Willoughby Spit: The Beach Where I Lived

I’ve been scouring my Pinterest feed for blog tips, as you do, and have come across so many great links for blog prompt posts. Thus far in my short blogging life I have gotten a few blog prompts from other bloggers, and it’s a great way to interact, but I also don’t want to cross the line into simply mining other blogs for content. So anyway I found this lovely blog The Sit Girls which has a blog prompt idea for every day of the year so far - there is an amazing amount of choice and it’s definitely going in my bookmarks bar.

Under their March suggestions, a few are already standing out, but the one that grabbed my eye was the one about a great memory of going to the beach. Which (fair warning!) got me on a bit of a ramble, because for me a "day at the beach" is kind of like...my whole childhood. This is completely a writing down the memoir bones type post, so if you're not interested you might want to look away now! :-)

I grew up in a place called Willoughby Spit, a seven mile long peninsula on the outskirts of Norfolk, Virginia. If you've ever driven through Virginia and used the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, you drove right past my house, as the highway to the entrance not far from the end of the peninsula runs right along the Spit. Willoughby Spit was a thin strip of land put there by a hurricane initially sometime around 1800 and slowly built up over the years by further storms. It subsequently eroded and was rebuilt again in more recent times. It almost felt like living on a separate island from the rest of Norfolk. It was mainly lower middle class families, most in the Navy. There really wasn’t much of anything to speak of on the Spit, we had a small marina on one side, a beach on the other with a couple of motels, a fishing pier, a 7 Eleven where we would trek for penny candy and Slurpees, an attached laundromat with a few arcade games, and of course, the beach. 

At the top of the strip, there was Ocean View:

Formerly a popular beach resort with an amusement park with several roller coasters, which burned down in the late fifties, it was rebuilt, faded into slight decay by all accounts (I don't remember as I was 3!), and gained decent local infamy by being the setting of a film called "Rollercoaster" starring George C. Scott and Henry Fonda in 1977. It was then closed but went out with a bang by being destroyed again (this time for merit of a t.v. movie: "The Death Of Ocean View Park"  in 1979). According to Wikipedia two attempts by the film crew to blow it up with dynamite failed, much to the delight of the local crowd who had gathered to watch, so the film director had to resort to a bulldozer and kerosene bomb. Eventually the giant old wooden coaster succumbed. I grew up with the modern Busch Gardens,Virginia roller coasters, but I did once ride the utterly terrifying Coney Island Cyclone, so I can only imagine the thrill that riding this massive wooden coaster entailed. The area afterwards had the slight feeling of glory days gone by, but there was a library and shopping area that were the main hub outside the Spit. I lived here from 1978-1989, so my recollections reflect that time period.

It was by no means a fancy place, but it felt like a safe community, at least that’s how I remember it. We kids spent most of the day playing outside (April to October is pretty universally warm to hot in Va.), my backyard had a mini forest of sorts (more like a smattering of trees but to us it felt immense), there was a small park at the end of the Spit and our street Little Bay Avenue was mostly full of kids riding bikes and lollygagging around. My elderly next door neighbour made slightly strange tasting cookies which we all ate in exchange for use of her amazing gnarly climbing tree. We would play all day and clamber from one house to the next, there was a group of six or seven girls in our gang at any given time that all lived in close proximity. We did not play with boys, we had rubber band fights with boys, they were evil!

Me on the far left with my gang (think this was my 8th b-day) Donna, Jeanne, Jaime, Tracy, Betsy and Andrea 7 my Grandaddy on the right

My Mom spinning small blindfolded children for fun (it's how we rolled in the 80's!). Do kids still play Pin the Tail on the Donkey?

Going through my photo albums I realize my Mom has most of our family pictures (naturally), I apologize for the lack of actual beach/outdoor shots! I will see if I can get her to scan a few for me. Here is a pretty pic of Willoughby Spit anyway, taken in more recent years.

The daytime smelt like salt air and honeysuckle and these fluffy pink flowers (apparently called a Silk Tree or Mimosa, though not the kind of Mimosa you get in some other places) in a tree outside my bedroom window.

Silk Tree/Mimosa pic care of pxhere.com

pic c/o pxhere.com

The nighttime in the summer was deafened by the insect orchestra of crickets and cicadas. There was no air conditioner in my house, so a fan in the window would gently drum the night air into my room. We slept without even a sheet most nights in the summer it was so hot, so eternally humid and sticky. On a good day we'd get to go to a pool, I remember various Moms working at the Day's Inn on the harbour which was more lax about letting random local urchins use the pool than the slightly sniffier Holiday Inn my Mom worked at (although I did get to pretend to be a grown up and drink Shirley Temples at the bar when it was quiet!).

This was in the eighties anyway, I think they have tried to glam the place up a bit in recent years with new build condos, but being a bay full of jellyfish in peak summer I’m not sure how they have dealt with it (at the Holiday Inn where my Mom worked the staff were instructed never to speak of the jellyfish, pity the ill-advised tourists wandering into the water clueless to their fate!).

