Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Sunday 10 April 2011

'Roll on, thou grate and restless ocean...'

'There, twice in every twenty-four hours, the ocean's vast tide sweeps in a flood over a large stretch of land and hides Nature's everlasting controversy about whether this region belongs to the land or to the sea.' [Pliny the Elder, Natural history]

For the Mediterranean-bred Romans, the rising and falling tide further afield was certainly worthy of comment. One might expect the inhabitants of our proud seafaring nation to be a little more aware, but it seems some visitors to our beaches have yet to grasp this complex phenomenon.

'Liverpool Coastguard are reminding people to check the tide times before venturing out to the coast today after they sent resources to rescue 93 people cut off by the tide in five different incidents this afternoon.' [Coastguard agency]

This story made the news because of the numbers involved, but a quick glance through the agency’s archives shows a regular stream of call-outs for people trapped by rising tides – making a change, I suppose, from rescuing terminally incompetent amateur mariners.

It’s a more extreme version of an event that can be seen almost every hot summer’s day in the East Coast resort habitually frequented by Clan Macheath, on a flat sandy beach that is fully covered by the tide for several hours twice a day.

Families come swarming down the steps to the beach encumbered by a plethora of deck-chairs, picnic baskets and inflatable toys. Once on the sand, they head straight for the water’s edge and set up a complex encampment a few feet from the waves, unpacking their picnics and hammering in their windbreaks.

And then the fun begins. Usually they have had enough time to settle down for a nap or are in the middle of lunch when they notice that the sea, instead of staying put in a well-behaved fashion, is advancing inexorably towards them. The resulting frantic scramble is highly entertaining for all onlookers.

Even better are the ones who, having staked out their territory, set out in search of ice-cream, drinks or entertainment (no chance!) and return to find their belongings bobbing about merrily in the North Sea (locals are reluctant to move them because of the tendency of the returning owners to express outrage first and ask questions later).

And best of all, perhaps, are the ones who arrive at the beach with all their paraphernalia at high tide and stare, open-mouthed, at the water that covers every square inch of sand - utterly perplexed despite the tide information widely available in local papers and online.

It might be worth MPs bearing these people in mind when considering Douglas Carswell’s early day motion calling for a rethink of planned cuts to the Coastguard service.


  1. And yet, the same people that must be rescued would punch you in the nose for inferring they were an idiot if you asked two days before, "You do KNOW the tide comes in, don't you?".

    Canute syndrome?

  2. Expect a government initiative any day now to appoint an agency with high paid officials whose job it will be to go down to beaches to establish tide timing targets to fit in with tourism needs. Extensive consultations will be required in the West Midlands to determine optimum tide timings.

  3. Nout to mention the obligatory "fact finding tour" to the Seychelles, to see "how they cope".

  4. FT, sounds as if you speak from experience.

    Demetrius, it may be a case of 'many a true word...' - or else the powers-that-be will insist no-one be allowed to use a beach unless there are lifeguards in attendance.

    FT, quite likely - never mind the sinking Alaskan coast...

  5. Lived for years on the Wirral. Where the tides can be spetacularly fast coming in. Especially around Leasowe bay and Hilbery Island in the Dee estuary.

    In fact the whole Irish sea coast is notorious for sand banks.

    Remember the Vietnamese winkle pickers a few years back?

    I was in the police there, and virtually every day over the weekends and holidays during the summer, the life boats (and us) were in more or less constant use collecting idiots who, although having lived there their whole lives, seem not to have heard of tide tables. Some of them could even be called "regulars".

    And, aye, those days it was allowed for the police to point out that people were idiots as they were deliverd to shore looking like drowned rats.

  6. FT, the northwestern part of my family were all brought up learning the poem 'The Sands of Dee' - the cautionary tale of Mary, who went to bring in the cattle and 'never home came she' - and other fictional accounts of the unwary caught out by the tide.

    There was a reason for telling children such stories, something the progressive educators seem to have ignored in replacing them with contemporary writing and 'poems from other cultures'.

    Incidentally, I wonder whether there would be more public awareness following the Morecambe bay fatalities had the victims been British - or children.

  7. That reminds me of my time at university in Aberystwyth. For some reason, coastal Wales is a favourite holiday-making destination for quite a large proportion of the population of Birmingham, presumably because it is nicer than Birmingham yet poor enough that the locals don't shoot on sight. However, Brummies are not known for their knowledge of tides.

    Ynyslas beach is a very nice case in point. Apart from being close to the town of Borth, it really is a very pleasant place to spend an hour or so, and cycling up there in the evenings to watch the sun set was most relaxing. However, the tides there are ferociously fast and the beach is used as the car parking area of that place.

    No, Brummies aren't known for even having the slightest, vaguest, foggiest notion about tides. They are however most amusing to watch when cut off by the tide; apparently even a few inches of water is an insurmountable barrier so the notion of driving off the beach to safety doesn't occur; instead they stand about and panic as the tide slowly drowns their car...

  8. Dan, welcome to the Tavern.

    It's a irresistible spectacle, that west-coast combination of seascape and sunset. Put in a handful of perplexed Brummies for added Schadenfreude and the viewer's pleasure is surely complete.


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