Matt Chorley: Why can't the Brits hack it at the seaside?

Our writer fears the 'sand sandwiches' season is here again
  • @MattChorley

Rain or shine, this weekend millions of us will get up at the crack of dawn and head for a traffic jam snaking towards the seaside. Brits at the beach have no idea how to behave. So we slip on our factor 50 blinkers and try to pretend we are the only ones on this overcrowded stretch of brownish sand.

There we are, standing essentially in our pants with nowhere to put loose change, averting our gaze from the pert bottoms and fat backs in the queue for overpriced ice creams.

There is so much pretending. We pretend we can hear the sea over the sound of the couple next door arguing. We pretend not to have goosebumps. We all – men and women – pretend not to look at the woman sunbathing topless.

It is never like the adverts, where cool, lithe young hipsters kick over the white sand while gazing out to an azure sea. Kick sand here and it's liable to end up in someone's mouth.

Choosing a pitch is a complex business. Go too close to another group and risk looking like a creepy weirdo. Leave too big a gap and you can be sure a group of students will park themselves in it while you're in the sea/toilet, ready to devour an industrial supply of weed.

Last weekend we were plagued by a group listening to what appeared to be the Sonic the Hedgehog theme played at double speed while someone struggled to send a fax. I think it used to be called techno.

Things go wrong even before leaving home. So much stuff to pack. I have always admired those leathery, slim, retired couples who stroll on to the beach in just a thong, flick out a towel the size of a small dishcloth and voilà – ready for sun worshipping.

Even if we didn't have children, we would still be hobbling through the car park with three carrier bags digging into hands and banging into legs, bulging with picnics, books, water, suncream, newspapers, towels, raffia mats and the oh-so-easy-to-pack-away pop-up tent. But what sort of depraved moron takes bongo drums to the beach? Thirty-somethings desperately trying to pretend they are in Goa, not West Wittering. All. Sodding. Afternoon.

Anyway, pitch chosen, everyone sits for approximately four minutes before announcing at five to 11 in the morning that it must be time for lunch. Pork pies, Scotch eggs, crisps, olives, cocktail sausages, breadsticks, quiche, grapes, a platter of Italian meats and cans of soft drink are all carefully laid out on the gritty picnic rug. You eat the ham roll you made at home, decide that actually that's filled you up, and then pack everything away again.

Be sure to zip up the cool bag, just in case an inconsiderate beachgoer has brought a dog. A dog! As soon as you spot a dog you wonder if it's going to bite someone or shit in a freshly dug sandcastle moat.

Wherever you are on a beach you are never more than six feet from someone doing the Towel Tango – trying to slip their pants off, and trunks on, without flashing a bright white bottom. Or worse.

After lunch, it's time to head to the water, which can be dangerous. California has sensibly banned frisbee throwing. Frisbees are pointless. Most children can't throw them and adults never seem to learn flicking a frisbee under a big hairy leg does not make it a "sport". Just sit down.

If you're lucky you can paddle in peace, but chances are you'll have to dodge an overweight 15-year-old hurtling towards you on a boogie board, while further out women try to gauge if they are deep enough to have a wee without anyone noticing.

Don't get me wrong, I love the beach. Every crunchy sandwich, every wasp, every squashed sandcastle, every inch of red-hot sunburn. It's just the people I can't stand.