In his typically brilliant collection of essays about Wales and its undiscovered histories* (bear with me; I am aware that any opening sentence that contains the words ‘essays’ ‘Wales’ and an upcoming mention of a writer you haven’t heard of hardly inspires you not to bugger off to a Lolcats or Spider Solitaire, but keep the faith, it gets better) Byron Rogers informs the reader that there isn’t a word for ‘orgasm’ in Welsh; that one of the greatest World War Two mass POW prison breakouts was in Wales, where high ranking Germans escaped and attempted to pass unnoticed amongst the Welsh by blacking up and pretending to be coal miners; and that every few years, during dry, hot summers in the Wales a Thirteen century village, St Ishmael, rises from from the sands of Carmarthan Bay, its flagstones and lintels momentarilarly appearing like a Welsh Brigadoon before the conditions change and it once more sinks back, a seemingly summer hallucination for those lucky enough to catch a glance. Who could resist such an image, such a glimpse of somewhere long gone? And what the blue blazes has this got to do with Beestonia, oh Lord of this sacred town? Pipe down, I’ll explain.
As you will know, Beeston flanks a river that snakes its way through the southern reachs of this fair town, crashing down the weir (which has a salmon leap, fish-fans, though any right-thinking salmon will see it only leads to Long Eaton, Burton and Stoke so wisely dont bother using it) widens and deepens, gets spanned at Clifon then contained with concrete banks as it hits Nottingham, legging it through the Meadows lest it gets nicked. Its mostly seen as a pleasing side-attraction to the ponds when strolling round the far-end of the Nature Reserve, but its true wonders are to be found if one follows the track East towards Clifton Bridge.
When I was an employee at the NTU Clifton Campus , I had the great privelidge to cycle down this path every morning to reach work. The journey was a joy, even when the long forgotton path was so crowded with nettles my short-clad legs would be a topography of welts when I reached work, en route seeing pheasants dashing around, rabbits scutting away down burrows, the flash of electric azure that marked a Kingfisher’s dive, finished by the gloriously invigorating pedal through the smell of breakfast cooking and coffee brewing at hotel restaurant that is now Sat Bains Michelin-starred restaurant, before the urbanality (that word is pending patent, thanks) of Clifton necessitated focus on pedalling fast rather than meditative reflection. A wonderful gem of a place, seemingly only known by an occasional dog walker and a scattered band of fishermen, quietly setting their pitches up for a day wife-avoiding. So a love affair sprang with this place, and in 2003 something wonderful happened.
We had a summer. Remember summers? Those things that happen in other countries we fly off to? Maybe you remember some here? Those things with long, balmy days, where you drifted in a pleasant haze. Not the last two years, obviously, where the supposedly Halycon days were a series of waking up under a mass of sludgey cloud that sat like a bored teenager hoiking the occasional sprinkle of spitty rain down on the greyed residents of this island. But 2003… I had been made redundant, so pubs were difficult to excuse, plus the weather, blazing hot and sweetly aired, called for a more al fresco approach to a night boozing. And just by a joyous fluke, I ran into a bunch of like-minded individuals down the weir who invited me to something and somewhere that, like St Ishmael, was a passing apparition, and as such had to be embraced and enjoyed fully and whole-heartedly, spontaneously. Beeston had a beach.
Beaches. I don’t subscribe to Bill Hick’s description of them as where ‘dirt meets water’, no no no. As you probably did, I grew up a hundred miles from the sea, and that sea was the Lincolnshire coast, which back in the seventies and eighties was a curious mix of oil, raw sewage, and blue-fleshed residents of the East Midlands who had yet to discover the Costas. Despite these shortcomings-I knew no different-the beach was a tremendously exciting place, where water didnt hold itself hostile cold and deep like the rivers and canals that cut through my childhood explorations round the neglected brown waterways of my youth , but lapped suggestively and seductively onto the shore, peacefully inviting us in, gradually allowing us to let it consume us, lapping lazily round our shivering legs, drawing us deeper as it worked on filling our lungs with ozone, driving out the nicotine and booze raddled air that accumulated during nocturnal visits with parents to Skeggy’s bingo halls and Caravan Park social clubs. I eventually moved to Portugal, and for a period whilst between apartments, the beach became my bedroom, and I possibly fell a little out of love with it after waking mornings spitting blown sand out of my mouth., but this was restored after a return to this land-locked county. Be it the surfers-paradise of Fistral in Newquay, the bizarre spit of Spurn Head, the shingly shoddiness of Brighton, or the haunted dunes of Scotlands West Coast, Im a fan of beaches.** So to discover my future Kingdom has one, albeit of a temporal nature, is a god-send.
My first visit was after a tip-off by a group of people I used to know who would probably now be known as the perjorative term of ‘hippies’. Yes, they may seem flakey and badly dressed to you, they may abhor meat and your precious cars, but by jiminy, they are resourceful. So lay off, Clarkson, you tit. ‘Come down tonight Matt’ they said ‘Its an amazing thing. They’ll be bongos’. And so there was. And if bongos dont illicit a joyous response in your soul, find a Priest to exorcise your joylessness right now.
