Punch was having a pretty miserable time last week on the beach in Swanage, and the audience was loving every minute. As Judy and a mean menagerie ran logistical and intellectual rings around the hapless glove puppet, toddlers yelled advice and laughed their socks off. Fifty pence buys a lot of entertainment on the beaches of Britain this summer, but the question is: who's buying?

The answer is: not enough of us. Punch may have many faults, but he can hardly be held responsible for the decline in domestic tourism in Britain every year since the War.

One cause was hanging directly over his head. A dark cloud had mooched in from the Atlantic and was casting a gloom over the beach, if not the mood of the audience. Britain is the only nation on earth with serious beach resorts so far from the Equator, but the price of those implausibly extended golden summer evenings is some downright dismal weather. Spain is a quick plane away from the rain, and this year - with 2 million package holidays still unsold - you can get there for a price that even the travel industry admits is absurdly low. Been there, done that, and still had change out of a hundred quid.

The fact that so many foreigners find our resorts beguiling has helped to stem the tide of desertions ebbing offshore. The British Tourist Office predicts an increase of 7 per cent in visitors to the UK this year, many of them taking advantage of the belly-flopping pound. Now that an ice-cream costs five times as much on the beach in St Tropez as it does in St Ives, we should all be looking at the prospects of a holiday in Britain.

What deters us is a mix of problems and preconceptions. Problem: I can arrange an instant holiday in the Mediterranean - flights, hotels and transfers - in a single phone call. Putting together a fortnight in Filey is much harder, trying to stitch together the elements of travel and accommodation in an affordable package. Preconception: the average British seaside resort is a slovenly shell with dirty, decrepit beaches, run largely by landladies possessed of neo-Stalinist tendencies. Yet, as those fortunate enough to have visited Bridlington or Bournemouth already know, many of Britain's resorts have cleaned up their acts in every sense. We can fight the Costas on the beaches after all.

Those who like to see windsurfers outnumbering windbreaks on the beach may find inspiration at undiscovered foreign shores. There are quieter beaches around the world (for suggestions, see the next two pages), more beguiling beaches and most certainly warmer beaches. But none can boast the likes of the seaside puppet show. If the amount of noisy heckling from 3-, 33- and 63-year-olds increases this summer, no one will be as pleased as Punch.

Simon Calder

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