Saunton Sands

Mid-January and we’re no doubt approaching what some discredited mathematical formula or other decrees is the ‘most depressing day of the year’. Certainly we’re all broke, tired, a year closer to death, facing another existential crisis. It’s perfect British beach weather…

Previously on my extensive Dabbler Country tour of Britain’s seaside resorts I have visited Skegness and Ilfracombe. Skegness is a bleak, tacky town on England’s east coast, while Ilfracombe, in stark contrast, is a bleak, tacky town on England’s west coast. But now I want to take you to my favourite place in the country. Like Ilfracombe, Saunton Sands is on the North Devon coast and although I grew up with it, I only truly appreciated it long after I moved away. Here is a photo of me and my eldest daughter on it.

A vast, empty beach between the strange dunes of Braunton Burrows and the ocean, it is one of Britain’s natural wonders and ought to be more famous. Most summer grockles only glimpse it from the B3231 as they drive to the more popular beach resorts of Croyde or Woolacombe, though many pause at the roadside to gape at its sheer scale.

It is used for masochistic ‘surfing’ (i.e. gamely bobbing about in icy, wave-free waters) and some other British leisure activities, the best of which is winter walking while contemplating one’s brief mortality in a godless universe.

When I posted the snap above  (taken in January 2009),  on my Think of England blog, commenter Peter Burnet, a Canadian, wrote:

…How typically English of you to have taken it in January. ..Over here, we love beaches, but we know what they are for–getting fried, parties, playing with children, hitting on babes, etc. Our dissenters may look wistful, but they are very functional too–they like to look for whales while contemplating how America is destroying the planet. But it is never clear to me why you go to them or what you get out of them. You seem addicted to extra sweaters, turbulent skies, cold seaspray and prepared sandwiches.

Well we go to our beaches for many reasons but what Saunton Sands offers is space – a precious commodity on this packed island. In the above picture the tiny figures were in our party, but when walking on Saunton Sands you can pause for a moment to look at the sea or the dunes and suddenly a great space has opened up between you, and in the winter the wind is so cold and loud that it blasts all thoughts clean from your head.

Also, there’s a posh white art deco hotel on the cliffs above, and Nige told me he once saw Richard Madeley in there, looking “fabulous” in his “skimpy trunks”. Still, we must soldier on through January. Hang on in there, Dabblers, we’ll get through this together.

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22 thoughts on “Saunton Sands

    January 10, 2012 at 08:28

    Top commenting there from Mr Burnet! Although I could point him to various Hollywood movies that feature icey east coast winter beaches, such as Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Angel Heart

    Saunton Sands was also used by Pink Floyd for that album cover with the beds on it

    2012 will now be haunted by the image of Richard Madeley looking fabulous in his skimpy trunks

    January 10, 2012 at 09:19

    Excellent. But if you really feel like “contemplating one’s brief mortality in a godless universe” then try spending a few days looking after the kids in AN Other deserted Australian suburb when it’s 36C outside. Deafening, malevolent cicadas and the smell of cane toads slowly being baked into the tarmac. I could take the boys to the beach but the car would probably break down in the heat.

    I may be exaggerating here for comic effect.

    January 10, 2012 at 11:20

    suddenly a great space has opened up between you, and in the winter the wind is so cold and loud that it blasts all thoughts clean from your head.

    Ah, that explains the difference. In January here in Canada, we use mega-mall parking lots for that. Not sure about contemplating a godless universe, though. More for giving a quick curse at an angry and vengeful god.

    Still, what is fascinating is the ennobling masochism of it all. Perhaps a bit like the German who experiences a philosophical epiphany while hiking briskly up a steep mountain while the rest of us philistines are just having fun skiing down it. But I do have a qustion for the Dabblers. I have read about these uncomfortable, existentially ambiguous visits to beaches in many an English novel, both high-brow and popular, but I don’t recall any where anyone got sunburned, consummated a love affair or really had fun. Can anyone help, or is that why God made the Mediterranean? Are English beaches reserved for mentally wandering in the ether and hiding muder victims?

