Read THE BARREN SHORE of The Children , free online book, by Alice Meynell, on

It may be a disappointment to the children each year at play upon so many beaches — even if they are but dimly aware of their lack — to find their annual plaything to be not a real annual; an annual thing, indeed, to them, for the arbitrary reason that they go down to it once a year, but not annual in the vital and natural sense of the seasons, not waxing and waning, not bearing, not turning that circle of the seasons whereof no one knows which is the highest point and the secret and the ultimate purpose, not recreated, not new, and not yielding to the child anything raw and irregular to eat.

Sand castles are well enough, and they are the very commonplace of the recollections of elders, of their rhetoric, and of what they think appropriate for their young ones.  Shingle and sand are good playthings, but absolute play is not necessarily the ideal of a child; he would rather have a frolic of work.  Of all the early autumn things to be done in holiday time, that game with the beach and the wave is the least good for holiday-time.

Not that the shore is everywhere so barren.  The coast of the Londoners — all round the southern and eastern borders of England — is indeed the dullest of all sea-margins.  But away in the gentle bays of Jersey the summer grows a crop of seaweed which the long ocean wave leaves in noble curves upon the beach; for under sunny water the storms have gathered the crops.  The Channel Island people go gleaning after the sea, and store the seaweed for their fields.  Thus the beaches of Jersey bays are not altogether barren, and have a kind of dead and accessory harvest for the farmer.  After a night of storm these crops are stacked and carted and carried, the sea-wind catching away loose shreds from the summits of the loads.

Further south, if the growth of the sea is not so put to use, the shore has yet its seasons.  You could hardly tell, if you did not know the month, whether a space of sea or a series of waves, at Aldborough, say, or at Dover, were summer or winter water; but in those fortunate regions which are southern, yet not too southern for winter, and have thus the strongest swing of change and the fullest pulse of the year, there are a winter sea and a summer sea, brilliantly different, with a delicate variety between the hastening blue of spring and the lingering blue of September.  There you bathe from the rocks, untroubled by tides, and unhurried by chills, and with no incongruous sun beating on your head while your fingers are cold.  You bathe when the sun has set, and the vast sea has not a whisper; you know a rock in the distance where you can rest; and where you float, there float also by you opalescent jelly-fish, half transparent in the perfectly transparent water.  An hour in the warm sea is not enough.  Rock-bathing is done on lonely shores.  A city may be but a mile away, and the cultivated vineyards may be close above the seaside pine-trees, but the place is perfectly remote.  You pitch your tent on any little hollow of beach.  A charming Englishwoman who used to bathe with her children under the great rocks of her Mediterranean villa in the motionless white evenings of summer put white roses in her hair, and liked to sit out on a rock at sea where the first rays of the moon would touch her.

You bathe in the Channel in the very prose of the day.  Nothing in the world is more uninteresting than eleven o’clock.  It is the hour of mediocrity under the best conditions; but eleven o’clock on a shingly beach, in a half-hearted summer, is a very common thing.  Twelve has a dignity always, and everywhere its name is great.  The noon of every day that ever dawned is in its place heroic; but eleven is worldly.  One o’clock has an honest human interest to the hungry child, and every hour of the summer afternoon, after three, has the grace of deepening and lingering life.  To bathe at eleven in the sun, in the wind, to bathe from a machine, in a narrow sea that is certainly not clear and is only by courtesy clean, to bathe in obedience to a tyrannical tide and in water that is always much colder than yourself, to bathe in a hurry and in public — this is to know nothing rightly of one of the greatest of all the pleasures that humanity takes with nature.

By the way, the sea of Jersey has more the character of a real sea than of mere straits.  These temperate islands would be better called the Ocean Islands.  When Edouard Pailleron was a boy and wrote poetry, he composed a letter to Victor Hugo, the address whereof was a matter of some thought.  The final decision was to direct it, “A Victor Hugo, Ocean.”  It reached him.  It even received a reply:  “I am the Past, you are the Future; I am, etc.”  If an English boy had had the same idea the name of the Channel Islands would have spoilt it.  “A Victor Hugo, La Manche,” would hardly have interested the postal authorities so much; but “the Channel” would have had no respect at all.  Indeed, this last is suggestive of nothing but steamers and of grey skies inland — formless grey skies, undesigned, with their thin cloud torn to slender rags by a perpetual wind.

As for the children, to whom belongs the margin of the sea, machine-bathing at eleven o’clock will hardly furnish them with a magical early memory.  Time was when this was made penitential to them, like the rest of life, upon a principle that no longer prevails.  It was vulgarized for them and made violent.  A bathing woman, type of all ugliness in their sensitive eyes, came striding, shapeless, through the unfriendly sea, seized them if they were very young, ducked them, and returned them to the chilly machine, generally in the futile and superfluous saltness of tears.  “Too much of water had they,” poor infants.

None the less is the barren shore the children’s; and St. Augustine, Isaac Newton, and Wordsworth had not a vision of sea-beaches without a child there.