Colm O'Regan: When beaches were much further away

Packing up the kids in the car and heading for the coast is far less of an adventure  and much less time-consuming these days
Colm O'Regan: When beaches were much further away

I call them The Unlockers. The unexpected object that releases an archive of memories from the past. Every so often, while rooting around in the ‘boxes of stuff’ at home, I find one of these unlockers. 

It’s never the object you expect either, not the one you see in films. An old teddy (they are all currently working with the next generation), a locket with a picture in it (I think there were way less of them made than we think) or a diary (I dare not open some of those pages).

This time it was The Basket. We didn’t even call it the picnic basket. That felt too grand a title. It was wicker and all that but there was no gingham and it had no handle or cover. It wasn’t designed to be carried a long way. It was to sit in the boot of a car. But it has seen a thousand flasks. And a few broken ones. Lots of squashy sandwiches. And Jersey Creams. My father’s choice of cream biscuit. Not sweet enough for my tastes back then in an era of Refresher Bars and ‘sherbert’, but now I crave their slight austerity, their hint of “haven’t you enough gallivanting now for one week?”.

The basket was used for a lot of destinations: Fota, The Bog, The Mart - but for me it’s indelibly linked with the seaside.

The sea always seemed so much farther away back then. We probably drove more slowly. It was pre-bypass so everyone went through the same towns together. People don’t get stuck in towns as much in Ireland compared to before. Fair play to Macroom though, who’ve been faithfully re-enacting 1980s tailbacks every day. 

So it was a load of hours there, a load of hours back and a relatively small time actually at the sea. 

The farmer’s trip to the sea – between milkings. There was no time for lolling. I mean we did laugh out loud but the old type of lolling was too time-consuming. 

I still remember everyone’s togs. It’s amazing how you remember people’s clothes before the days of fast fashion.

There were the odd dramas – a cut foot in a stream that was probably a part-time sewer at Owenahincha, a wave at Tragumna that wet my shorts, so I was mortified having to wear my Weimar-era togs around Skibbereen while we were getting chips.

The car was often the guest star on all these trips. A succession of Fiat Mirifioris that introduced the plot device of breakdown to the soap. If I ever learn to write poems, the title of my first book of anthology will be ‘That Was the Day the Alternator Went’.

But it never mattered. The sea was always worth it. That first time The Basket settled on the strand. The first bite of a sandwich that somehow had got sand in it already. As if it had brought its own.

Then there was the togs dance and the strange sight of my father’s bare legs. (He was from a generation that wore short trousers up to the age of 13 and never wore them again) the oo-oo-ooh-aa-aa-aa stepping across shells, stones, surprisingly annoying ripply sand and then the sea that was always colder than expected.

Seaside trips just now are more involved. There seems to be more types of food. Beaches have facilities. 

The journey there is different. Half as many children occupying a bigger back seat, strapped into NASA-like car-seats, but still laying down memories for future unlockings.

And thanks to The Basket, I’ll have something to compare them to.

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