Sculpting sand in Sussex

Hilary Bradt joins the professionals in Brighton to master the art of building castles

I went to Brighton for a dirty weekend. You don't really expect sand to be dirty – nor for Brighton to have any sand, come to that – but this sand was brought here from Redhill and contains bits of sticky clay. I was at the Sand Sculpture Festival at the former Black Rock swimming pool and about to work on my own creation.

The Lido was demolished in 1979 but holds a place in the affections of older Brighton residents. Some still remember learning to swim there in the Thirties (it opened in 1936) and the terror of the high-diving board, while others have fond memories of its post-war period. "I just loved the atmosphere and it was the place to be seen," said Vikki Pomfrey, a teenager in the early Sixties. "Long chats by the pool with complete strangers who, by the end of the day, had promised to phone or write but never did. Oliver Reed was one of them. And Charlie Watts, though I turned down his invitation ..."

This festival's theme is music, so Charlie Watts reappears at Black Rock with his Rolling Stones colleagues, along with other pop celebrities. If your experience of sand sculpting is limited to sand castles, the scale, precision, detail and sheer artistry of the professionals is jaw-dropping. The two little girls who accompanied me to a preview halted at the doorway with a "Wow!". Their mother had been a regular Black Rock visitor in its derelict days, when it was used for illicit parties. "Last-minute notifications on mobiles and then a mad rush to get there before it ended. Great fun!"

The sculptors were still hard at work when I visited the chilly weekend before the festival opened. The café was buzzing as the international sand brigade warmed their hands around mugs of coffee. "Am I doing Bob Marley or John Lennon?" one asked Nicola Wood, the organiser and co-founder with Alec Messchaert, who was distributing photographs of musicians.

Having learnt sand sculpture in Australia in 2006, Nicola now sets up festivals all over the world, though her main UK venue is Weston-super-Mare. I talked to Radek from the Czech Republic, whose huge – and brilliant – portrait of Beethoven glowers disapprovingly at the congregation of pop artists. "Nicola sent us a list of names and I specially wanted to do Beethoven. I like his physical appearance and his personality, and it suits my style," he said.

Pedro from Portugal, who was working on Elvis and Frank Sinatra for the 1950s tableau, had even more festivals under his belt: around 50, from Canada to China. I found Barney half-way up a ladder, picking tentatively at the block of sand. "I'm actually a graffiti artist. I come to Black Rock regularly because it's one of the last places where artists can spray walls with the council's blessing. I was here in February, and Nicola and Alec came up and said they wanted to work with people who were already using the site. I was happy to continue painting the hoardings but said I'd like a go at sculpture."

"Graffiti art is like sand sculpture really – it's temporary," explained Nicola. "Since I've been here, there have been hundreds of pictures – they just spray over a previous one. Artists will visit throughout the festival – the only requirement is that they stick to the music theme."

Earlier in the day, I had spent an hour exploring the city with Michelle, one of Brighton's team of Greeters. This was the first UK city outside London to sign up for the Global Greeters Network where volunteers give free tours of their hometown, and I can't imagine a better way of getting under the skin of a place. Michelle took me through the famous Lanes and alleyways – "twittens" – looking for street art. Brighton is an open-air gallery of spray-can art. No blank wall or hoarding stays undecorated for long and sides of buildings become rural landscapes or science-fiction scenes.

It was time for me to have a go at sand sculpting. Nicola explained how she sources the sand. "Not all sand is suitable for sculpture. Beach sand tends to have round grains. We need pointed grains that will bind. I can tell, just from the feel of sand, whether it will be right for sculpture. I toured the area visiting quarries. At Redhill the man said, 'You won't want that – it's no good for anything.' But I knew as soon as I put my hand in that it was perfect."

I shovelled sand into a frame, added water, and trampled on the result before adding the next layer. As so often happens when tackling a new sculpture, I was a bit unrealistic about my abilities. Preferring to sculpt animals rather than people I had the idea that Elephant Blowing its Own Trumpet kept me in my comfort zone while still fulfilling the music theme. Nicola showed me how to use a variety of tools and I set happily to work.

"Be careful not to undercut," she warned, as I worked on the trunk coiled round the trumpet held to my elephant's pursed lips. Too late. The trunk and trumpet fell off. I felt like crying. "Don't worry, it happens all the time!" Nicola showed me how to build up the sand for a less ambitious pose and Elephant About to Blow its Own Trumpet took shape. It's neither very good nor very bad, which will probably be true for most amateurs.

Anyone can come and have a go. There will be workshops for schools, and a children's competition to design a giant sculpture which Nicola will carve during the summer. And, no, the rain won't wash it all away but, come October, all those wonderful sculptures will be bulldozed into oblivion.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Train operators include Southern, First Capital Connect and First Great Western (08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk).

Staying there

Hilary Bradt stayed at Blanch House (01273 603504; blanchhouse.co.uk). Doubles from £79, including breakfast. She dined at Sam's of Brighton, 1 Plaston Place, BN2 1HA (01273 676222; samsofbrighton.co.uk).

Sculpting there

The festival runs until 30 September (brightonsandsculpture.co.uk; £6).

More information

visitbrighton.com/greeters

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