The other day I had the chance of an afternoon in a place not too far from here so I mapped a stroll to search out the nice part of this particular town, something which has so far eluded me. I mean, every city has its nice part, doesn’t it? Er, apparently not as it turned out. But I am nothing if not perkily positive on this platform, so I shall not name this town but shall instead move swiftly on, noting that after some time searching in vain for a way of accessing the car park attached to the green space I could see on top of the hill, seeing only signs bellowing No parking, No access and (my bete noire) No turning and negotiating mile upon mile of post War housing estates, eventually I spotted a sign to somewhere completely different and headed that way instead.
My perky positivity was waning somewhat by the time I got to Sand Bay and was not improved by dodging the puddled potholes in a grotty car park and then having to grub about for the right coin for the loo.
Happily a woman emerged from the Gents at this moment (yes, I wondered too) and kindly held the door open for me. Suitably relieved I lingered on the threshold for a bit, foot in the door, in case I could pay the favour forward. Then I realised that this probably wasn’t a good look.
Having faced a dearth of useful signage in the previous place, here they had gone to the opposite extreme. A faded sketchmap done in blocks of primary colours but now long outdated, promised many attractions, few of which appear to have survived. The mariners light cattery gave me pause for thought. Evidently this is accommodation for solely the sveltest of moggy – but how does that work then? Do they make all prospective guests hop on the scales on the way in? Or maybe the only access is through a very small cat flap? Then I realised – it’s the Mariner’s Light cattery. Of course. Silly of me. Maybe there’s more than one mariner but who cares as long as he’s brought an apostrophe with him. (It was turning into a bit of a day for errant punctuation – on the way into the Town I Shall Not Name I spotted an employment agency offering various services, including light house keeping. Naturally I read that as lighthouse keeping). Taking my life in my hands – quicksand, fast moving tides, strong currents, and unspecified inflatables related incidents – and determined to Be Positive I crossed the road, a very quiet dead end that turns to mud in the car park at the far end of the strand. I cannot say that this most uninviting of beaches was in fact glorious, but the air was fresh and clean and, with the tide out, the sands seemed to stretch forever in a strangely calming manner.
It turned into a pleasant enough stroll, occasionally passing small knots of other people Being Positive, stoically eating sandwiches, using a discarded tractor tyre as a makeshift paddling pool, failing to get a kite airborne or displaying superior local knowledge. Reaching the headland a mile or so later I turned back and took to the broad tarmac path along dunes, right by the road side. The beach based, seaward view was pleasant enough but, once the ship had gone down the channel, it was unchanging. From what I could see, the settlement of Sand Bay consists of a collection of mid century homes strung along a road that goes nowhere, interspersed here and there with the occasional older farm cottage, a pub reeking of old cooking fat, and a café, firmly locked up, chairs piled up against the doors, at just gone 4pm on an August afternoon.
But the start of this seaside drag was dominated by an extraordinary building, with something of the Art Deco about it, incongruously out of scale amidst the Sixties bungalows. The Kewstoke Hospital – as the discreet sign announced it to be – looked to be neither a mainstream NHS institution nor one of those private places where they will do you a new hip, knee or nose. (I looked it up later – it is now a secure psychiatric hospital). I heard the affable couple settled on one of the path side benches before I saw them. They were passing the time of day in broad Midlands accents with all who passed. As I approached, the man called out to me and I stopped for a chat. Aged somewhere in their seventies, this pleasant pair had that comfortable way of speaking that some long marrieds have. Not so much finishing each other’s sentence, more one taking the descant while the other carries the tune. We’ve just come down from Birmingham. (We’re from Stourbridge, in fact). Terrible traffic on the motorway. (Long queues all the way from Bristol). Usually takes us two hours. (Took us two and a half hours today).
They had come down to stay at the holiday camp just along the road and were waiting to be able to check in to their chalet. You get your room and all your meals for a week for £59. (And you can eat as much as you like). It’ll be full this week (Over 300 people). And there’s entertainment in the evening. (But he likes his kip so he’s not bothered about that) I like my kip. (I like the entertainment though). They had been coming for years, they said, they loved it here. We’ve been down once this year already but that was an expensive week. (It was £65. They had better entertainers that week) They had Elvis here then. And Whitney Houston.
We put the world to rights for quite a time, none of us knowing the answer to the question that had been perplexing the woman on the journey down – what happens when electric cars get stuck in long traffic queues? If they run out of charge in the middle of the motorway how do they get them going again? (Any ideas anyone?)
As I walked on, I began to notice thatnearly all of the dedications on benches mentioned the West Midlands. This end of the road spot tucked away in a much overlooked corner of Somerset clearly occupies a large place in the affections of generations of Brummies. It’s Birmingham by the Sea.
But why? I was intrigued so when I went home I did a bit of Googling and ended up back at what’s now the psychiatric unit. Turns out this striking building started life as a convalescent home, its construction funded by the weekly contributions of the city’s workers into the delightfully named Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund, back in the pre NHS 1930s. Interestingly it was a place of recovery for women only (Were there many female facilities back then? The men’s homes were in North Wales).
I don’t know any more about it than that so I can only imagine just how much respite a spell in the fresh air and the open spaces in this quiet backwater could provide from the congestion and grime of the industrial centre. And in how high a regard such a place would be held for ever after.
But that is to jump ahead. All this Being Positive was starting to have an effect on me. The Black Country cheer was infectious. I began to admire immaculate front gardens and to wonder at the stories behind a couple of almost abandoned dwellings. I lauded the thoughtful positioning of a shelter mid way along the exposed path. I admired the variety in the design of the benches.
And then I saw this. No idea where it had come from but such generosity could not be ignored. I anticipated sinking my teeth into something unlovely, woolly, or sour but, Being Positive, I took a bite. It was the best apple I have tasted in a long time.
So, Sand Bay?
Oddly life affirming.