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Salty towers;The Big Picture

(Photograph) - It's a long way from the bucket and spade of a British holiday. This palace, built in 1984 in San Diego, California, is still a sand sculpture, still likely to vanish into thin air, fall apart under a drying wind, or be smashed by gales and winter tides. Sand, ferociously dug all summer for moats, castles, to bury parents' feet and to hide secret crabs, is the stuff that dreams are made on, the stuff which rolls under your toes, grits up the sandwiches and provides the best surface in the world for running into the wind. Sand, the beach, is holiday, dreamtime.

Nowadays, entrants to the US Open Sand Castle Contest at Imperial Beach, San Diego, take sand even more seriously as a practical medium in which to work. The World Sand Sculpting Association, which organises the competition, aims "to assure that the art of sand sculpting not only remains alive, but reaches new heights of creativity and recognition as a legitimate art form". WSSA members go all over the world to Russia, Japan, Holland and Mexico to compete in building vast and intricate sand-carved structures which last for a day, a week, or even a month.

Sand castles are rising to ever-greater heights. In 1997, the record-breaking Lost City of Atlantis rose from the San Diego sands. Teams from 18 countries took four weeks to build the biggest and tallest (18.5-metre) sand castle ever. One hundred and fourteen million litres of water were used to shape billions of specks of silica (the chemical name for sand) into dolphins, sea gods and sea monsters. The ensuing party lasted for weeks.

Whether it's 250,000 people at the San Diego Sand Party or two giggling children digging their moat against the tide you can, as William Blake wrote, see a world in a grain of sand. Photograph: James StanfieldImages.

Victoria Neumark


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