Plastic spade

Plastic spade
Plastic spade

Bucket and spade holidays. The jangle of amusement arcades, squawking seagulls, sticky fingers grasping ice cream cones and the delicious aroma of hot chips drenched in vinegar. The humble bucket and spade have come to represent so much more than games in the sand, signifying a very strong sense of nostalgia for the British seaside holiday.

Plastic spades are one of the most common items I find on the tideline, and easily the most evocative. On spotting one, I’m a six year old on holiday with my family again. We’re huddled behind a  windbreak in the lee of a blue Austin Vanden Plas Princess on Southport beach. The bitter wind carries the shrill screams of the reckless braving the creaking rollercoaster built in the 1930s. I look beyond the pier and Blackpool Tower is just about visible on the horizon; a temple for those seeking superficial trappings of the seaside which don’t involve digging or making sand pies. My young self struggles to understand why people visit the coast if not to create landmarks on the endless expanse of sand.

My sister and I step out from the shelter of the car to continue with our hard labour – we are on holiday, after all. A channel must be dug to the sea in order to feed the moat around our sandcastle. We squint through our Snoopy sunglasses across the Ribble Estuary to the Irish Sea, and are relieved the waves haven’t begun encroaching on our channel, which, by this stage is almost six foot long. We are hopeful the project will be wrapped up by the time we head back to my Grandma’s house. This ambitious hydro-engineering project of ours would rival Dutch ingenuity; we have buckets, spades and the optimism required for a memorable British seaside holiday.

The seaside has not always been the setting of such fond memories. For centuries, if not millennia, the coast invoked feelings of terror and even repulsion. Cultural connections had been made to the Great Flood, and as an environment not featured in the Garden of Eden, it was considered ungodly and to be feared. Creatures from beneath the waves were grotesque and without name, adding to the image that the beach was a contested, fierce place, where the sensibilities of the civilised world met the wild, unpredictability of Nature.

By the late 1700s, the health benefits of cold bathing helped shift the belief that Nature was a healer, rather than a terrifying force. In his book, The Lure of the Sea, Alain Corbain explains that ‘the sea was expected to cure the evils of urban civilisation and correct the ill effects of easy living’. This fashion for entering the water began the seaside tourist industry, and it was here on the sand where the new leisure class met the coastal peasantry – the humble poor picking over the seashore as a means of survival.

There was a Romantic fascination with the ‘discovery’ of the coastal poor as we see elements of their material culture creeping into artwork – ‘their boats, nets, sails, baskets, rakes, buckets, spades, moorings, beach anchorages, havens and villages…these were important subjects for painters in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century’, explains Adrian Franklin in his paper, On Why We Dig the Beach.

These early visitors to the coast championed the coastal inhabitants’ struggle against the powerful force of nature, and became fascinated by their rustic way of life which contrasted their own urban lifestyle. Engaging in their activities became a way for the visitors to reconnect with a more simple way of life. By purchasing their tools, the tourists were able to participate in the coastal life for entertainment and pleasure. It is easy to see how the bucket and spade, once tools for gathering and collecting shellfish and bait on the seashore became synonymous with this new tourist industry.

Rather than risk their lives at sea, local fishermen realised they were able to earn a living from this burgeoning industry, carving wooden spades and selling ‘authentic’ memorabilia. As more people ventured to the coast to seek refuge from the industrial cities, seaside resorts were born and with it, this new leisure class overshadowed the original inhabitants who had eked out their humble living here.

The plastic spade is a brightly coloured reminder of how the British seaside was established, and also represents the coastal peasant class who had engaged with the beach environment as a place of hard labour.

Memories of my sister and I working hard on the sand to dig and construct our own world echoes more than an exercise in make-believe. We were participating in an association we didn’t understand via the cultural traces of the humble spade. For an afternoon at least, we were reenacting the lives of the people who had once made the coast their home and survived by digging and collecting.

I wonder about my fascination with the coast. Today I find myself harvesting the seashore, not for survival but remnants of our material culture which inspire me as both a visual artist and writer. For Adrian Franklin, the coast was ‘refreshed with every tide creating unique episodes of discovery and leaving traces of memory and personal connections to place.’ These episodes of discovery form a very real narrative, as the humble plastic spade on the tideline has proven, in both my own memory and the birth of a tourist industry built on nostalgia.

Further reading

  • Carpenter, J.R. Writing Coastlines (2016) Performance Research, 21:2, 12-16
  • Corbin, Alain The Lure of the Sea: The discovery of the seaside 1750-1840 (1988) Penguin
  • Fiske, John Surfalism and Sandiotics: The Beach in Oz Culture (1983) Australian Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol 1 (2)
  • Franklin, Adrian On why we dig the beach: Tracing the  subjects and objects of the bucket and spade for a relational materialist theory of the beach (2014) Tourist Studies, Vol 14(3) 261-285

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