The time-honoured place for a summer’s day out is the beach. Whatever the weather, you can always build a sand castle, says Robert Hume. Bucketloads of people have been doing so for generations.

“Pleasant it is even to do intensely stupid things — to be upon the beach and dig a moat round a sand castle, and almost feeling as much interest in it as your little son or daughter rising five,” wrote a visitor to Margate, Kent, in 1862.

Grainy Image

The earliest picture we have of a sand castle comes from an educational manual of 1838, where a father shows his two sons, William and Henry, how to construct a sand castle using a small garden spade:

“First form a good solid heap of sand; make it round and wide at the bottom… now beat it round and make it as hard and as smooth as you can”.

A moat, inner and outer walls, and a keep are added. The boys make a flagstaff using a stick, and a flag from a piece of notepaper.

Their enemy is the encroaching tide, and they will need to complete the castle quickly.

The appliance of science

French physicist, Maryam Pakpour, from the University of Liege knows what it takes to build a dream sand castle. Writing in Scientific Reports 2 No 549 (2012), Pakpour and her team offer the following advice:

To give your castle 30% more strength, use your hands to ensure the sand is highly compacted. Simply thumping the sand with a spade produces an uneven result.

To prevent features becoming too soggy and collapsing, or too dry and crumbling away, you should use one, or at most two, buckets of water to every 100 buckets of sand. This will help maintain “capillary bridges” between sand beads.

When constructing the keep, a formula to arrive at the critical height, beyond which it will collapse includes calculations where G is the elastic modulus, R the column radius, r is density, g gravitational acceleration, and J ª 1.8663 is the smallest positive root of the Bessel function. Keeping up?

The great sand castle scandal of 1900

By the end of the 19th century sand castle building competitions were well established at seaside resorts.

Meat extract manufacturing company, Bovril, sponsored a children’s sandcastle competition on the beach in Rhyl, North Wales, in August 1900. Competitors had to include the name Bovril in their castle.

The event proved so successful that local wine and spirit merchant, John Ellis, decided to run his own prize competition a few days later.

Children of all ages were eligible to enter, provided they incorporated the name of a brand of whisky on the front of their castles. The idea caused outrage.

The local temperance society protested that children were being encouraged to advertise alcohol, “one of the great curses of the country”, and retaliated by organising its own sand castle building competition. Children were offered fabulous prizes for building castles that denounced the “demon drink”.

Awesome architecture

Matt Kaliner, sociology lecturer at Harvard University, has built some of the most amazing and weirdest sand castles the world has seen. They’re not exactly your conventional “bucket and spade” types.

Instead of mounds, turrets and moats, his structures are archways that twist and climb, and sometimes appear suspended in mid air.

Forbidding fortification

In February 2017 sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik and 45 students succeeded in constructing the biggest sand castle ever built…so far!

Measuring an amazing 14.84 metres tall, and themed around world peace, it took nine days to complete, and is adorned with a bust of peacemaker Mahatma Gandhi, countless temples, and a giant dove.

The castle, which was built on Puri beach, Bay of Bengal, India, broke the previous Guinness record by Ted Siebert, who had only managed to construct a measly 13.97 metre high affair at Miami Beach in 2015.

“This achievement will encourage me to touch new milestones,” said Pattnaik. The mind boggles.

The not-so-new fashion for ‘sand sculptures’

Alternatives to sand castles have been around since the 14th century, when poet Balaram Das created sand statues on the beach in India, which he prayed to and worshipped.

Today, the annual “Queen of the Sea Festival” in Youghal, Co Cork, still welcomes “sand art” in its sand castle competition.

Do many children take up the offer to sculpt? About 70%, says Dorothy Heaphy, one of the judges. “The sand castle entries come from the younger children. As they get to age 9 or 10 they are more interested in sand art.”

But at the National Sandcastle and Sand Sculpting Festival, held on Bettystown Beach, Co Meath, in early July, it is the sand castles that rule. Celebrating its 15th birthday this year, the competition attracts some 3,000 participants and spectators.

There are separate categories for castles and sculptures — anything from crocodiles and elephants, to Celtic crosses and army tanks.

The sandcastle competition is the bigger of the two, says one of the organisers, Martina Maguire, sometimes engaging over 100 teams, often families.

It seems that the traditional sand castle is as popular as ever — holding out well against a siege of sand sculptures.

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