On our stroll towards the Cobb we pass no fewer than seven old ladies doing the crossword. Their husbands take naps under enormous straw hats. Mostly they are all still in their cars, parked mysteriously close to the beach, doors open like an obstacle course.
Amongst the middle aged women, there seems to be an unwritten dress code: striped shirt, white linen trousers. The men wear stiff nylon shorts and sandals and waddle, as if uncomfortable with the idea of dressing for leisure. We are quite possibly the only people between the ages of 20 and 35 here. The teenagers suckle on melted ice creams and try to look as cool as they can (skinny jeans, jaded jawlines) in the wake of their embarrassing families; the toddlers toddle, the babies yelp, the kids patiently hold hookfuls of rainbow-coloured fish up so their mums can take a photograph.
On the Cobb, Xander and I stroll arm-in-arm like a Victorian couple along the uneven stone while Ben takes a nap on a memorial bench. The boats have names like Bilbo Baggins (which is a big hit with the crowds, who walk past it and laugh the name of the hobbit again and again) or Charlotte Claire. The wind gives us both a flushed-cheeked, messy-haired look that Jack Wills models everywhere would envy.
We lunch at the delicious Town Mill Bakery, where coffee and free WiFi sucks us in and we overhear a University-bound boy, his voice thick with an exotic cold, recount his gap-year adventures to the eager waitress. A bit later, I take a stroll round the town, wander into a bookshop. As I’m flipping through Scouts in Bondage, a man rushes in, demanding to know where he might find books by Wilfred Owen.
The woman behind the counter, sleek-haired and elegantly composed over a book of her own, looks up. “Sorry?” she says.
“Owen, Wilfred Owen,” the man says. The mission sounds urgent.
“That would be in the poetry section,” she tells him. He looks helpless, so she gets up and leads him to a corner in the room, shifts aside a few boxes and some sort of wooden tribal mask obfuscating the “J-P” section of the shelf. Meanwhile, I giggle over Willie’s Great Adventure.
We go hunting for fossils. Past the endless stream of caravan parks in Charmouth, we reach a rocky section of the Jurassic Coast renowned, Xander tells us, for its fossils. They’re as common as pebbles, he says. We’ll be stumbling over them.
But we don’t stumble over any. We sift through the rocks; Xander scrapes them with his feet and sometimes picks up a likely candidate and splits it open against another rock, then sadly discards both halves. A man in a wool hat with a pipe protruding from his mouth examines the face of the cliff with great interest, but makes no motion to touch it, and stays still for so long I wonder if he is actually a lifelike statue erected to commemorate the thousands of visitors who have peered at things here. I find what might be Fool’s Gold, what might be a tiny ammonite, and a smooth amber-coloured rock that feels good in the palm of my hand. Ben finds a grey stone which is most definitely not a fossil and then sits cross-legged in the middle of the beach. Xander points out various impressions—this one looks like a fern, he says—and, with his particularly luxuriant beard, reminds me of a 19th century naturalist in 21st century clothing.
Back in the car park, our attention is arrested by a tiny shop selling vintage clothing of a certain flamboyant variety. Ben tries on a glittery silver jacket, too short in the arms, to the great delight of the old ladies behind the counter, who titter and cackle as he dances to “At the Hop”.
Then we get back into the car and head to Whitchurch Canonicorum*.
*I could not possibly have made any of this up; but I especially could not have made the name “Whitchurch Canonicorum” up.