The idea that being out in nature makes people feel good is now pretty well established. But there’s one environment where this general sense of well-being takes on a somewhat more extreme quality. Simply put, beaches do funny things to people.
Sure, you might see people exhaling with deep satisfaction on top of a hill, kicking happily at a pinecone in a forest, or reading sprawled on the grass in an urban park. But show someone an expanse of sand and all remaining inhibitions are lost.
For a start, it is suddenly not only acceptable but pretty much expected to shed almost all our clothes. Lying, semi-naked, an arm’s length from similarly unclad strangers - fine. And in other ways we’re allowed to revert to childhood too: in the games we play, in and out of the water, in the mini-metropolises we build, the holes we dig, just for the hell of it, out of sheer joy, with a whoop and a cry that we would never utter in a crowded park.
Occasionally nature intrudes to enhance the already heightened senses. Usually positively, though often too with squeals of delighted disgusted terror, as weird creatures - starfish and crabs, jellies and weevers, terns and lugworms - reveal themselves. Countless molluscs have deposited their varied shells in a vast, free giftshop; and on a clear, calm, auspicious day we might be graced by porpoises or dolphins, turtles or basking sharks.
But although such moments might stand out - especially to someone like me, lucky enough to have turned a passion for marine biodiversity into a career - they are neither necessary nor sufficient for a properly fun day at the beach. The striking thing, indeed, is how little is needed to induce beach-like behaviour. When justifying the decision to come to take up my marine ecology fellowship in Sheffield I used to joke that I would be conveniently located for both east and west coasts. To some extent that’s true - you’re never more than a couple of hours drive from the sea in England - but the fact is that, for all its charms, Sheffield is rather lacking in seaside. For most of the year, anyway. In summer, we get Sheffield by the Seaside, whereby an artificial beach - a glorified sandpit - is plonked down in the city centre and punters pay to play on it. Replicated in other landlocked towns around the country, these urban beaches might be intended primarily for kids, but Matt Frost of the Marine Biological Association tells me he’s noticed that the simple existence of this patch of urban sand encourages exactly the kind of breathless freedom from social norms we expect to see on a real beach.
So what does all that mean for ‘nature’? Our demand for safe, aesthetically pleasing sandy beaches of course has some downsides, from local effects of trampling on the burrowing creatures living in the sand, to more general, regional impacts of coastal development, such as clearance of ‘untidy’ coastal vegetation, shoreline hardening, or importing golden Saharan sand to cover ‘ugly’ black volcanic deposits. Weighed against this are the very many initiatives to engage coastal tourists in activities that have a positive impact on the environment (and on local economies too, of course). But what I wonder is how we might capture the running, spashing, digging, hollering, sandy, wavy sheer joy of countless holidaymakers, daytrippers, beachcombers, and use it to foster a genuine nature ethic that endures year round.