School for sandcastles

Charlotte Packer meets professional sand-sculptor Paul Hoggard
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The Independent Travel
Plastic buckets and spades, and sandcastles are what you see on beaches the world over. But you won't find any sandcastles where Paul Hoggard has been. Instead, tortoises, giant suns and dolphins decorate the beach, as children inspired by his classes in the sculptural possibilities of sand, reject their buckets and let their imaginations take over.

Paul, an ex-foundryman from Beverley in East Yorkshire, has been making his living by sculpting on beaches around the world for the best part of five years and he is, as far as he knows, the first of a small band of such sculptors to offer classes for children.

"As a child I had no real idea what I wanted to do, except travel," he says. "I think any artistic talent I had was knocked out of me at school. When I left there was unemployment and not much else. I certainly didn't imagine that I'd end up being a sculptor."

Instead, he took on building and foundry work to pay for his travels, and these stints mixing cement and laying paving slabs provided the foundation for his career. "It was how I first learnt to work with sand," he explains. However, his artistic vision, he says, is down to him being "a Northern natural". But it wasn't until he reached Goa in India that he became inspired by sand sculpture.

"I was sitting on a beach," he recalls. "And I started playing with the sand. It began to look like a face. I'd been listening to Bob Marley all day and saw that the face I'd made seemed to have dread locks." By the time he'd finished, a giant Bob Marley was smiling at surprised sunbathers. A new life presented itself, and Paul busked his way around the world creating extraordinary relief sculptures. This dreamy existence ended when his wife became pregnant, and their next destination, West Africa, seemed an unsuitable place to have a child. Back in England they selected St Ives with the help of a pin, a map and a blind fold. "We fell in love with the place," says Paul "I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere." And, of course, the beaches.

His summer classes started a few years ago, after a friend spotted the potential of teaching kids. Now every Saturday, and some weekdays, Paul can be found with a small gaggle of children eagerly digging and shaping the damp sand with their hands. No simple bucket and spade jobs these. Occasionally Paul runs classes over several days, at the end of which proud parents admire their children's handiwork - and then the kids get to leap on it. "It's the best way for a sculpture to die, really," he explains.

Does Paul feel a bit of a wrench when his own sculptures disappear. "Well, yes - certainly I did for the first 50, or so." But he has learnt to be philosophical about his creations. "I know at the end of the day they are just sand and water. As long as the people on the beach have enjoyed them, they've done their job." His most impressive sand creation to date was not completed on a Cornish beach but in Truro Cathedral. The sculpture was of a Nativity scene and involved five-and-a-half tons of sand. It was agreed that Paul could have a week to create it and a week for the public to view it. But once it was finished everyone grew so attached to the scene that it stayed for a month. "I went in every morning with a fine water spray. and they kept the heating down so the congregation was shivering, but the sculpture didn't dry out."

Although all Paul's works are large and complex, there are no preparatory sketches, either on paper or on the sand. "I start with an image in my head and hold on to it as I prepare the sand. With something like a mermaid, it will look like a hump to start with, and from this I'll carve the shape. As far as I am concerned she is already in there. I just have to find her."

Preparation involves hours of trekking back and forth with buckets of water to get the sand to the right consistency. By the time the beach starts to fill, the real magic is beginning. The large lump of wet sand is starting to come to life and this is the point at which Paul's workshops start. After a quick talk about how the sand needs to be prepared, the children get straight down to the business of carving, building and moulding. They use their hands, old lolly sticks and shells to scoop out details.

At the moment Paul is looking for backing from a local authority or tourist office so that he can give free lessons and more children can join in. His charge of pounds 2 for each participant means that classes are small. "Usually I'll have a group of about four children but if you have 25 or so you can really get a lot done." Such as a recent project involving several lumps which, by the end of the afternoon had metamorphosed into a school of dolphins.

So what are his plans once the summer holiday crowds head home? "None really, but I'd like to get someone to employ me to run the classes, and I'd like a mobile sandpit so I could visit local schools." He is also looking for another project for the winter. "I'd go anywhere, really. Have bucket, will travel, that's me."

Paul Hoggard (01736 793878) is holding classes on Porthminster Beach, St Ives, Cornwall, today at 10.30-11.30am and 3-4pm; Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday 11.30am-12.30pm and 3-4pm. pounds 2 per child.

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