"None of the above." If ever I were to answer a market-research survey about criteria for buying sandals, this would have to be my honest response. No, I do not buy them on comfort, on price or on style. Like most men, I usually buy them on impulse just before I go on holiday.
Me and Jesus boots (as they were always derided) go back a long way, to the branch of the Co-op where the double-E width measure proved insufficient for the extensive urban sprawl of my feet. Sandals are light, airy and infinitely expandable - and also cheap. Before I went to Borneo last year I picked up a pair of standard man-made soles-leather uppers from Dolcis in Oxford Street for pounds 12.99.
Most items of clothing are cheap and well-made in the Third World. So I chose to wait until reaching Kota Kinabalu before buying some boots. I needed them for the 13,000ft ascent of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South-East Asia. But not one of the hundreds of merchants in the city sold shoes big enough. So my toes slid and shivered their way to the summit, while climbers from around the world laughed at my inept footwear.
They wouldn't sneer at the Clarks ATL. "Sports sandals" have been popular in North America for years, filling the need for footwear that allows wearers to exert themselves without feet turning into steamy cauldrons of sweat and bacteria. Now Clarks has launched a British version.
Other sports shoes are flashy, and go-faster stripes seem de rigueur. ATLs are dark and subdued - and, like my feet, brutally ugly. In order to get a firm yet comfortable fit, the straps are broad, padded and covered by an improbable amount of Velcro. The chunky Airtrek soles make your feet bigger than they are. But for heavy-duty outdoor activities, I would readily trade style for surefootedness. The going gets steep above the tree line on Mount Kinabalu.
It was impractical to return to South-East Asia to follow in last year's sandal-prints, so instead I road-tested the ATLs at Port Aventura, Europe's newest theme park. A g-force-filled day devoted to a succession of rollercoasters and waterslides is as hard on your feet as it is on your stomach. The ATL never put a foot wrong. More miraculous still, there was no trace (or odour) of the copious perspiration induced by the baking hot Spanish sun. The soles absorb sweat and eliminate the sticky feeling to which my pounds 12.99 sandals are horribly prone.
You pay for the privilege of user-friendly sandals: almost pounds 25 a foot. But my feet squealed when I had to return the test pair. Next time the market researchers call, I will be more confident: sports sandals should not be bought on style, or price, but solely (ouch) on comfort. When my veteran Dolcis pair finally turn up their toe-straps, I shall dig deep to buy some ATLs.
The ATL sandal costs pounds 49.99. It is available in women's sizes 3-8 and men's 6-12 (whole sizes only), through Clarks stores and some independent shoe shops - call 0800 616427 for details of stockists.
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