Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Polzeath Beach, Cornwall, Summer 2007

On one of the relatively few warm days of our last Cornwall holiday, the kids and I headed for Polzeath, our favourite beach. I've always loved Polzeath despite the crowds, as it is the village I stayed in when I first started visiting the Celtic South-West back in '92 with my friends. Set in a narrow and steep valley, with a small river emptying onto the beach itself, Polzeath boasts a large expanse of glittering sand, commanding views of Pentire Point and the islands Gulland and Newland, rock pools and small caves galore, and Betjeman is buried just around the corner. Ah, Polzeath. According to Enid Blyton, this is where the Famous Five holidayed prior to their discovery of Kirrin Island in their first book. There's a useless piece of trivia.

My offspring look resplendent in their streamlined wetsuits. I wear a pair of football shorts that accentuate my pale skin and the hairy birthmark on my stomach.
We pick a spot not far from the surf. Ice cream vans crawl between the sunbathing masses. Flags struck into the sand demarcate the areas for serious surfers and the areas for the novices. Lifeguards who seem to have strolled in from the set of Home & Away keep an eye on proceedings.

Eldest disappears among the rockpools, continuing her perpetual quest to track down exotic wildlife. Youngest finds a kid his own age and they play harmlessly on the sand. Middle grabs one of our two bodyboards and issues a challenge. I foolishly agree, pick up the second board and we stroll down the beach and step into the broad Atlantic.

Generally speaking, I'm not too fond of being in the sea. I adore being ON it, but actually immersing myself in very cold, salty and frankly hostile environments has never been particularly high on my list of Fun. There was an occasion, a couple of decades ago, when I was strolling along a beach on the Suffolk/Norfolk border with my friend Lea, and in a mad act of spontaneity I tore off my attire down to my Y-fronts, sprinted down the beach screaming, 'GERONIMO!!!' and promptly dived into an oncoming wave. That probably had something to do with my sensibilities at the time. But I digress.

We wade out far enough to be able to catch some of the larger rollers heading our way. Now, Middle Child has developed a certain knack for this sort of thing over the last few years, whereas I... well, frankly, I haven't. She gauges the strength and speed of the oncoming wave, leaps onto her bodyboard and off she goes.

I attempt to do the same.

She rides the wave perfectly, homing in on the beach like a torpedo, carried smoothly by this force of tide and gravity all the way to the shallows, then turns to see if her old man has kept up with her. Alas, her old man is exactly where she left him, laying astride a bodyboard some forty yards out to sea, flopping like a gaffed fish and waving his arms about in a desperate attempt to stay balanced. Rather than lift me on its crest, the wave had decided to ignore my presence and consequently had passed underneath, its only concession to my efforts being to lift me and drop me in the same position.

This incident was replayed several times over the next half an hour. On a few occasions I actually succeeded in riding the wave, but could never manage it with the ease and grace of my daughter who, damn her eyes, made it look so bloody easy.

Eventually, we decided to take a break. She wanted to get her strength back, and I wanted to appreciate the fact that I hadn't drowned. As we paddle through the shallows, we observe a couple of the beach's younger visitors engaging in a slightly different sport.

It's called Skimboarding. The boards are small and flat, pointed at the bow and rounded at the stern. The concept is simple. They skim along the wash created by the receding waves, the method being to throw the board down, sprint and jump on it, then basically surf the wet sand.

Middle and I look at each other. 'Well, that doesn't look too hard,' I comment.

We visit the local Surf Shop and return to the beach with a brand new Skimboard. I carefully watch the ten-year-olds I wish to emulate. Drop, Sprint, Jump, Surf. It looks simple. It looks easy. Hell, even I can do that.

There are several tricks used by Skimboarders, and they all have names. The No-Step, the One-Step, stunts like the Fistral Turn. I wait for a wave to recede, leaving its shallow wash behind. I Drop, Sprint, Jump, and invent an entirely new trick called The Splits.

It seems I failed to appreciate that, during the Jump, both feet have to land on the board at the same time. In my case, one foot landed on the board while the other remained on the beach; the board shot off and, for a traumatic moment before I collapsed, my feet were way too far apart for anything less than pain to happen.

I got up and growled as an infant glided past on his skimboard, throwing me a glance of pity. Retrieving our board, I explained Skimming techniques to my daughter. 'Both feet have to land at the same time,' I declared, 'This time I'll get it right.'

Drop, Sprint, Jump. Partial success! My feet land squarely on the board at the same time. Unfortunately, I forgot all about weight displacement. My feet should have landed at the rear of the board, allowing enough momentum for hydroplaning. Instead, they landed toward the front of the board, my weight forcing the point of the board to bury itself in the sand and, catastrophically for any dignity I may have retained, causing the board to stop dead and act as a catapult.

Hey presto! I invented the Skimboarding trick known as 'The Cartwheel'.

Perhaps it would have worked out better if I had silently somersaulted across twenty feet of Polzeath Beach rather than screaming,' AAAARGH' all the way, but I was feeling rather fatalistic at the time. Half expecting to break my neck, I was determined not to go out with a whimper.

Momentum drained, I crashed down prone in the backwash, coated with sand and limbs spreadeagled. Right at the feet of a young mother with an alarmed expression.

'Are you okay?' she gasped.

I put on my bestest, most winning and vaguely flirtatious smile, not easy when you're crumpled on a beach covered head to foot with sand. 'I'm fine. Just catching the sun... admiring the view...y'know...'

Then an incoming wave swamped me.

Well, at least it washed off the sand.

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