Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

We all have different reasons for loving it, although high on everybody's list is the friends we have made; friends who, in most cases, we don't see for 50 weeks of the year, yet who for a fortnight are daily rock-pooling/ beach cricket/ getting mildly drunk late at night companions. The children, I should add, are not yet of an age to get drunk either mildly or in any other way, but when they are, it will be interesting to see whether they still clamour to come to Cornwall. Certainly, there is a thriving teen culture that we have yet to encounter, of surf dudes holding raucous beach parties after dark. Indeed, we've heard that all the local beaches are being closed at 10pm this year on account of the detritus found on the sand the following morning: potsam and jetsam.

For now, for us, the beach means more wholesome family activities, like searching for crabs and trying to make cheese rolls with sandy penknives and watching other families. Constantine Bay is marvellous for people-watching. I suppose all popular English beaches are at the height of summer, but the presence of surf dudes lends an extra dimension. It's interesting to watch these lithe, toned, tanned youngsters striding to the shore past acres of sunburnt blubber; humanity in its many and varied forms. And of course, while it's unacceptably fat-ist to make muttered asides about elephantine women laboriously changing into frilly blue sundresses, it is also irresistible. We all watched in silence yesterday as this particular spectacle unfolded 50 yards or so away, and then my father-in-law, Bob, a man of South Yorkshire, quietly informed us what his late mother, Nellie, would have said had she been with us. "She'll tek some britching."

My parents-in-law have always come to Cornwall with us, and just as every beach holiday needs sun and ice-cream, so it needs a grandma and grandad. When they are grandparents themselves my kids will remember Bob's sandcastles: enormous yet intricate, with forbidding dungeons and slate staircases and windows framed with empty mussel shells, to the construction of which he brings all the skills he acquired in nigh on 50 years as a mining engineer. They are not your classic English crenellated jobs; more your Saracen fortresses, invulnerable to all infidels but not, of course, to the incoming sea.

Incidentally, on a beach holiday in Maine a few years ago, we realised that Americans build sandcastles inspired by Disney. They have a different technique entirely, fashioning tall, improbable towers by carefully drizzling wet sand, until they have a structure which might conceivably house Sleeping Beauty.

The European sandcastle tradition is more historically accurate, clearly based on the fact that we never needed Uncle Walt to show us what castles look like. Not that Bob has visited any Saracen fortresses, but had there been any passing Saracens in Constantine Bay yesterday, I'm sure they would have vouched for its authenticity. Meanwhile, our children were able to put on proprietorial airs when other people came to look and admire.

There is kudos, too, in having the best encampment. In our eight years down here we have seen people, including ourselves, become more and more sophisticated in the ways they set up for the day. Where windbreaks were once enough, now the tent-and-windbreak combo is commonplace, and the tent-windbreak-brick-built barbecue combo is catching on. We are waiting, with baited breath, for the first tent-windbreak-barbecue-Portaloo combo. It can only be a matter of time.

'Tales of the Country' by Brian Viner is out now (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)