea and the promise of the beach just after breakfast.

As a child, the charms of the seaside are obvious. Who doesn’t want to visit that strange and magical margin dividing land and sea? The shore, which vanishes and reappears, is different every time, and offers up new treasures. The bucket full of shells is filled, dumped out, sorted and half emptied before being swiftly filled again. Mussels are the thing – no, cockles now – no, sea glass with its jewelled translucent softness. There are moats to be dug, last minute, as the tide swirls in and washes whole kingdoms away, and the little court decamps and starts again. And there are white steeds to jump with growing confidence until an unexpected swell knocks you into the water and you squeal with shock and delight in equal measure.

As an adult, its charms are even greater. There are no chores to be done, beside the seaside. There are no dishes to be washed: those vinegary fingers need only a quick lick before the children are back in the sea. The boarding house breakfast isn’t mine to cook, the floors not mine to sweep. So there is nothing left to do but play and rest. Solve the mystery of Five Red Herrings with Lord Peter Wimsey. Linger over a pot of tea and a scone. Pick our way out onto Filey Brigg and see the whole world reflected in a rock pool. Hang a piece of bacon on a string and wait and wait and wait for the big brown crab to come and grab it with its greedy claws. Paddle in a little deeper than you should, so that the cold North Sea soaks the hem of your dress. The day’s laundry is the rinsing of the bathers in the bedroom sink, the day’s cooking a choice between one form of sea food or another. A complete holiday, in other words, only a bus ride away from home, squeezed into the middle of an otherwise busy term. It’s a different world, truly, beside the seaside. And all the children want to know is when we are coming back. Soon, my lovelies. Soon.

Summer in Devon, Winter in York

It was Ilse’s turn to help me with my quilt yesterday. I spent the first part of the afternoon in the village hall, listening to her school carol concert – a cacophony of recorders and coconut shell donkey steps, carried off with the exuberance only infants can muster. I had my handkerchief ready – I am prone to welling up when all those little voices wend their way haphazardly through Away in a Manger – but I didn’t need it this year. Ilse is one of the ‘big’ ones now, and I enjoyed watching her play her recorder and organise the tots.

We stopped at the baker’s for two currant buns and headed home for an afternoon of just the pair of us. I’d left the fire laid and supper ready to go into the stove, so all I had to do was make a pot of tea while Ilse ran around closing the curtains, and generally being grown up and helpful.

Since we finished her quilt I have hand-sewn the three layers of my own together in blues and greens: quilting and decorating it in one stroke. I’d sewn the front of the binding in place with the machine and so just needed to spend an extended evening hand-sewing the back of it into place. Ilse’s ‘help’ consisted of her playing her favourite records and rehearsing dances to them in the hallway. Then she would come in, announce a recital, and perform. It made the hand-sewing fly by.

I love this quilt, not because it is particularly beautiful or a show of much skill. It is, in fact, extremely simple in design and execution. The reason I keep gazing at it is that it is pieced from old clothes worn on a special holiday in Devon, eighteen months ago.

My brother Pete and his wife had arranged for the whole family – aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandparents – and many friends to spend a week camping on a wooded hill by the sea in South Devon. We took the train down and as we had to carry everything up to the wood from the bus stop three miles away, we packed as lightly as we could. I laid out one old frock and set of underwear for each of the girls and myself. Similarly, John and the boys packed one change of clothes apiece. Bathers, night-things and essential teddy bears went into the knapsacks, and the children were ready to go.

We had the kind of weather we English fantasise about – long, sunny days with unbroken skies, where the air is sultry in the light but blissfully temperate as soon as you step into the shade. There was no cloud watching or chilly breeze; Ben and several of his older cousins abandoned their tents and slept in a clearing, with nothing between them and the hushing of the trees. In the evenings there was a great fire, for fresh fish from the hut along the road, or tins of beans, or potatoes in their skins. Somebody brought an accordion, and someone else, a tin whistle.

The site has no water, so I took the children to bathe in the cove each morning, and rinsed their clothes out in the salt water before spreading them on warm pebbles to dry. The weather broke on the last day; the sea turned grey with the threat of the coming storm and our train was lashed by it all the way north.

When I washed the salt out of the clothes with soap and fresh water they were soft and faded, perfect for climbing trees and getting lost in for the remainder of the summer. Ripped and finally outgrown, I cut them into squares last winter and, in the summer just gone, stitched the squares into four long strips.

The faded blues and greens remind me of the muted Devon landscape in late July. The grass is about to yellow. The leaves of the trees are less verdant, more familiar. The sea sparkles so that it barely has a colour at all, but is just a dazzling sheet of reflected light.

Between the strips I sewed white percale sashing, left over from the sheets I made in January. White for winter and snow, and to bring light into these dark days. A quilt for both summer and winter, finished in time for midwinter’s day, when the balance tips and the days begin to draw themselves out once more. I sewed rows of running stitch dashes to link the two, to say where we have been and where we are now. We will go back again. Back to summer and sunshine and days when all you have to do in the morning is slip on a frock and a pair of sandals. Summer and winter, north and south, sunshine and snow. Neither would be the same without the other. And on cue, the very morning after I finished the quilt, a postcard dropped onto the mat, inviting us to another family camp next year.

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