Of course we local kids still risked it from time to time, with the inevitable stings and tears. Large red welts would appear sometimes a few minutes after you emerged from the sea, often the worst stings were the ones you didn’t feel as they were happening. The occasional spotting of a Man O’ War was cause for great excitement, and as we got older there was less swimming and more ill-advised attempts at tanning with Johnson’s Baby Oil. It wasn’t out of the ordinary for us to have a day off school because of a bad sunburn, in the 80’s fashionable neon zinc stripes across our faces were our only nod to sunscreen when left to our own pre-teen devices. 

With each hurricane season, our beach outpost would inevitably be advised to evacuate with many storms and hurricanes, flooding and other storm damage was not unusual. As we lived in a second floor apartment and were across the main road from the beach (there were two roads that ran parallel along the Spit, ours being the smaller) we usually didn’t bother to leave. I once made the local paper’s hurricane coverage (might have been for Gloria), posing dramatically in the waist deep water in front of my house like a proud beach rat. We weren’t scared of no hurricanes, no sir-ee! I know how easy it is for people who watch the news to sniff at locals who don't evacuate hurricane prone areas, but it's just a way of life for some people, and nine times out of ten things are ok (I am in no way advising on this, just stating my own experience of growing up in a constant hurricane target, and I know we were very lucky).

We’d go to the beach beforehand and watch the skies darken as the usually tiny Chesapeake Bay waves slowly became dramatically huge - it was all terribly exciting (we left before it became dangerous of course). Usually schools would be closed, the power might go out, there might be some scary windy moments.Then, in the aftermath, the shell seeker’s delight of treasures washed ashore, giant chunks of driftwood, starfish, sea glass, horseshoe crabs and big chunky conch seashells uncovered from the ocean’s floor felt like nature giving our little beach a present for all the unrest it had caused.

There were more glamorous beaches to be sure - we drove to Virginia Beach at the weekend to revel in the big waves and lack of jellyfish. Their boardwalk was full of tourist and surf/skate shops and was by far the hipper place to be especially as we became pre-teens, but often when I think about beaches, Willoughby Spit beach is still the one that comes to mind. I'm not going to pretend I enjoyed fishing off the local pier (it was smelly and the giant gaps in between the slots terrified me), or going out into the bay in some rickety little boat with my Dad and his friends (though I did once catch a baby shark!). I just wanted to be a girl and play with my friends, I really resented the weekends when I had to do yukky fishing stuff with my Dad and Granddaddy.

But generally speaking, spending so much time outdoors as a kid made me pretty happy, gave me a sense of freedom, and being lucky enough to have friends my age nearby was a blessing as I was an only child. I rarely see kids playing outside now, and it makes me sad. I try not to fall into “In the 80’s we survived this and that and we were just fine” thing too much, because I don’t have kids and I know it’s a different world now, but there is something to be said I think for just letting kids live life a tiny bit more footloose and fancy free where possible.

In the summers we would have pretty free reign, the only rule being to be home before dark, and even after dark many nights the play would extend into our front yards, catching lightning bugs as they call them in the south (fireflies everywhere else), holding them gently in your hands as they created a little miraculous lamp out of your skin. There was the Fourth of July, ill conceived homemade fireworks displays, fantastic flyover shows by The Blue Angels (they sometimes practiced over our 'hood as well), endless sleepovers and days of just plain fun with friends, so many positive memories that if I'm honest for a long time I didn't remember as well as the negative ones that led to my parents' final split.

As someone who has moved into the double digits now in my life, I do envy people who have a permanent sense of “home”, whose parents never move, who have a hometown. For me home is inevitably in some respects where my Mom is, and luckily she lives near some beautiful beaches now, so I’m hardly complaining! I don't know if living in a foreign country to the one I spent the first 25 years of my life in means I will never 100% feel at home here either. I think maybe I would feel that wherever I was, maybe it's just part of life, letting go of the first place we called "home". I’m not sure if I will see Willoughby Spit again, I don't have any friends or family remaining there, but I would like to, I think. Someday maybe a road trip is in order. I know you can “never go home again” but it’s worth remembering the places that formed us I think. For those of us who sometimes might forget where we came from, especially when we are so far from where we began, it helps even to just have a memory to call home.


  1. This was so beautifully written, you evoke the place so well I felt like I was there!

    1. Thank you so much for reading/wading through! I keep intending for blog prompts to make me less wordy...eek.;-0

  2. I lived just off the spit (Hammett Pkwy) from 1974 to 1977 and was a life guard at the old Ocean View Amusement Park. Fun times for sure. I went to Granby HS and graduated in 76.

    1. Slightly before my time but I am sure it was similar in a lot of ways (I just missed the amusement park!).