Leading article: Life's a beach

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How apt that it took a free-born Englishman, of whom there is no more archetypal example than the actor Rupert Everett – a man whose features combine both the epicene and the rugged in a perfect combination of the heroic Anglo-Saxon – to draw a line in the sand on the beaches of Italy.

Anyone who has holidayed in that country knows it is nowadays almost impossible to find a little square of sand without being charged ¿20 for two lounge chairs and a parasol. It rankles to have to pay when all you need is a dip in the briny and to knock up a quick sandcastle. Fair enough for beach hawkers to peddle their food, drink, showers, beach furniture and other bits of private enterprise, but the sand itself, like the sea, ought to be public, not private, property.

The Italian government this year passed a law insisting that the beach privatisers must allow bathers unhampered access to the sea, leaving the first five meters of the shore free for the use of everyone. But in the land of the Mafia, the law is being widely disregarded by the littoral counterparts of wheel-clampers.

Mr Everett refused to pay on a beach in Venice, while there for the film festival, and has been hailed with hurrahs by the Italian press as the champion of the rights of the common man. Beaches in the UK are mostly public property. So should they be universally. If there is not provision in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – as there is in the Magna Carta – for every man, and woman, to spread their towel wherever, then there jolly well ought to be. Some principles are as old as the sea, and as inalienable. A mari usque ad mare, and all that.