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The Man On A Beach comes home to Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 August 2015 | UPDATED: 01:21 24 October 2015

Man On A Beach captures the colourful beach huts of Scarborough on his journey along its northern bay

Man On A Beach captures the colourful beach huts of Scarborough on his journey along its northern bay

Archant

What does the beach mean to you? Jo Haywood talks to a man searching for the answer

The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is, according to the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, 42. So that’s that sorted.

But not all of life’s questions can be so easily – if illogically – answered. Some take a little more thought and deliberation, and some are simply not meant to be answered because the solutions are so numerous and so personal that they can’t be summed up in a single word or digit.

That’s precisely the kind of never-ending quest that’s keeping Man On A Beach busy. He’s an anonymous interviewer (hence the Man On A Beach moniker) travelling the British coast asking people one simple question – ‘What does the beach mean to you?’ – and filming their answers.

He then collates the answers into charts and lists on his website, manonabeach.com, and lets the people speak for themselves in a series of mini films.

He’s completed 11 regions since starting his quest four years ago. We caught up with him just after he’d completed the Yorkshire leg of his journey, which proved to be something of a homecoming as he’s originally from East Yorkshire, spending a great deal of his first 17 years on the beach at Hornsea.

But his passion for beaches was really sparked when he moved to Cornwall in the mid-90s, ultimately leading to his current idiosyncratic quest. So what, in the end, prompted him to become Man On A Beach?

‘I think it was a time of life decision,’ he said. ‘My children had grown up and I had more time for my passions. It felt very driven and instinctive. I’ve always had empathy for the natural environment and, like most people, have always been happiest on the beach. To be really honest though, I did it because I wanted to. It was pure force of will.’

He describes himself as an ‘anonymous, willow-the-wisp of an interviewer’, strolling the beach asking his single simple question and never pushing, manipulating or steering his interviewees. Whatever they say the beach means to them is the right answer.

‘For many people, the beach means childhood and wonderful memories of their family,’ he said. ‘They remember very clearly being brought to the beach and are now usually enjoying bringing their own children or grandchildren to the beach.

‘Another reason that comes up again and again in many different forms is escape. People are escaping from different things – the city, work, anxiety – but the beach is their escape.’

It’s also become something of an escape for the Man On A Beach himself; a time to ponder life’s mysteries while losing himself in the landscape.

‘I’ve become much more sensitised to the beach environment,’ he said. ‘I can look out to sea and not realise that an hour has passed without me noticing a single moment.

‘I find generally that people, myself included, are more positive first thing in the morning, perhaps because that’s when the light is particularly beautiful. But being by the sea makes me happy all day, every day. I find I share a natural harmony with the environment as I share the enjoyment of people’s eulogies.’

He’s just finished filming people’s personal eulogies on Yorkshire’s beaches, travelling from Staithes in the north to Bridlington in the south. What struck him most was the pride felt by people for the coast and for the county as a whole.

‘I was blown away initially by the strength of character of the people themselves,’ he explained. ‘Not in a professional Yorkshireman way, but in the confidence and depth of character people showed. Scarborough in particular proved ebullient and energetic.

‘What came through very clearly was the new ‘brand Yorkshire’, which certainly wasn’t in evidence when I lived here. There’s an intense civic pride and self-confidence. People are very direct and insightful – it was wonderful to see.’

Filey proved to be an unexpected highlight. Usually overshadowed by its larger, more boisterous neighbours – Bridlington, Scarborough and Whitby – this unsung hero of the Yorkshire coast was Man On A Beach’s favourite destination.

‘All the Yorkshire beaches were impressive, but I just felt most comfortable in Filey,’ he said. ‘It has a benign, genteel atmosphere and the welcome feels particularly warm.’

He admits, however, to making a schoolboy error by missing out Runswick Bay on his Yorkshire travels. But perhaps it was, in fact, a subconscious act to ensure a return visit to his home county at a later date.

‘This is an endless process,’ he said, ‘with an energy all of its own. I’m completely subsumed by my work and could never contemplate taking a holiday. I feel there’s much more to do – a destiny I haven’t quite fathomed yet – and that I’m in the middle of something wonderful.

‘If I ever find an answer I’m happy with, it’ll end; but I won’t and it won’t. I’ll be the Man On A Beach forever.’

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