We should like to be beside the seaside

Somehow we've forgotten what good old-fashioned treasures lie on our coastline. Simon Calder revisits the South Coast haunts of his childhood
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The Independent Travel
Swanage was the biggest place in the world. The bay was the broadest arc imaginable, the ocean lapping the endless sands indisputably the deepest, and the ice-creams unquestionably the hugest.

That, at any rate, was how it looked to a five-year-old in the Sixties. By last week Swanage had changed a fair bit, yet even in more modest proportions the resort is a quiet delight. But at dawn it explodes.

Sunrise in Swanage is a magnificent affair. The huge orange globe begins the day by looming over the spiky silhouette of the Isle of Wight, flaring above the Needles where the island subsides into the Solent (not, after all, the deepest of oceans). Seagulls cackle childishly as they circle over the gently shelving sands, mimicking the screams and hoots when Punch takes the stage a few hours on. Rays of light pick out the orchestra of accommodation: mute little beach huts, neat boarding houses and the Grand Hotel.

Swanage is part of a triumvirate of beaches, easily accessible from the rest of Britain. Along with its neighbours, Poole and Bournemouth, it forms a wholesome trinity of resorts each quite different in character.

The furls of deckchair flap stripily about in the stiff July breeze, while an obelisk commands the seafront. The monument was erected to commemorate "a great naval battle fought with the Danes by Alfred the Great in AD877". Swanage lies at the eastern end of the Isle of Purbeck, a chalk headland not remotely insular - but certainly isolated. The railway retreated a generation ago, and the present connection to Poole is a flimsy pair of chains.

This is perhaps Britain's strangest form of transport, a ferry held prisoner at the mouth of Poole Harbour, condemned to shuttle back and forth while larger, liberated vessels sail off to foreign parts: St Malo, Cherbourg, the Isle of Wight ...

Waiting for the white hulk to clank across the strait gives a chance to explore Shell Bay - the northern extreme of Purbeck and the South Coast's own Sahara, forming plump, soft pillows on which scrawny stems of grass scrape a living.

When the ferry graunches noisily into Poole, the wilderness is replaced by tidiness: buckets of white sands, patted vigorously by sea wash. The soundtrack is spot on: seagulls chorus a backing track over the gently fizzing outgoing tide.

Poole is home to the RNLI, and to some of the cleanest beaches in Britain. To earn and keep its EU Blue Flag, achieved for eight straight years, Poole is fastidious about who and what it allows. Dogs are banned from May to September from most of the shore. In some parts, swimmers and sunbathers are non grata too: stretches are set aside for watersports. But if the Channel is too crowded or challenging, then Poole has just the place: the only west-facing beach hereabouts.

Blandford Road is just an ordinary suburban street in the ordinary suburb of Hamworthy, and Ashmore Avenue is just an ordinary turning off it. Yet even though the sea is several miles away, if you continue past the neat detached houses and municipal tennis courts, you stumble upon a regiment of beach huts, battle-weary in the tourism war with the Costas - and virtually deserted even on days when the sun is ablaze.

Poole's own private vendetta is conducted on the seaward side. There is not quite barbed wire on the beach between Poole and Bournemouth, but the competition between them is so intense that there might as well be. Where Poole is prim, Bournemouth is a glare of primary colours. Beachside pubs attract boozers and encourage side-industries such as snogging and juggling (though rarely at the same time). If you ever wonder what happened to Frazer Hines, he is alive and well and starring in Doctor in the House at the end of Bournemouth Pier.

Just as Benidorm's charms are disfigured by some pig-ugly hotels, so Bournemouth has its share of architectural catastrophes, such as the brutish concrete Roundhouse that greets arrivals to the town. But these intrusions barely trouble the foreign visitors, including the thousands of English- language students billeted in Bournemouth. They are too busy playing crazy golf, at least one game at which we still lead the world.

Before leaving Dorset I went back to the Grand Hotel. Since the Sixties the place has changed a good deal. No longer quite the palace of luxury, Tizer and ice-cream that it once was, dominating England's south coast as mightily as any fortress. Somehow the Grand has slipped anonymously into a quiet side-street; the pinnacle of opulence and purveyor of gargantuan knickerbocker glories turns out to have just three AA stars. As an introduction to beachlife, though, better the Grand in all its modesty than a faceless apartment block in Benidorm.

Bournemouth and Poole are served by trains from all over Britain, including Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London Waterloo, Manchester and Newcastle.

The Sandbanks ferry runs every day from 7am to 11pm.

Tourist information: Bournemouth 01202 789789; Poole 01202 673322; Swanage 01929 422885.

Six of the best things to do if it rains

1. Visit the Santa Fe Fun Park, Shore Road, Swanage. Opens daily, and includes a bouncy castle. Disneyland eat your heart out.

2. Look in at the Lifeboat Museum, The Quay, Poole. Open daily, 10.30am- 5pm, admission free. The centrepiece is a retired lifeboat, a wonder of English oak and Honduran mahogany, that took part in the Dunkirk evacuation.

3. Muse at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, East Cliff, Bournemouth (01202 551009). Open daily except Monday, 10am to 5pm, admission free. The kleptomanic gatherings of an eccentric Victorian couple.

4. See a film at the six-screen Odeon cinema in Bournemouth (01202 557627). Showing this week: Madness of King George, Rob Roy, First Knight, Bad Boys, Legends of the Fall, Don Juan de Marco, Beyond Rangoon and Circle of Friends.

5. Rent a beach hut from the tourist information centre on Shore Road in Swanage (01929 422855); pounds 35-pounds 50 per week, depending on location.

6. Set sail for France aboard a Brittany Ferry from Poole to Cherbourg. The lowest three-day return fare is pounds 20.50.

Tony Woolven from Sevenoaks, Kent

Swanage is one of my favourites. The beach is pretty good, with fine sand, but the temperature isn't.

Vera Greenwood from Swanage

There's not much going on in the way of entertainment, there's no swimming- pool for children and there's no coach outings.

Edmund Cavill from London

The food and drink is good, and not too expensive. We're living on fish and chips, and lasagne.

Leonor Betancort from Lanzarote, Spain

I am learning English here. I think Lanzarote is more beautiful than Dorset.

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