Carry on up the coast

Get your trip to the seaside in the bag with these storage tips

Going optimistically forward, I do believe this month will bring sun. And with sun always comes a trip to either park or beach. The former isn't so complicated: something to lie on, maybe a picnic. But with the latter, I've seen people pulling carts laden with stuff behind them. I laugh when I see a "beach bag" advertised and wonder just how many they expect you to buy. The only people I see on the beach with just one bag are those on their own who live close by.

Beach bags are a bit like baby-changing bags, and, indeed, pre-filled picnic hampers - they presuppose what you'll need and give you compartments accordingly. This is fine if you are that sample person the designer of the bag envisaged, but everyone else will just feel frustrated and thwarted by the inability to roll a giant towel sufficiently small to fit into the "designated towel holder". I am a fan of bags with compartments, up to a point, but for the beach what you need is one giant catch-all bag and then smaller bags that help you sort yourself out.

Two years ago, I found the perfect bag from Habitat and, wisely, I bought three. They were nylon, wipeable, colourful, beautiful and they had two sets of handles - one for hand-holding, one for shoulder-strapping. But, and here was the genius, the base was square and semi-rigid, yet still foldable. (Habitat does a similar style this year, called Leisure, for £5.60.) You could shove everything in without thought: food, swimsuit, towels. And when semi-full it stood open on its own, not like any floppy, useless cotton offering; and because it was brightly coloured inside and out, you could find things (people who design bags lined in black or dark colours really should be made to forage for things for ever). They are the only beach bags worth having.

If you need smaller bags, maybe to divide up other things, then there is no greater bag than the Onya ( These fold into themselves to be really tiny bags with clips, but fold out to be roomy, colourful, silk (washable) carrier bags: they even have buggy-loops. I have about ten Onya (the idea is that you always have one "on ya") bags and now they also come in a rucksack version - Onya Back. The rucksack is particularly good to have on hand to unfurl for children to carry home the stuff they accumulate during a day out (stones, feathers, and so on). Obviously a reused plastic bag is all you need for wet swimsuits.

As for picnics, if you don't want to use your Habitat bag, never be tempted to buy those pretty, fully featured picnic bags: they look great, but everything gets filthy when you try to press-stud dirty plates and cutlery back into place. Get a lovely, old-fashioned willow "Red Riding Hood"-style hamper instead: is the place to look.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games