Britain: The beach before Baywatch

Frinton-on-Sea has a `strand', not a beach, and no modern nonsense like surfboards. Annie Caulfield visits this most genteel of English resorts

On Clacton pier there's a stern warning not to dive into the sea from the pier's sides or support struts. The warning notice ends with the words: "The pier proprietors and the District Council accept no liability for persons indulging in this foolish activity." And that firmly sets the tone for this part of England's east coast. Brighton has gone trendy, Cornwall inspires artists and Blackpool has been remarketing itself as post modern kitsch but Clacton and Frinton are proper, old-fashioned, no- nonsense resorts where holiday makers are known to be ill-mannered beasts from cities - and need to be told what to do.

In Clacton there are cafes that still warn patrons not to bring in their own bread and butter and proudly declare that they are "not a self-service establishment". And they are further instructed "please remain in your seats and wait to be helped".

Such cafes not only like to keep their customers in their place but don't believe in bourgeois Continental pretensions - instant coffee is served in white Pyrex coffee cups, plastic flowers in plastic vases are the extent of design or theming, and they would never dream of serving fancy nonsense like microwaved lasagne. What sort of a meal is that, when people could be eating wholesome egg and chips or meat pies?

Clacton has made some concessions to modern fleshpottery, with vast gaming arcades and discos lurking in the basements of the big pink-washed hotels. But the arcades still have the old Penny Waterfalls alongside Virtual Reality and you just know that the hotel discos will have DJs who talk between the records and play "Three Times A Lady".

Although the pier and promenades are sturdily Edwardian, there is an overriding sense of being back into late Fifties England, when notions like topless sunbathing or clubs that stay open after 1am would be greeted with blank incomprehension. But Clacton is a San Antonio, compared with Frinton next door.

Frinton District Council ferociously enforces a bye-law that forbids the building or opening of any commercial establishment along the mile of its front. The coast road is all discreet, rose-bordered bungalows - low rise blocks of sheltered housing and some astounding outbursts of Thirties architecture surrounded by lilac and more roses. There are a pleasingly large number of those white, curvy houses that took like cruise liners - the type of house that rich victims in Agatha Christie books inhabit.

Between the road and the lower promenade is a steep, grassy slope on which hundreds of old-fashioned beach huts nestle. They're pink, white, pale blue, apple green, teak veneer ... Each one has a distinct and lovingly cared for character.

On a fine day, elderly couples sit on the front porch of their beach huts and look out over a clean swathe of sea, sand and wooden breakwaters. Nothing to worry them but the occasional group of odd-looking characters from other parts of the country walking the promenade.

We odd-looking characters were very over-excited to find we had so much beach to ourselves. Although, somehow, calling it a beach seems as inappropriate as saying, "alright mate", to one of the colonel types taking constitutionals along the prom. Frinton is a strand, definitely nothing so bucket-and- spadey vulgar as a seaside, or as American as shore.

One might enjoy a swim here, in a sensible and vigorous fashion, provided one isn't sporting a too brightly coloured bathing suit - oh definitely bathing suits in Frinton, or, bathing dress, but no G-strings or unnecessary cleavages. And no confusing the local residents with bizarre equipment like surfboards. A spot of quiet fishing would be encouraged, or dog walking but not jogging, snagging, volleyball or, heaven forbid, jet skis.

This is a place where picnics are still ham sandwiches with a flask of tea and maybe a sticky bun. A place where the fright of a Frisbee still raises startled heads from newspaper reading.

If you did do something untoward, like turn exuberant cartwheels, as a friend of mine felt compelled to after ingesting excessive ozone, the locals wouldn't turn nasty or make a scene. They'd smile slightly, with baffled, very British politeness and turn away, pretending not to see.

There was something wonderful about being greeted with a courteous, cheery "good afternoon" by every passer-by. And in having discovered a stretch of coast that remains gloriously and resolutely eccentric. If Alan Bennett went to the seaside, he'd go to Frinton, along with the Queen Mother and the older characters from The Archers, although Frinton is really much more Mrs Dale's Diary.

Nothing happens here, it's not supposed to. The local paper had front page news of a forthcoming garden fete, the girls' school sponsored walk for new netball equipment, and the startling revelation of faulty water pipes in several public conveniences. Incidentally, Frinton has about one public convenience per half-dozen people; I don't know if this reflects on the elderly nature of its inhabitants and visitors, or is just plain considerate hospitality.

By not standing for any foolish behaviour, like attempts to commercialise, develop or admit the existence of decades after the Sixties, Frinton has kept itself pure - a pretty, unspoilt and gently soothing place to visit.

It's like a mad old aunt in a print frock you laugh at but always want to give a great big hug.

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