      January 10, 2012 at 12:26

      Peter, a visit to any provincial town’s high street is a must, there lies the source of all things amber, the tanning parlour, the playground of the great British tribe of the unwashed, plebs, wrong side of the trackers, ex kulaks and the odd bankrupt toff.
      Brit, trying to imagine the conversation…………
      Brit junior…”who’s daft idea was it to come here on a bleak midwinter afternoon?”
      Brit senior…”mum’s, it’s always your mum’s”
      Brit junior…”Mum! dad said it’s your daft idea”
      Later that day Brit senior, walking home from the beach reflected upon diplomacy, it’s practical applications and uses.

        January 10, 2012 at 13:14

        In fact, Malty, what you can’t tell from that picture is that I am chasing the exuberant tot as she charges towards the ocean gibbering with glee.

          January 10, 2012 at 13:33

          Are you sure she wasn’t running from you in a tantrum when in your Dick the Dawk moment you told her the universe was godless. Perhaps this year you can climb Snowden with her and tell her there is no Santa when you reach the summit.

            January 10, 2012 at 13:59

            Nah, I’m taking her to the Norfolk Broads and revealing that there’s no Easter Bunny.

          January 10, 2012 at 16:10

          If you’re going to the Norfolk Broads (though I suspect the sincerity of your line), go a bit further north and have a look at the beach at Holkham. Not dissimilar. And equally glorious. (Though it may have changed since I last saw it, which I suddenly realise was c. 1978)

      January 10, 2012 at 13:06

      Good question peter! Name one book that paints the english seaside in a positive light throughout. Hmmmmm…..

        January 10, 2012 at 13:53

        worm, there sometimes seems to be a kind of ominous “There be dragons” feel to the beach in English novels, as opposed to the sea itself. Didn’t all those Edwardian couples visiting Brighton and Blackpool walk the beach covered from head to toe in a spirit of stoic adventure before fleeing gratefully back to their rooming house for tea? Plus am I wrong in sensing it is a familiar theme for someone to be marooned on the beach by bad weather and require saving by a search party, assuming they are still alive? As if North Sea winds and rain were tsunamis? I think in other countries they usually set that drama in a boat on the sea itself.

        January 10, 2012 at 13:58

        Hmmm….There is ‘Spot Goes on Holiday’, in which Spot the Dog goes to the seaside and meets a new friend (a brown cocker spaniel).

    jonathan law
    January 10, 2012 at 14:55

    I haven’t been to Saunton for years and years but rather feel as though I have, courtesy of Henry Williamson’s barking mad novel The Pathway, which I’m trying to read at the moment. This is set entirely on Saunton Sands, Braunton Burrows, the Taw estuary, and the queer marshes thereabouts: mostly in winter, too. Like a good deal of Williamson’s writing, it somehow manages to be both exquisitely written and in every other respect quite shockingly bad: a combination I always find irresistible. Anyhow, if its wintry-existential-anguish-by-the-sea you’re after, you could hardly do worse than the scene in which Willie and Mary go for a walk across the dunes and find a wounded rabbit dying in a trap:

    “Are there many traps here? I suppose there are?”

    “They trap ten thousand every year on the Burrows. And the trapping rent just keeps Ronnie at school. Ten thousand screams in the darkness every year. I hear them sometimes.” She spoke very gently.

    “The story of the Burrows is the story of all the world,” he said, as they walked on …

    In front, behind a clump of rushes made still and solid with snow, a small flock of starving linnets was crouched, by the skeleton of a rabbit. The icy wind whirled grains of rock and shell against the bones of the living and the dead, with sounds of sighing and tapping inaudible in the common plaint, as though striving in blindness to mingle all in the formless sand …

    What rabbits they passed in the gins he took out and killled; for the next day was a Sunday, and the trapper, an earnest member of Bethel, would not visit the gins again until the Monday morning. Until then the rabbits would remain trapped … except those the stoats came upon to eat the eye and side of the face and neck, and those the buzzard hawk ‘broke abroad’; and those the crows and magpies battered. Above the southern hills the heavy weight of the snow clouds ended in an almost straight line, and in the clear sky the foot and belt of Orion were flashing. There was hope in the stars.

