Costa del Kent: sunburn and seaweed are no deterrent as England steams on hottest day of year

<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

They say summers are never as hot as those in your youth. But however warmed by nostalgia, in no one’s youth did recorded temperatures ever exceed 30C (86F) for six days in a row in September.

On the beach of Viking Bay in Broadstairs, Sarah Myers Conraby was savouring the sun but was also concerned by what the thermometer reading signified in terms of climate change and global warming.

“We shouldn’t be this hot in September,” she said. “That’s not a good thing.” Her husband, Richard Myers, originally from New Orleans, attempted to correct her pessimistic English attitude: “No, it is a good thing!”

Two weeks ago, he suffered a stroke that has left him half-blind. He has come to Broadstairs for its soothing medicinal effects. “The cooling waters of the English riviera make for the most incredible healing,” he explains.

Unlike the Italian or French rivieras, located on the glistening seas of the Mediterranean, the water on this stretch of the Thanet coastline, some 75 miles from central London, is a murky kind of grey-green, but that only adds to its appeal for Richard.

“It’s coated in this nice film,” he says. “It’s almost like being caressed by the seaweed.”

The British seaside hasn’t enjoyed the most glorious reputation in recent years, often depicted as the forlorn or down-at-heel alternative to the glamour of the Mediterranean or Adriatic coasts. And while the brief Covid-related fashion for the “staycation” held sway for one or two summers, the desire to escape these islands has returned with a vengeance.

Nor has the case for domestic holidays been helped by the tendency of privatised water companies to dump quantities of raw sewage into the sea, leaving the UK near the bottom of the European league of clean beaches.

Global heating, sea pollution and the cancerous rays of the sun: summer doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as it used to be when the popular feelings about a heatwave could be neatly captured in the headline “Phwoar, what a scorcher!”

Viking Bay beach, Broadstairs.
Viking Bay beach, Broadstairs. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

“Come on!” protests Antonio Magno, surveying the waveless millpond-like sea and crowded sandy beach from the promenade above the cliffs of Viking Bay. “This is beautiful – it matches the beaches we have in Italy.”

His wife Maria, who is English, would prefer to be abroad, but she doesn’t have enough annual leave to travel. “I think it’s a bit dirty here,” she says.

They agree, however, on what they most like about the hot weather: “Ice-cream.” Outside Morelli’s ice-cream parlour, which prides itself on being the first place in the UK to serve more than 20 flavours, Derek Walker and Sybille Hulbert are readying themselves for a treat.

“I love the Colombian chocolate,” says Derek, down from London on a day trip. His plan is ice-cream and a swim. Sybille has a one-word answer to the question of what she most relishes about a heatwave – cocktails.

Perhaps it’s the fact that this heatwave has arrived at the end of a largely disappointing summer, just when everyone had been readying themselves for the consolations of autumnal melancholy, but there seems to be something lacking on this lazy, hazy summer afternoon. There is a discernible absence of English madness – that near-demented urge to take advantage of any sign of sunshine for fear that it isn’t going to last.

There are plenty of people making their way to the beach but they’re strolling, unhurried, dare one say relaxed.

It feels quite civilised, oddly restrained, as if the sun seekers have grown accustomed to this high-temperature business. So it’s reassuring to encounter Emer Lee and Pete Bagot.

They were supposed to go camping this weekend with his brother but they realised that would be sheerest folly on the hottest weekend of the year. They went to Brockwell Lido in south London on Tuesday because it was so hot, and booked a last-minute Airbnb while they were there.

“It’s the panic because it’s the end of summer,” Pete says.

The sea is coated in a fine film. It’s almost like being caressed by the seaweed

Richard Myers, beachgoer

Tony and Jill Cooper, as long-term residents of Broadstairs, are seasoned witnesses of that panic. “You see people who come straight down and lie on the beach, and they’re white as anything,” says Jill.

“And then they’re like lobsters by the end of the day,” says Tony.

They both emphasise the need to take care in the sun, an exhortation that was seldom heard back in the days when sunburn was worn as obligatory war wound, a badge of honour in the battle to gain a tan. Now the talk is of sunblock and factor 50, a recognition that “looking well”, as the tanned are routinely described, increasingly means “under threat of a terminal illness”.

“I love feeling the sun on my skin,” says Aude Vuilli, who is nonetheless well covered up with a hat.

She and her partner, Vish Kumar, are walking along the coast to Margate. Switzerland may have some impressive mountains and beautiful lakes but it doesn’t have any sea, even the opaque greyish kind that mostly surrounds this island.

Viewed through her more detached perspective, it’s possible to see a charming, heat-soaked scene, filled with blissed-out faces, that unmistakable look of city dwellers who have braved the traffic jams, stifling cars and crowded trains and made their way under a fierce sun to the reviving release of the sea.

And for one scorching September Saturday afternoon, the English seaside looks surprisingly cool.