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Commentary: Britain's Beaches

By Jennifer Gold

Buffalo, NY – We ate outside as we could when I was young. My mother loved to eat in the garden, breakfast, lunch, dinner it didn't matter. Out we'd go with our trays of sandwiches, or cereal, or shepherd's pie. "We don't get enough sun in Britain," she remind us any time we complained of insects, prickly grass, or just the plain inconvenience. No picnic tables or cute umbrellas in the U.K. at that time, and not for our family where we didn't get a television or telephone until I was about 12. We also went to the beach.

Going to the beach was an enormous procedure, and anyone who has heard my father and the boat story will remember his fanatical attention to detail. My sister and I were his reluctant team - he never forgot what he learned in the army. Out came the picnic box, a large wooden box painted pail blue and "the checking" would begin. Dad emptied the box first and then began reading from his crumpled list. Gillian and I, with much eye-raising and sighing, found the items on the table, put them back in the box and said "check!"

Dad's rule. Check. His sonorous voice droned through an interminable number of items with complete seriousness. No giggling, no joking allowed.

Plates - check

Cups - check

Cutlery - check

Pepper - ???

The day would be ruined if one item was missing. Heaven forbid we should just "make do." "There isn't any salt, who forgot to put in the salt. Whose job was it to remember the salt. Salt is on the list. How could we forget salt? We always have salt." Far be it for one of us to joke about washing the saltless item in the sea. Instead, we sat and pondered the enormity of having a day without salt. Or pretended to.

Let me add here that the plates and cups were not paper or even lightweight plastic. At the very least they were that pastel colored Melanite with scratches on the plates and brown tea stains inside the cups. And although we were extremely lucky to live on one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world -- the Gower Peninsular -- most beaches involved a long, very long walk from a tiny parking lot down through woods or across grassy cliff tops to the beach.

Having got to the beach, my parents insisted that we tramp as far away as possible from "the crowds." "There isn't anybody HERE!" We would both whine. But there would be later -- after lunch -- and even six people constituted a "crowd for my parents."

On we stumbled carrying blankets and baskets and bags of beach clothes the heavy wooden picnic box, the primus stove and on some occasions our Siamese cat trotting along beside us on a leash.

Sunglasses - check

Suntan lotion - check

Books - check

Irritating? Unnecessary? Cumbersome? Of course, but there is one occasion that I remember with the most fondness and appreciation although at the time I whined and was grumpy. It was before we had a car so I must have been about eight and my sister 14. Dad decided that we would have breakfast on the headland of one of the most beautiful beaches around. I thought it was Rhossilli but my sister says Pennard -- she has a better memory for those things. Either way, both beaches are magnificent, great sweeping stretches of golden sand, high, grassy cliffs, flowers, seagulls, rabbits.

We left the house early, probably for the first bus out there, maybe 6.30 a.m. I can remember trundling about half a mile down a very steep hill from our house to the bus stop carrying all our "stuff." Once on the bus -- a double decker -- we went upstairs and then to the front where we had magnificent view of the twenty miles of countryside to our chosen beach.

First we swam in the cold, Atlantic Ocean-fed sea, then back to the parents with smells of frying bacon and eggs, cut grass, sheep, sun warmed yellow gorse flowers and the salty wind. Seagulls and sheep commented to each other about our early presence to their home. My sister and I quarreled -- just because we are sisters, and my mother told us we didn't deserve this and that there were starving children in China.

Dad made the inevitable cups of British tea on his primus stove complete with tea pot and tea cozy and so the day went on. At the time it seemed to be far too much trouble but as the years have gone by I marvel at my father's idea to cart everyone off to a distant beach to have breakfast.

Without any of the convenience of today's light-weight, camping gear and without even a car. I have an old, black and white photograph which shows people standing beside an ancient car and a grassy bank. They are wearing heavy coats, and holding tea cups. The stove is beside the trunk of the car. The four adults stare at the camera almost proudly, as if they have just climbed Everest instead of braving a cold British day to have the standard cup of tea.

They are my relatives, his mother and father for one, so I shouldn't be surprised at my father's tenacious adherence to tradition. I should be glad, and I am.

Jennifer Gold's essays are a monthly feature of WBFO News.