    That is, there bain’t none here, m’lover.

    So, Peter, that’s what we Brits do on a Brit beach: we fly kites, we walk dogs, we poke about in rock pools, and we ponder the endless, unappeasable suffering of every sentient being in the Universe.

    Queer old bird, Williamson. The second edition of The Pathway, published in 1936, has what I take to be the single most gobsmacking dedication of any novel in English:

    To the great man across the Rhine, whose life symbol is the happy child.

    Happy New Year!

      January 10, 2012 at 22:32

      I’ll have to read that one, JL. I spent much of my youth charging about Braunton Burrows so it looms large in my psyche.

    January 10, 2012 at 20:44

    Assuming that everyone’s response to the English countryside has been largely formed by the Romantic poets, maybe beaches would be seen more favourably if Wordsworth had been, say, a cockle fisherman in Morecambe Bay?

    January 10, 2012 at 21:02

    a cheery example of British seaside poetry by Betjeman:


    I know so well this turfy mile,
    These clumps of sea-pink withered brown,
    The breezy cliff, the awkward stile,
    The sandy path that takes me down.

    To crackling layers of broken slate
    Where black and flat sea-woodlice crawl
    And isolated rock pools wait
    Wash from the highest tides of all.

    I know the roughly blasted track
    That skirts a small and smelly bay
    And over squelching bladderwrack
    Leads to the beach at Greenaway.

    Down on the shingle safe at last
    I hear the slowly dragging roar
    As mighty rollers mount to cast
    Small coal and seaweed on the shore,

    And spurting far as it can reach
    The shooting surf comes hissing round
    To heave a line along the beach
    Of cowries waiting to be found.

    Tide after tide by night and day
    The breakers battle with the land
    And rounded smooth along the bay
    The faithful rocks protecting stand.

    But in a dream the other night
    I saw this coastline from the sea
    And felt the breakers plunging white
    Their weight of waters over me.

    There were the stile, the turf, the shore,
    The safety line of shingle beach
    With every stroke I struck the more
    The backwash sucked me out of reach.

    Back into what a water-world
    Of waving weed and waiting claws?
    Of writhing tentacles uncurled
    To drag me to what dreadful jaws?

      January 10, 2012 at 21:03

      nb. This is his favourite beach he’s talking about here – dread to think what he’d make of a less favourite one

    January 10, 2012 at 21:03

    No, can’t shake the image of Nige standing there looking at Richard Madeley and thinking ‘fabulous’.

    January 10, 2012 at 21:06

    ..and lets not forget Larkin’s cheerful seaside romp Sunny Prestatyn

    Come To Sunny Prestatyn
    Laughed the girl on the poster,
    Kneeling up on the sand
    In tautened white satin.
    Behind her, a hunk of coast, a
    Hotel with palms
    Seemed to expand from her thighs and
    Spread breast-lifting arms.

    She was slapped up one day in March.
    A couple of weeks, and her face
    Was snaggle-toothed and boss-eyed;
    Huge tits and a fissured crotch
    Were scored well in, and the space
    Between her legs held scrawls
    That set her fairly astride
    A tuberous cock and balls

    Autographed Titch Thomas, while
    Someone had used a knife
    Or something to stab right through
    The moustached lips of her smile.
    She was too good for this life.
    Very soon, a great transverse tear
    Left only a hand and some blue.
    Now Fight Cancer is there.

      January 10, 2012 at 23:54

      Crivens Worm, Betjeman and Larkin in the same post, wide ranging we are, catholic tastes we have.

      Hope that mental picture of Madeley hasn’t unbalanced the hormones. Mental pictures of Madeley in La Senza knickers can best be banished by thoughts of Nora Batty in in a shark skin thong.

      Good night all, sweet dreams.

    January 10, 2012 at 22:58

    Good God, what have I unleashed? Krafft-Ebbing frolics on the beach? Thank goodness those dark days are over thanks to the Thatcher Revolution. Or Cool Britannia. Or Benny Hill.

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