I once went to Glastonbury and managed, within the first few hours, to lose my friends, phone, and any idea which was my tent in a festival of 75,000 such abodes. Luckily, I had cash, wine, a change of socks, and an urge to walk without agenda for a few days, and as such ended up on a Friday night/Saturday morning in the Sacred Circle leaning against a stone-circle stone with a Cornish Spiritual Healer (his self-styled job description, not mine, lovely guy, but I wouldn’t want him first on the scene if I was involved in a road accident), two giggly young actresses from Surrey amazed by my accent and a confused chap who was in possession of some rather interesting fungi. A million bongos rang out, and as the sun rose after a brilliantly silly night, I said ‘I wouldn’t want to be anyone, or anywhere than here and me, right now’, to a multitude of nodded concurrance . These moments are rare. These moments are precious. My next one was that night on Beeston Beach.
I was with a teacher- girlfriend at the time who I thought would balk from such a night, but she embraced it fully, even when the camp-fire replaced her fine mist of Chanel No.5 with that pervasive odour of Eau De Burntlog. We chatted as the waters lapped on the beach edge, watched the sun rise, then gathered up our rubbish and staggered home to blessedly blacked out rooms for a few hours missed sleep. Later that day, after waking well past noon, I cycled down, and besides from a small cairn of charred rock, it all seemed a dream.
So, where is this elusive feature? Im tempted, like George Orwell’s essay on the perfect pub, to keep schtum for fear your awareness of it will spoil it, but I dont think anyone who makes the effort to read this blog deserves such sniffiness. Get on your bike, and listen to these directions. Matt-Nav, if you will.
Go to the weir. Have a few minutes absorbing the sight of millions of tons of water crash down into the caldera that gathers its wits before regaining order and flows East, and follow. There is a path. It will bend at an obtuse angle towardsthe left, and here take a rest and look at the little meadow that flanks, you’ll see a load of hurried white scuts as rabbits scatter. Sated with bunny-love, continue about 50 yards past two fields, then look to your right. If the weather is right, and has been for a few weeks, you’ll see it. If not, its just another little pebbly bay, possibly occupied with an angler. If lucky, you’ll see a wide shingled beach, with the river, which by now should be more slouching toards, rather than rushing to, Nottingham. Its down a rather steep bank, and years of bad weather has rendered this mildly hazardous and overgrown, but take your time, find a way. The anglers get down there, you, you fit young thing, will not struggle.
My second visit there came soon after the first. Before I relate this anecdote, lets fly back in time a few years.
In 1994, while a resident of the Bramcote end of St. Apleford, I discovered that a few like-minded individuals found the hidden old estate grounds behind BlueBell Woods were a wonderful open-air party venue, I managed to arrange a few large, brilliantly behaved and well attended parties there, The police would somehow get wind, visit, be impressed with our attitude and leave us be, albeit with my parents phone number should there be devastation left the next day. They never rang. So, with similar Eavis-esque tendencies, I arranged a party on the beach. Booze was procured, a small barbeque wheeled down, and some fire wood bought from Wilkos. We trooped down as the sun set after a few ales in the Boat and Horses, and we kicked off what was to become a legendary night.
There was initial disappointment when we arrived to discovered a group of track-suited lager-swilling lads had procured a pitch, and were blasting out shite bass-ridden tunes on a battery powered stereo. They initially eyed us with suspicion, but tolerated our presence, which as the night deepened, mixed into our group and our formidable fire, until it was too dark and too late to work out who was part of which group, and bongos beat out the frenetic beats of their CDs, in a solidarity that would never happen in the confines of Wetherspoons. We shared booze, jokes and stories. We laughed as my friend Jono slipped on a half-submerged log and fell into the Trent, we rolled into hysterical bundles as some idiots on the South Bank threw stones at us in some nihilistic rage (you’ll be relieved to know these all fell short, such is the a) width of the river 2) the rubbishness of Cliftonian arm power).
Arms of once strangers were locked as the lazy yet intense beams of the sunset droze us home, where sleep was rewarded with resolve to arrange another party. Yet the drought broke with summer rain and thus a rise in the river level, and the beach once again sank below the flow. Frequent cycle rises down the river have been fruitless: the water level never abaiting, never allowing a drying-out that allows the beach to rise again.
This year, however, has been forecast as warm, sunny, and dry. The first summer for years that might bode well for getting out, getting some air, realising there is life outside pubs and back gardens. Get out there.
Between coming up with the idea for this article, and typing it up, the Nottingham Evening Post announced Nottinghan will be putting up a ‘beach’, read : a few tons of sand that will do nothing but annoy local shopkeepers that will be trod into carpets city-wide. Its expensive crap. Ignore it, grab some cans and a disposable barbeque and hit Beeston Beach. You may never have the chance again.
*The Ba nk Manager and the Holy Grail, Aurum Books. Buy it, its ace. Or borrow mine, for a small charge.
** Not the Bette Midler film, which was shit.