More than one way to skin a cucumber

Europe says our North-western beaches are the filthiest. So why is the town of Morecambe using salad to tackle its pollution?
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Try as I may and whichever way I face, it does not - let us be honest - look a wildly inviting scene. It is a windy day; the raincoat that I brought with me as emergency rations is proving more useful than expected. I am standing on what passes for a beach - a little grey-brown patch occupied by a few languid seagulls, while some old ladies potter gently along the seafront. Behind me, a line of burger bars, and shops selling sticks of rock in different colours (listed ingredients: nine E-numbers apiece). The amplified sounds of a bingo game in progress can be heard. In short, a typical spring day at the English seaside.

I am in Morecambe, the very embodiment of slightly faded gentility - and similar, in that respect, to so many resorts around the British coast. This is where the crowds used to come in their thousands, once upon a time. Coachloads from all over the region would come for an excited day out or week away. Barbara Crowther, a retired nurse, remembers: "You didn't let go of your mum's hand, it was so busy."

Now, those crowds are just a memory, even in the height of summer. Even when the visitors come, few dream of dipping more than a toe in the water, and probably not that. And now, there is yet more bad news. A newspaper hoarding succinctly announces, in the run-up to bank holiday weekend: "Shame of Lancs Beaches." True enough: the latest edition of the Good Beach Guide, produced by the Marine Conservation Society, shows that water standards in the north-west have failed to meet basic targets.

This week, the European Commission issued its own latest Bathing Water Quality Report, demanding that countries pull their seawater socks up. The EU has two standards that should be met - the mandatory minimum, and the guideline values. The European Commission complained that "only" 84 per cent of bathing areas across Europe meet the preferred guideline values. Nobody in Morecambe would use the word "only". In the north-west of England, 84 per cent would seem like a dream figure to aspire to. Here, none out of 34 sampled beaches passed the guideline European standard, according to the Good Beach Guide. One of Morecambe's beaches failed to meet even the mandatory target.

Traditionally, the great thing about the British has been that they didn't much care whether things worked properly or not. That was true in every sphere of life. It wasn't about comfort and quality, but about muddling through. Why wash your hands under a single tap in comfort, when you could install two separate taps, under which you can wiggle your mitts from side to side in a scald-freeze, scald-freeze hand-jive routine? Why eat fresh food, when you can get processed instead? And as for bathing beaches: why bother about cleanliness and amenities, instead of simply taking pride in the fact that you are At the Beach? That's what being British was all about. That was the essential knack of maintaining a great empire - that we didn't complain about what we found at the beach.

I know; I was there. I grew up in the 1960s in a small seaside town in Dorset. In winter, the beach was (and is) fabulously beautiful. Then as now, thundering waves came crashing with the force of a Homeric storm on to the pebbles that clattered beneath. Gales whipped water across the old pier, which became an absolute no-go area of exciting danger. The sea defences had to be renewed every few years, because nothing was ever strong enough to resist the force of nature. Walks under the crumbling cliffs were sooo bracing. In summer, however - aah, that was a different matter. Yes, we swam. Yes, we enjoyed it. But thoughts about clean water did not cross anybody's mind in those days. A raw sewage discharge pipe expelled its contents straight into the sea. Floating bits - and, with apologies if you are still at the breakfast table, I mean bits - appeared in the water on a regular basis. On one occasion which, for perhaps understandable reasons, remains vivid in the memory, a lump lodged itself on my lilo. I tossed it away. Even at the age of 10, I instinctively understood that to make a fuss would somehow be Not the Done Thing. In those days, one took things as they came.

Increasingly, however, we have turned into a bunch of Euro-softies. We lost an empire, and found central heating. As for our bathing water, we have spent fabled sums trying to catch up for a hundred years of neglect. Only a few decades ago, new pipelines were still being built that poured the contents of your toilet straight into the sea. Now, the policy has been put sharply into reverse.

Meanwhile, however, people are more worried about the water than they were when it was truly filthy - even though they probably won't go swimming here. If a British tourist wants to spend a fortnight lolling about in the water, then he or she is much more likely to head for the Mediterranean where the water will not freeze you in 40 seconds flat, and where the holiday may cost less than one in the UK.

Colin South, director of waste-water services at North West Water, is keen to point to the upbeat statistics. The authority treats half a billion additional litres of sewage which, until a few years ago, would have gurgled straight into the sea. It has spent pounds 2.7bn on improvements, and plans to spend another pounds 2bn in the next five years. In a neat little bit of media-spinning, the authority even tried to pre-empt the bad news of this week's survey, by headlining the survey's conclusion that "the region's bathing waters are getting cleaner", and by ignoring the unhappy nought out of 34 figure.

Official acknowledgement of a "bathing waters puzzle" comes closer to honesty. The embarrassing fact is that neither North West Water nor the Environment Agency, which has overall responsibility for water quality in Britain, understands why things are still (comparatively speaking, at least) so bad.

For, despite the huge sums that have been spent in the north-west in the past few years (much too late, but that's another matter), officials quietly acknowledge that the results hovered somewhere between disappointing and "a disaster". Computer models predicted success; they were wrong. Nobody knew quite why that had happened. They still don't.

Dyed veg became the environment agency's secret weapon. Coloured cucumbers were released in an experiment that was a cross between a giant game of Pooh sticks and a mass-ringing of elusive migrant birds. The idea was to find out just where the multi-coloured cucumbers ended up, thus demonstrating where the unpleasantness in the water came from. The answers were so confusing that it might have been a more productive use of resources simply to chop all the cucumbers into a giant salad and eat them.

Local officials in Morecambe are eager to blame their beach's poor performance on unfair sampling. They ask darkly what time of day the samples in the rest of the country were taken, hinting that resorts in the south of England - which performs much better in the Good Beach Guide - may have been let off lightly. (Afternoon samples give more reassuring results, because the sun has had time to commit ultraviolet mass murder of bacteria.) More realistically, stormwater overflow - a particular problem with last year's bad weather - makes things worse. So, too, do the many rivers that flow into the sea in the north-west, including the Mersey, the Ribble and the Lune in close proximity. Researchers are even wondering whether to blame wildlife. Morecambe famously sustains a huge number of ducks and waders. Scientists point out that human faeces are, as far as water-purity measurements go, not the only dodgy fruit. Shooting geese and oystercatchers as a punishment for what they have excreted on the mudflats would, however, presumably be considered an environmental measure too far.

To be fair to Morecambe, the town itself does not look dirty at all. On the contrary, it is as civically neat as you could wish, following an expensive landscaping operation on the seafront in recent years. Windsurfing and waterskiing, against the backdrop of the Cumbrian hills, are increasingly popular. Donkey rides on the beach are even back in vogue. In the words of one longtime visitor: "Morecambe has been through the pain barrier."

That may all be true. But there is more pain yet to come. What is this at my feet, this gooey wet-white lump in the sand? And what is that, plopping softly from a passing seagull straight into the sea below? Whatever it is, it's against the law. Arrest those birds.