Raffaella Barker, Stiffkey Beach, Norfolk coast
Raffaella Barker has got mud in her hair. Big fat globs, perched like the beginnings of a bird's nest. She's stripped down to her bra and knickers and is standing in the middle of a muddy creek, looking like a tribal warrior. Balls of mud are flying past, missing her by a hair's breadth. And then whack! In the back of her head. 'I'm feeling menaced!' she shouts. 'That's not fair. Who's on my side?' Her 13-year-old son Lorne shows no mercy. He and his friend Jack, 14, who has smeared black mud all over his face, are a team. Her other son, Roman, 15, who is standing with a towel wrapped round his shoulders, and their friend Oscar, 12, are the enemy. And Raffaella is caught in the line of fire, in the middle of a mud fight.
It was supposed to be a picnic followed by mud-sliding, which apparently involves building a smooth slide on a muddy bank, and is something of a family tradition. The picnic, consisting of sausage rolls, doughnuts and Jaffa cakes from the local bakery, was devoured before we even left the house. Four older boys - friends of Jack's - stopped by the house on a cycle ride, and for a few moments the kitchen was like a canteen from a boys' school. 'I love having boys,' says Raffaella. 'They just don't give a monkey's.'
Esme, the youngest of her three children, stoically puts up with the high boy count, although she would probably rather be doing something a little more sedate, like having a tea party with her toys. 'Esme and her friends would prefer to go to Overstrand, where there is a cafe at the top and a really sandy beach. She might make mermaid mosaics out of shells and sinister beds for her dolls that look like graves.' Today, she doesn't get involved in the mud fight and wisely refuses to go for a swim. It's a chilly day in June. There are dark clouds and rain's threatening, but there's the odd chink of blue sky. 'It's not that sunny,' admits Raffaella. 'We're just tough.' Esme, who will celebrate her seventh birthday the following day, would rather sit and guard the towels and clothes, shivering slightly, until finally demanding to wear her mother's stripy cashmere jumper, which is so big the arms dangle down by her ankles. The two dogs, Decca and Shakti, pace up and down, keeping a watchful eye, like respectable grandparents.
It could be a scene from one of Barker's books, all of which are based in Norfolk, where she lives. In August, her first book for teenagers is published - Phosphorescence. It will make essential summer reading, set on an imaginary version of the north Norfolk coast. It is all familiar territory. She knows this coast like a sandfly. It is close to where she grew up, in Itteringham, with her parents, the poet George Barker and Elspeth, a novelist. 'We used to come out here as kids, trailing behind my mother. I look at these creeks now and wonder: how did we get across? All those memories are here now. Stiffkey is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been.' It's one of her favourite beaches, in a list which includes stretches of coastline in Kerala and South Africa. 'What I really like about living by the sea is just going for an hour or two. English beaches are great if you've got children. I suppose I've recreated a version of my childhood for my own children. The bits of coast we went to are all along here - Morston, Blakeney, Wells, Holkham. I always loved the marshes. It changes. Some years I like Cley - it's a shingle beach with a deep shelf and it's deep enough to swim. There's nothing else to do there. The sea's quite deep. I like anywhere where there's phosphorescence.' As a child, she remembers going swimming at Cley in the moonlight and seeing the glow of the phosphorescence in the water. 'You get it in August. You have to go at night. It's magical.' As well as inspiring her children's books, she's quite evangelical about it. 'I take any children I can persuade to do it,' she says.
During the summer holidays, it is difficult to see when Raffaella finds the time to write. It is open house for her children and their friends, and there will be endless trips to the sea in a beaten-up Range Rover that has been cobbled together out of bits and pieces, and which seems to make a habit of getting stuck in the sand. 'There's always lots of children and I really like that,' she says. 'If I want to have a nice time with them, I do what they do.' She has recently become the proud owner of a speed boat (it was once used in a James Bond film) and there will be water surfing and lots of messing about in boats. 'It's not very English seaside,' she admits.
The family has rented a hut on a sandy spit where they will live with the local seals for a week or so (or for as long as they can rough it) in the wilds. 'It's completely primitive. Really rough and ready.' When they were there last summer they were caught by the tide and had to be rescued by the coastguards. It wasn't the first time. Once while swimming at Overstrand with Lorne, Raffaella found herself fighting against the tide. 'We were no distance out, but we just couldn't get back. We were getting more and more tired. The tide was going out.' Eventually, they managed to touch their toes on the ground. 'You have to take the sea seriously. But I've always encouraged the children to climb trees and test themselves a bit. If you're brave, you can do more than you think you can. The children know the tide comes in and they respect it.'
On the distant horizon, the waves are beginning to roll in over the flat marshes and the water in the creek is starting to rise. It's time to pack up and navigate our way back over the sunbaked mud, jumping over creeks and slipping over every now and again. Oscar keeps getting stuck. There's lots of talk of sinking sand. Esme skips along, her mother's Marni jumper dragging in the mud. The boys are already back in the Range Roger; Raffaella's hair is still muddy ('I will never get it out of my hair. I'll look like a horrible cavewoman!') and the dogs smell of old seal from where they have been rolling around. The wind is getting colder and the sky is now several shades of grey. As Raffaella climbs back into the driver's seat, scraping the thick, clammy mud from her feet, she is just as exhilarated as the boys. Only in England, but it's been another perfect day by the sea.