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Massachusetts Fish Fest

Labour Day weekend in the US and Crane Beach, an hour or so north of Boston, is crowded with families and teenage groups enjoying the warm sunshine of the public holiday that officially marks the end of America's summer. It's part of a regular ritual when we come to stay with relatives here. First we cross a boardwalk from the car park, over the fragile dunes. This time something new: little nesting boxes, shaped like amphorae, have been perched on a pole for the purple martins, whose numbers here have diminished. It prompts the thought that while we have flown from Heathrow in less than seven hours, these gorgeously plumaged members of the swallow family travel annually from Brazil to join the dainty piping plovers that skitter here by the Atlantic's dying ripples.

We walk or just chill on the vast shining sands, where shameless herring gulls will snafffle your pinic if you turn your back for an instant (Beware: we once watched two young women deposit their backpacks close to where we sat. No sooner had they left for a stroll than a gang of those voracious gulls pulled out their sandwiches and gulped them down. No matter how hard we tried, we were unable to keep them at bay).

In late afternoon we head for a fish fest at one of our favourite restaurants, Woodman's Eat in the Rough in nearby Essex, just one of many Massachusetts place names originating from England. The restaurant, which has been serving mountains of seafood since 1914, is an institution. Forbes Magazine opined that it served the best seafood in America. Its founder, Lawrence "Chubby Woodman", is reputed to have invented the fried clam. The restaurant is much the same as ever, even if the prices appear to have climbed a little (and a recent customer complained no draught beer was on offer – only bottles). We queue for maybe a half hour to get in. It's usually like this on busy weekends. People come straight from the beach in T-shirts and flip flops, though with bikinis and swimming shorts usually covered. Still with sand between their toes they are entertained as they wait with tinny 1950s hits, played over speakers. We order sweet clams, dug from the mud flats outside, share combination dishes incorporating them with fat scallops, haddock and shrimp, all fried in a light coating of corn meal, and slake our salt air thirsts with Sam Adams beers in plastic cups. The food comes in lidless cardboard boxes. It's a wonderfully democratic institution. The young, old, wealthy and those of modest means all mess down and dip their "steamers" (steamed clams served in their shells) first in water to rinse off any sand, then in melted butter. Some order lobster from the counter outside by the road. Unable to eat another mouthful, we drive home as the twilight sky catches fire, full of seafood and contentment.

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