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A tale of seaside resorts


One of the Whippy flavors offered along Weymouth beach

Americans may be surprised to know that England has quite a few seaside resorts. “I thought they went to Spain for that,” an American might say. But England has its Dover, Brighton, Bournemouth, Weymouth, Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Cornish beaches. All with sun, salt spray, waves, sunrises and sunsets, piers and jetties, gulls, and seaside stuff for sale.

Weymouth is along the Jurassic Coast of south England and runs along the West Dorset and East Devon counties. Weymouth beach faces east, so that the sun rises on the water. Manhattan’s beach faces west, so we see the sun set over the water.

My hometown is Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles County, California. You can also buy ice cream and sunglasses and bikinis and candy and postcards and T-shirts there, but those amenities are usually tucked away in convenience stores and boutiques. I don’t remember ever seeing sidewalk stands dragged out in front with items for sale. Or maybe I just don’t remember this because my family wouldn’t have gone down to the beach during the busiest of the high season—mid-June through Labor Day. That was often a time the locals stayed home

WATER and WAVES: Manhattan Beach surf was rough and had notorious undertows. When a teenager, I was rescued from a riptide by my boyfriend in the 1960s. Perhaps Manhattan didn’t want to display and sell floaty toys, buckets and shovels, and pedalo boats because the Pacific Ocean is often not a great place for kids at all.

SAFETY: I didn’t see any lifeguards in the large guarding huts on Weymouth’s beaches. Perhaps I wasn’t there at peak times of day or at a time of the season when lifeguards are necessary. I did see dads, moms, and kids out in the water and the occasional long-distance swimmer in the Channel waves, but Weymouth also has a Portland-Island-side breakwater jetty that helps keep Weymouth Bay calm. The only structures somewhat breaking the waves’ fury are the concrete pilings of the Manhattan’s pier.


Some of Weymouth’s beachside plastics

Lifeguarding was drop-dead serious in Manhattan Beach. What made Manhattan a world-class place to surf also often made it a terrible place to wade and swim. Male guards may have stereotypically spent some of their time talking with young female beach-goers, but I have strong memories of them all twitchy with concern on rough-surf days when they’d stand between the surfing-allowed flags along the shoreline clutching their orange floaters.

SAND: Weymouth’s natural beach—at least the part directly across from my B&B— has pebbles and rough sand. The finer, soft sand I see each morning being combed for garbage by a guy on a tractor pulling a Surf Rake trailer is probably trucked in. Weymouth’s beach also has a dog section, where I’ve seen timid and aggressive dogs jump for sticks and balls and exercise dog-paddling muscles. Weymouth also trumpets its sandcastle-building prowess, going so far as to have a special sand-feature-building section of the beach, complete with sandy cartists, contests, and yearly themes. The theme for 2014 was “Authors and Books.”

Manhattan Beach has naturally soft sand, perhaps some of the cleanest, and most golden beach sand I’ve ever encountered in the world. But that sand can also be blisteringly hot. When I was growing up, that same sand was often littered with globs of tar. When I was a kid, a typical day at the beach ended on our back porch with my mother scrubbing tar off our feet with rags soaked in turpentine.

The tar balls seem to have gone, but Manhattan’s sand makes it a great place for playing volleyball. Multiple nets are permanently placed near the pier. Frisbee is also widely played, though over the years I’ve become pretty grumpy about visiting a place where Frisbees are casually thrown hard and far.


Weymouth’s pedalo rentals

STORM SURF: The Weymouth B&B host said Channel water had crept up to the street in front–but, thankfully, no further–and he’d had to stuff sandbags all along his threshold. Manhattan regularly has winter storms. Both seaside resorts have to occasionally replenish their sand from storm erosion.

STYLE: Manhattan seems to want to be Beverly-Hills-by-the-Sea and not the slightly down-at-the-heel tacky resort town like Weymouth can sometimes appear. On the other hand, Weymouth is friendly and welcoming, something Manhattan is not always. Weymouth also is filled with older people (Britain’s so-called “pensioners”), an age group I don’t remember noticing enjoying our beaches as I was growing up. I do remember my Ohio grandparents and aging aunts and uncles going down to the beach with us, but they always seemed to be wearing the wrong clothes, the wrong shoes, edging into the waves for certain disaster, including the story of “when Aunt Fanny fell in the water.” Or maybe those memories were filtered through my immature disgruntlement at sharing my house and parents when they visited.

Perhaps I need to go back to Manhattan and look hard at my hometown through age and some compassion. The bikini-clad, appearance-obsessed, unfriendly beach town I remember may only have been because it was a place I felt I never fit in. I should get a latte and a blueberry scone from the Starbucks up two blocks from the pier, sit down on one of its concrete benches, and just sit there and fit in.

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