It’s funny how it’s only in certain situations that you realise how different your children’s childhood is from your own. Most of the time, I am aware of the commonalities – the cleaning of teeth, washing of hands, flushing of the toilet – but there are summer snapshots that highlight how different our experiences are.
I grew up in South Devon, just half an hour’s car journey from the sea. We often used to go in the afternoon, laden with buckets and spades, sunbeds and umbrellas, trailing to the furthest possible point from the car to find a nice quiet spot. My dad, a civil engineer, would enjoy telling us stories of how he designed this, that and the other part of the sea defences when I was just a baby. If we were lucky, he might be persuaded to build us a boat or a car out of sand, before we got sucked into the general Divert the Sewage Overflow Game running amongst most of the children there.
Our favourite, or rather, the place they liked to take us the best, thanks partly to the lack of runoff, was Tunnel Beach. It isn’t really called that, but amongst our family there is no other name. It’s a shallow, south facing cove, a steeply shelving stretch of coarse red sand that means the children are never very far away, the only access being through a long, seaweed-smelling tunnel.
The first time I took my children, L was still in nappies and Sam refused to enter. There we were, out in the glorious sunshine and he took one look at the darkly yawning hole cut into the cliffs and refused to budge. I had to wedge him under one arm, push the pushchair with the other and forge ahead regardless. After a couple of minutes and the sky hadn’t fallen in and they had all discovered the echo, he was prepared to trundle along under his own steam.
Apart from the shouting, the tunnel itself is fascinating. About half way down it turns, changing track as if some sandstone signal man had pulled a giant switch. The character of the walls changes from smoothly dressed to rough hewn; suddenly there are flights of steep steps (a great workout for those of us toting toddler paraphernalia), and there is, instantly discernable, the slow crescendo roar of the sea.
A corner, and there it is. From the dimness you step out into blazing light, the beach and the sea. It’s never very crowded, is Tunnel Beach, thanks to the steps. There is an old shut up cave where my mum tells me that once upon a time there was a kiosk that sold cups of tea, but there are no easily accessible toilets, no ice cream booths. Everything is at the top of the cliffs, a manicured garden and hillside golf course, a wishing well and goldfish exactly as they were in the 70s of my childhood.
It’s never the same, that beach. The first time the waves were crashing against the sand, exciting ‘rollers’ that made the children scream with delight. The next, it was flat calm. Each time we go I am reminded that what I took for granted with the gentle contempt that grows with familiarity, is fresh and new and exciting for my land-lubbed children.
A’s surprise when he tasted the salt water for the first time. L and Sam’s joy in making a seaweed salad. The way that the tide comes in and you can’t stop it, no matter how many castle walls you build, and how many other children you persuade to help you. The warmth of rock pools compared to the chill of the sea. They are utterly absorbed, following each trickling pathway until they reach the sea, while I attempt to contain my anxiety that they will wash themselves away. The whole thing is one intense learning experience. No wonder they fall asleep, exhausted mouths sagging open, in the car on the way home.
And afterwards, when we get home, they feel the need to chill. I can’t; I have to unload the car, rinse out the sand, make the tea; but them, they are washed out shells of children, good for nothing except a loll, a satisfied slump on the sofa. If I asked them to do anything more productive than a spot of channel surfing I’d be faced with a mutiny.
But then, at home, I am mummy. I don’t have the same authority and power that I do in the classroom, where I can insist that we work right up to the last minute on the last day of term if I see fit, and there’s not a lot they can do about it. I look at the new school day for my soon to be secondary-schooled boy, and I wonder how they can keep it up, what with the outstanding teacher, outstanding lesson, outstanding school, accelerated progress-ness of a modern education.
When they started school I remember well that feeling of my nose being somewhat out of joint as they tantrummed all the way home. It didn’t seem fair that the school should get the best of them, and I should have the tired old left overs. I’m all for awe and wonder, but I’m all for quietness and reflection too.
I need headspace to make sense of it all. They do too.
(This was just before some sunbathers were rather amusingly overwhemed by the incoming tide.)
Where did the waves go?