If the sun’s shining, what could be better than an afternoon spent building sandcastles, playing with friends and tucking into a picnic?
Best of all, you don’t always have to pack everything but the kitchen sink and head off for a week’s holiday to the Med, some of our best beaches are much closer to home.
Whether you’re four, thirty-four, or sixty-four, the idea of whiling away a few hours relaxing on a beach fills all generations with giddy excitement. No matter that the sand seems to find its way into everything; few of us tire of setting-up ‘base camp’ and re-discovering our inner child.
Obviously, the mental checklist to remember before closing the front door does depend on the ages in your party, whether or not you expect to go into water too, how long you intend to be out for and your mode of transport. Sunscreen that gives UVA and UVB protection, wide brimmed hats and long-sleeved cotton tops are a must on even the cloudiest day. And toddlers and older children usually feel more comfortable wearing jelly or breathable beach shoes, while a baby in tow means you’ll probably need extra towels and blankets for them to rest on. Unless you’re planning to drive very close to the chosen beach, taking sun tents and windbreaks to provide shelter is an extra encumbrance so consider a big umbrella to provide shade if needed.
As onsite facilities can vary enormously, and an advance recce isn’t always possible, you’ll probably want to take your own cool bag with food and water.
Travel bottle warmers and flasks of hot water add weight, but can be invaluable if you have a little one on formula food.
However, as the Hutson family know, when you hit the beach it doesn’t require a trunk-load of expensive toys to keep little ones amused. “My three-year-old daughter loves playing in the sand so a bucket and spade is essential,” says dad Mike. “We also enjoy checking out the little rock pools and paddling in the sea. Sophie has as much fun here as she would at an over-priced theme park.”
Jackie and Matt Field, who’ve spent plenty of family time at the beach since sons Ned 6, and Ben 8 were small, would agree. “Seeing everyone enjoying themselves and finding pleasure in the simple and natural things that you do is great,” says Matt. And although a cricket bat and ball also make it onto the packing list, now that the boys are getting older, they still love building sand sculptures. “Everyone can do it and contribute to creating some amazing things that people admire as they go by,” says Matt.
A spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) does advise caution when it comes to sand play, “Children have been known to dig very deep holes in the sand, the sides of which can collapse. Sand pits should be kept shallow.” And according to RoSPA, even if children are confident in water, they should always be supervised by an adult, “Unlike a swimming pool, the sea has no depth markings, no fixed depth and you can’t always see the bottom. Conditions can change rapidly, so consider the risks to yourselves and others.” Lifeguards in coastal areas provide helpful guidance on the safest spots for splashing and swimming, and Blue Flag signs indicate that a beach tops European standards for cleanliness and water quality.
As the mercury rises, a dip in freshwater ponds and rivers can also be a tempting option and Surrey’s Frensham Common is one of the region’s most popular countryside sites because of its heath-fringed sands. A council spokesperson does remind visitors, “Naturally occurring blooms of blue-green algae can appear which will mean that the pond will be closed to bathers.” So, check online updates for anywhere that you plan to visit, including if dogs are allowed during summer months.
There’s little doubt that queuing for car parking spaces near to crowded beaches can be one of the biggest frustrations en famille. So, unless you’re up with the lark and ready for the off, it’s also worth looking into whether public transport has local stops. Equally, if you need to work around nap times, somewhere a bit closer to home could make more sense.
The arrival of the pop up plage has transformed urban landscapes in recent seasons. What these might lack in natural charm, they often make up for by providing deckchairs, puppet shows and other end of the pier amusements. It can be the perfect place to decamp too should a heatwave strike.
Or check out your local park. Some offer enormous sandpits as well as masses of other play equipment including cooling water pumps and sprayers.
There’s also the added peace of mind of being within an enclosed space with trees nearby for extra shade; during term time you might be lucky enough to have the place almost to yourselves.
Whichever beach beckons, savour the thrill of seeing it through your child’s eyes. As Mike Hutson, says, “For my daughter, it’s all a great adventure. And that’s what makes it a great day out for all of us.”
Spot the signs of a good beach
• Blue Flag means it’s one of Britain’s cleanest.
• Red and yellow flags show the area is patrolled by lifeguards. These are the safe areas to swim, bodyboard and use inflatables.
• Black and white chequered flags indicate an area zoned for the use of watercraft such as surfboards and kayaks. Never swim or bodyboard in these areas.
• The red flag spells danger.
•Never enter the water when this flag flies under any circumstances.
London’s family-friendly beaches
Gabriel’s Wharf, South Bank •
SE1 9PP • southbanklondon.com
This stretch of Thames foreshore between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges sees sand sculptures aplenty at low tide. As a natural spot in central London, it’s an unexpected discovery and great for an impromptu picnic, although despite river clean-ups beachcombing needs to be carefully supervised, and mind the tides.
Bishop’s Park, Fulham •
SW6 6EA • lbhf.gov.uk
As the only London park that can boast an urban beach, you wonder why Fulhamites feel the need to decamp to the Cornish coast as soon as the sun shines. Restored in 2012 to its Edwardian glory, when the tide’s in there’s plenty still to amuse little ones in this historic green space. Park opening hours are dawn until 10pm (May-July).
Facilities: toddler and junior playground, water play during summer months. Car parking charges apply (restrictions during local football match days).
Pop up Beaches
Each year temporary beaches bring the seaside vibe to the city. Look out for more details during the summer months.
Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, Kensington Gardens • W8 2UH • royalparks.org.uk
In warm weather, children can pump water from specially designed taps and fill their pails for hours of water play. Or, alternatively, can spend time either playing swashbuckling pirates onboard the huge wooden ship or setting up camp in one of the teepees surrounded by the large sandpits. It’s heaven for all ages. Open 7 days a week, 10am to 7:45pm during summer months, adults must be accompanied by a child.
Facilities: café, toilets.
Coram’s Fields and the Harmsworth Memorial Playground, Bloomsbury •
WC1N 1DN • coramsfields.org
This large, well-established park’s playground for younger children includes two sandpits – one with slides and a summer paddling pool. Open from 9am until dusk, adults must be accompanied by a child.
Facilities: café, toilets. Other attractions: city farm.
Other children’s sandpits worth checking out can be found at: Archbishop’s Park, Lambeth; Brockwell Park, Herne Hill; Lloyd Park Walthamstow; Causton Street Park, Pimlico; Marylebone Green, Regent’s Park; Holland Park.✿