Jimmy Akingbola: 'That coast is where I fell in love with beaches'

The pier at Paignton stretches out into the sea
The pier at Paignton stretches out into the sea Credit: istock

I’m a working-class boy from east London, born in Plaistow and “made in Newham”, something I’m very proud of. I grew up surrounded by estates and tower blocks.

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户My first experience of the coast as a child was the muddy beach of Canvey Island [in Essex] where we went on family trips and where the tide always seemed to be out. That’s when I discovered amusement arcades – I’d spend all day holed up in them playing Space Invaders until my money ran out. 

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户So when Mum and Dad told me one year that we were going on holiday to Devon, I sulked for days. I was eight years old and all I was interested in was going back to the amusement arcades. I was still moping when we arrived at this huge ground-floor flat in Paignton where the light streamed in under beams on the ceiling. There was a real olde-worlde cottage feel, like nothing I’d ever seen. 

Then I glimpsed this vast, golden sandy beach that stretched for miles and I stopped sulking – in that moment everything changed. It was a revelation and just how I imagined heaven to be. To me and my older brothers and sister, it was like something out of the glossy pages of a holiday brochure, advertising some exotic destination abroad.

That summer in Devon opened a window to an England that I never knew existed and, to an east London kid, it was like time-travelling into another world. I still remember setting foot on Hollicombe beach, in between Paignton and Torquay. Stepping on to that carpet of red, endless sand just took my breath away.

I can still feel the freshness in the air that hit me and, for the first time, the sensation of just breathing felt wonderful. There was a taste I’d never experienced before too, a saltiness on my tongue like I was underwater inside a giant seashell. It was magical when I put a shell to my ear and discovered the whoosh of the sea. Even the fish and chips tasted different; fresher than those I’d ever eaten back home from the chip shop on Barking Road. 

'When I travel now, I stay away from the city and always go for the beaches' Credit: istock

For the first time, too, I noticed the difference in the light. It was so bright it just made the blue of the sky and the white of the sand even more vivid. I remember feeling this overwhelming sense of happiness: I never dreamt that there was life like this outside of east London. I can still feel the silky, soft texture of the sand between my toes and seeing the buildings bathed in searing blue light compared with the greyness of everything back home.

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户But, for all the holiday’s magical aspects, it was also the scene of one of my most embarrassing childhood memories. One day when we were playing on one of the beautiful beaches, my two older brothers spotted these two gorgeous girls in the distance, and so they immediately dispatched me to get their phone numbers. They thought they stood a chance if they sent their cute little brother to charm them. I did as I was told and, after talking at the girls for ages… they just stared… one of them talked back at me – in French! I was horrified and went sulking back up the beach. 

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户Even one really frightening event couldn’t spoil the memories. There was another day when I was on the beach and my family was quite a way ahead of me. A gang of boys started shouting vile racial abuse at me and, as I got closer to this gang, I saw the flash of a knife. I just ran like lightning towards my family. I only told my mum what had happened a few years ago and she was devastated. 

More than 30 years on, though, that holiday is still so significant; it still makes me smile. Recently when I was filming Kate & Koji in Herne Bay with Brenda Blethyn, I had a nostalgic flashback to those days, and I told my mum the memories it had brought flooding back, how it was such a seminal experience for me. It’s where I fell in love with beaches and the sun and the stillness and the peace of mind that they bring me. That holiday made me feel like there were so many possibilities in life.

2020欧洲杯体育投注开户My time in Paignton has really impacted every holiday I have taken since. When I travel now, I stay away from the city and always go for the beaches. I’ve been to exotic beaches all over the world and the feeling I get always takes me back to Devon and the wonderful feeling of true freedom away from the high rises and concrete. 

As told to Ruth Huntman 

Jimmy Akingbola stars in the third series of In The Long Run beginning on July 22 on Sky One