Thursday, 25 August 2016

Camber: tragedy and tragicomedy

Camber Sands is one of those magical places that you sometimes find on the English coast. Miles of dunes, followed by miles of beaches, with the sea beyond – sometimes a long way beyond, because it’s shallow and when the tides out, you can walk over two or three hundred metres of sand before you reach the water.

Since it’s in the south, it can even be reasonably warm at times.

Camber Sands: charming. But maybe deceptively
It’s amusing how nothing makes a day out more memorable than its going comprehensively wrong. My wife and I, accompanied by some friends and assorted kids, decided to head for Camber on a day visit way back in 1989. We’d lived in Hastings for a while and we remembered that Camber wasn’t that far away. Sadly, as it turned out, it was rather further away than our memory suggested. What’s worse, it was further away in a completely different direction.

It’s amazing – well, actually, not particularly amazing – how much longer it takes to get to a place if you look for it for it in, well, the wrong place. With kids, you always leave late. With an extra hour and a half added to the trip to find Camber in the first place, it meant we were only going to get two or three hours on the beach before we headed back.

I was in a lousy temper by the time we finally got there.

It turned out that things had barely started to go wrong. Because within minutes of our hitting the beach, we found that our youngest son was, well, nowhere to be found. He’d vanished. Considering he was five, this was not particularly good news. Considering the beach is long and it was crowded, we could see the news wasn’t going to get any better any time soon. Considering the state we were already in, it was obvious this wasn’t going to do any of us much good.

We hunted up and down the beach. We asked people if they’d seen any sign of him. We looked in the dunes, behind umbrellas, occasionally with our hearts in our mouths, out to sea.

It didn’t help that we kept asking people whether they’d seen a little boy in a red shirt and tan shorts. Because when, after a two-hour search, we finally did find him, he was wearing absolutely nothing at all. Nothing, that is, other than a completely innocent, even slightly plaintive expression, as though to say, “What? What? What’s your problem? It’s a beach, isn’t it? We’re here to have fun, aren’t we? And I’ve been having fun, haven’t I?”

All this came back to mind when I heard about the five young men who decided to travel down to Camber, from London, for a fun day out, in the glorious sun earlier this week. Who could blame them? The conditions could hardly have been better.

And yet, near a beach full of people, all five lost their lives in that idyllic place. Bystanders tried to help and rescue services arrived by helicopter but, even so, none of them survived.

What happened? It still isn’t clear. It’s possible that they wandered out all that distance when the water was out, and then were caught when the tide came ripping back in, as it does when the sea’s shallow. If they weren’t strong swimmers, they might have found the current and the deep channels between sandbanks too difficult to manage. 

A dismal tale.

My wife and I naturally thought back to that day and the little lost boy. How easily an annoyance could have turned into a disaster. The beach was crowded that day too, but what good does that do? The people on the beach tried to save the five young men and couldn’t. 

Our son could so easily have drowned.

Though, to be fair, there were times that day when I was ready to inflict a far more painful fate on him.

We never did find his clothes, by the way. Not even his sandals.

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