The last resort

The sensual pleasures of the Mediterranean are still lost on some Britons - fortunately for many of our seaside towns. And though good weather is promised for this weekend the breezes of Skegness remain forever bracing
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Peter Divine, a retired lorry driver from Bradford, is sporting an impressive straw hat in Australian bushwhacker style. Pinned inside the band is a label warning of the dangers of exposure to too much sun. There seems little risk in Skegness. Not today, anyway. It's a blustery July morning during which the sun makes only fleeting appearances between thick banks of cloud.

As Peter steps out from one of the many glass-and-steel shelters ranged along the front, the main danger is that the bracing breeze will whip away his hat. Luckily, it is tethered by a leather thong around his jaw. Just as well. By now, it could be half way to the North Sea, which is clearly visible in the middle distance beyond a lengthy stretch of sand. Peter's daughter, Debbie, has just slogged to the shoreline and back with some of the six pale and freckly children she shares with her sister Michelle. "We just paddled," says Debbie. The blue EU flag, standing out stiffly from a nearby pole, proclaims the water here safe for bathing. But very few souls are hardy enough to take the plunge. And who can blame them? Even in August, the North Sea is much colder than the Mediterranean.

Both Peter and Debbie have seen the Med. He's been to Malta with his wife. She's been to Ibiza with the kids and her former husband. On the whole, they prefer Skegness. "For entertainment and food, England's the best," says Peter. "There's no danger, is there? You don't know what you're eating when you're abroad."

Debbie finishes her carton of mushy peas with mint sauce and says: "All there is abroad really is sand, sun and water." Also, loud disco music when they went to San Antonio, Ibiza. "We were put near one of those 18- 30 holiday mobs," she says. "They kept us awake all night. It wasn't really suitable for a family."

She much prefers a caravan site on the east coast of England.

"There's amusements and a club with karaoke," she says. "And there's a fairground up the road." Michelle nods enthusiastically. She has never been abroad, and doesn't intend to start now.

She is not alone. Far from it. Every time England is hit by a poor summer, the obituaries are written for the traditional English seaside holiday. Prematurely, it would seem, if Skegness is really anything to go by. Every year it accounts for what the local tourism department calls "5 million bed-nights". When day-trippers are added to this equation, a population of around 16,000 residents can swell to something like 200,000.

Certainly, there is no shortage of visitors during my stay. Two days earlier, the town had the warmest day so far this year. It made the front page of the Skegness News in a story that began: "We're having a heat wave." That, too, would appear to be premature. A cloud is looming over the Festival Pavilion and, just before midday, the beach is doused with a sharp but short shower.

"I'm not staying here to get drowned," Bill Johnson, a former Grimethorpe miner, tells his grandson as he folds up two blue-and-white-striped deckchairs and prepares to abandon a wonderfully elaborate sandcastle he has spent hours constructing. He does, though, delay his departure from the front long enough to tell me that he and his wife, Maureen, have previously enjoyed holidays in Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. "We were in Yugoslavia when the war started," he confides. "They had to cancel all the tours. Obviously we haven't been back since."

Despite the rain, Bill seems glad to be back in Skegness for the first time since he and Maureen came to Butlin's here four years ago. "They've done it up a bit since then and I think they've done a good job," he says.

Hunkered behind their windbreak, Brian and Janine Hoyle from Huddersfield have braved the shower and are now being rewarded with a shaft of sunlight. It glints on Brian's gold medallion, clearly visible through the V of his white sports shirt, which matches his white trainers and white socks. "If you go abroad, it's too hot for the kids," says Janine, a play group supervisor, as her own children, Katie (eight) and Jonathan (four), play in the sand.

"It depends what you want," says Brian, a purchasing controller. "You can guarantee the weather abroad, but that's all you get. There's not the amenities in terms of entertainment."

What about the food?

"Well, we went all over Italy before we had the kids, and I love Italian food. But you can get that anywhere. It's the same with your curry. That's no longer just an Indian dish, is it?"

At the nearby Boating Lake Cafe, the dish of the day is "beef stew and chips". An enormous woman who has a roll of fat protruding from her back like a bolster is at an outside table and putting away fish and chips as though her life depended on it.

I stroll on though the wedge of commercial activity that separates the beach from the promenade. Past the Jolly Roger Adventure Golf, past Lena Petulengro, the Romany palmist, past the Children's Adventure Centre and the advertisements for the Embassy Theatre. Roy "Chubby" Brown is in town and we're invited to "see Chubby part the curtains with his helmet".

There are sunbeds in the nearby swimming-pool-endowed "fitness suite" and, coincidentally no doubt, the cafe across the way is playing "A Whiter Shade of Pale" through its speakers. Across the road, the businesses in the Oasis Food Court are involved in cut-throat, cut-price competition. "The cheapest rock in Skegness: 18 sticks for a pound," proclaims one sign. "Foot-long sausage and chips: pounds 1.50," says another, perhaps with Chubby Brown fans in mind.

I find this offer easy to resist and decide instead to reacquaint myself with Shipstone's Bitter at the Shades pub opposite Woolworths. Inside, a robust discussion is going on about proposals for 24-hour licensing. "It'll lead to more violence," explains one of the barmen, "because more people will be pissed."

"Well, you can only drink so much before you fall over," says a customer, with irrefutable logic. The barman shuts up. This seems wise. The customer bears an uncanny resemblance to Les Battersby, the middle-aged yob of Coronation Street. He's wearing a vest. So is his woman companion, who has broader shoulders and bigger tattoos. The barman is wearing a polo shirt inscribed with the old-fashioned homily: "The best things in life are free." It seems like a good cue to return to the beach.

Beyond the donkeys, and adjacent to the Mr Softy ice-cream van, Tom Linton is putting the finishing touches to a sandcastle with even more turrets than Bill Johnson's. His granddaughter, wrapped in a towel and shivering in her pushchair, looks less than impressed.

But his son Paul, only six years older, appears to be satisfied. Tom's wife, Glenys, looks on proudly. "We just enjoy a British holiday," she says. "He likes roast beef and Yorkshire pud. No foreign food for him."

Tom is a security guard from Goole, near Hull; Glenys is a housewife. "This is a Sun holiday," she says, and I must look baffled because she goes on: "You know: the newspaper. It was a special offer - five days in a caravan for pounds 15 each."

If that's the cheapest holiday in Skegness, the Vine Hotel almost certainly offers the most expensive. Ivy-clad, three-star and RAC-recommended, it stands aloof on the edge of town, a cut above the rest. Bed and breakfast here costs pounds 45 a night, which works out at pounds 315 a week. That's exactly how much I paid last month for a week in Kefalonia.

A Greek island, or Skegness? For many people there's no competition: Skegness every time. They want to travel no further east or south than this sandy place where, as Philip Larkin might have put it (if he hadn't been in Hull at the time), "sky and Lincolnshire and water meet".

Never mind the sun.