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Don’t police the beach

Harry Mount regrets that his favourite coastline in Wales has been turned into a scene from Baywatch by posturing RNLI lifeguards roaring around on quad bikes

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

28 August 2010

12:00 AM

You might not have been to Freshwater West, on the remote western shores of Pembrokeshire, but you’ve probably seen it before — on the big screen. Because the bay is so untouched by man, it can stand in for pretty much any period in history. It’s just starred as the medieval beach in Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, and as the seaside home to the shell house in the latest Harry Potter film.

These days, it couldn’t stand in for much, except perhaps a Welsh version of Baywatch — Boyowatch, perhaps? Because, as of this year, between 26 June and 5 September, the beach has been destroyed by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Every day this summer, the RNLI has erected a beach hut — the only man-made structure on the beach. Every day, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., three RNLI lifeguards litter the beach with lurid warning signs about soft sand and riptides, plant huge flags in the sand, and lay their yellow surfboards across the tideline. Worst of all, they roar across the beach pointlessly on a quad bike, swaggering in their sunglasses, and rejoicing in their angelic lifesaver status — a force field which protects them from criticism.

All day, they drive from one end of the beach to the other, distributing banana-coloured kit, and warning people away from supposedly dangerous bits of the sea. In between, they flit back to their hut, revving the engine as they chat among themselves. At the end of the day, two RNLI 4x4s come to pick them up with all their paraphernalia.

Earlier this month, one of these lifeguards came rushing towards me — Baywatch-style, paddling on the back of a surfboard — as I strolled out of the sea after my morning dip, and warned me that I shouldn’t swim on that part of the beach, because of the riptides — the tides that drag swimmers out to sea. He then pointed me towards a small stretch of the mile-long beach, demarcated at either end by those enormous flags. The effect was surreal: an empty sea for miles on either side, with a tiny little section in the middle packed with swimmers. How odd the seagulls and the oystercatchers — who are allowed to use the whole beach — must think we humans are.

That wasn’t all; another lifeguard zoomed down the beach on his quad bike, beeped the horn repeatedly and switched on an ear-splitting nee-naw klaxon to alert me to the riptide which I had just used my basic breaststroke to swim out of.

I have been visiting Freshwater West for 30 years, since I was eight, and have always known that its tides can be dangerous — there is a perfectly adequate sign to this effect in the car park, on the hill above the beach. Like all human beings do — or used to do — I judge the risks on any particular day, taking in the height of the waves and the drag of the surf, and decide how far to go in. The natural human instinct is towards caution, while dallying with the frisson of excitement that comes from the danger inherent in wildness. Part of the charm of seaside swimming — and the renewed trend for wild swimming in unfettered British inland waters — comes from this frisson, and freedom from the human control which stalks you practically everywhere else in this country.

But now not even the beach is safe from interference by a supposed higher authority — given quasi-licence to interfere with a rare moment of calm solitude, because they’re only acting in your best interests, as they see it. (Incidentally, the RNLI didn’t have the legal authority to tell me where to swim.) For thousands of years — since long before the days of Robin Hood — man has swum and sailed the Irish Sea around here. Pembrokeshire was a popular medieval crossing point to Ireland; and, for almost 300 years, until 1976, Freshwater West was one of the swimming beaches on Lord Cawdor’s estate (as in Thane of — I bet you Lady Macbeth wouldn’t have put up with all this nannying). And then, for the last 34 years, the current owners, the National Trust, left its visitors to their own devices. Only now, in 2010 — for the first time in history — must we be treated like grown-up babies, after the local authority invited the RNLI in to hijack our own natural safety instincts, turning the great wild ocean into an extension of a municipal swimming baths. Watch out! Sand alert. Danger! Waves crashing.

As far as I was concerned, the bossy lifeguards had the opposite effect to that intended. For the rest of my holiday, I made sure that I swam at beaches without lifeguards; or got to Freshwater West before 10 a.m. or after six, when it was unguarded.

Of course there’s nothing wrong in these lifeguards being there, as long as they’re unobtrusive — they just needn’t boast of their presence like they’re sponsoring the beach. They should only interfere with someone’s personal decision of where to swim if he looks like he’s in trouble or asking for help. And they should use their tanned, lithe legs to get about, and save their show-off motorbike for real emergencies. The three of them could just sit at the shoreline, surfboard to hand, at the most dangerous spots, which tend to be at the edge of the beach — where the sea digs channels into the sand by the rocks, creating riptides. They could get to a swimmer in trouble that much more quickly than they can from their comfortable little hut above the high-tide mark, even on a motorbike. But then that’s not as fun as zipping along the beach all day on the motorbike, and gathering every now and then for a jolly chat.

Now I know you can’t criticise lifeguards, just like you can’t criticise NHS nurses, puppy dogs or Alan Titchmarsh. And of course lifeboats — and saving lives in general — is a good thing. The RNLI’s response to my complaint about Freshwater West was also prompt and polite. ‘The charity’s lifeguards have already carried out several rescues since the season started,’ said the RNLI spokesman. ‘On the first weekend alone [at Freshwater West], five people were rescued or assisted.’ It’s hard to argue with that. But then the spokesman went on to say that the RNLI doesn’t ‘enforce the swim zone and swimmers are entitled to swim wherever they wish’. Well, if sounding the horn on a bloody great motorbike, setting off a klaxon and sending a lifeguard into the water to get me out of the shallows isn’t enforcing a swim zone, I don’t know what is. The spokesman added that the RNLI has ‘a duty of care to make sure swimmers are aware of any hazards’, and that the lifeguard swam out to rescue me when I didn’t need rescuing ‘out of concern for [my] safety and well-being’.

There, in a nutshell, are the classic, flimsy, modern justifications for greater outside interference in your personal decisions: setting up a legal duty of care where there wasn’t one before (because there have never been any lifeguards on the beach before), and saying it’s all for your own good.

The question is, how far is someone else responsible for your safety if you haven’t asked them to help you in the first place? You could close the beach down altogether — and it would be 100 per cent safe. Or you could, more sensibly, save the wasted resources at Freshwater West, leave us to enjoy an unspoilt beach, and use the money on real life-savers — like, say, lifeboats.

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