Knobbly knees and a stick of rock: welcome to the Costa del Bracknell

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TODDLER George Maxwell looked thoroughly confused as he stared at the beach in front of him.

"Sand, sand," the two-year-old exclaimed repeatedly, before turning quizzically to his grandmother.

George could be forgiven for his lost look. A week ago this had been a town-centre square. Now, thanks to 180 tons of imported sand and two truckloads of palm trees, it was a beach sandwiched between Boots and Burger King.

For last week Bracknell, Berks, a monument to concrete blocks and roundabouts 60 miles from the sea, metamorphosed into a seaside resort complete with painted seagulls, Punch and Judy and Gerald the Unicycling Camel.

Three-year-old Jake Saunders looked equally overwhelmed as his mother hiked up his trousers for the knobbly knees competition. Thankfully, a stick of specially commissioned Bracknell rock saved the day and he broke into a smile.

George's and Jake's bemused looks were echoed by shoppers rushing through the rain, as Cliff Richard boomed "Summer Holiday" over the PA, intermingled with seaside sounds of waves and calypso renditions of "Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot".

Sadly, hot it was not on the opening day. The only things wearing sunglasses were the funny-face lollipops on the candy-floss stall. "You'd think they could have checked the weather forecast first," said one disgruntled granny from underneath her umbrella.

"It's good old-fashioned British weather," exclaimed Peter North, chairman of leisure services and one of an army of eternally cheery Bracknell Forest council representatives sent out to ensure that people had a good time.

Sadly their efforts were wasted on some.

"It's the biggest load of rubbish, so tacky," said one septuagenarian.

Her lack of civic pride was echoed by another man. "The palm trees will be nicked by tonight," he predicted.

But the children certainly loved it and wallowed with glee in the sand as their concerned-looking parents contemplated the night's laundry.

Others were more adventurous. Linda Packham was happily entrenched on the beach with her daughters Hayley, 4, and Zoe, 14 months.

"I thought I'd better come with them to make sure they didn't eat the sand," she said cheerfully, adding: "It is a great idea. There is nothing for the kids normally and they are loving it. We will be back again tomorrow and the next day and the day after."

Another mum was not so sure. She looked on angrily as her 20-month-old son's face lit up and he dived headfirst into the sand. "How much is this all costing us? Couldn't they find something better to spend it on?" she asked.

The public address soon allayed her fears. Periodically, a chirpy-sounding Big Brother reminded the folk of Bracknell that the pounds 30,000 cost of this two-week venture was being paid for by business sponsors who "wanted to bring all the fun of the beach to Bracknell".

For despite all the frolics, there was a serious reason behind this eccentric venture.

Bracknell is losing 70 per cent of the trade in its catchment area to out-of-town shopping and the council is doing everything in its power to draw people back in. The beach is the first small step in a five- year plan to redevelop a town which even locals admit is "ugly".

Bracknell is not alone. Scunthorpe is also arranging a beach for later in August.

But for those who think it will be safe to return to Bracknell in two weeks' time, be warned. They are already planning an ice rink and a ski slope for the town centre this winter.