June 15, 2024

Golden beaches and flaming sunsets: 10 picture-perfect places on the coast of the UK | Beach holidays

Mersea Island, Essex

The fortunes of this estuary island are linked to the tides

There’s something about having to check the tide times before you set off that gets you in the right frame of mind to visit Mersea. Connected to the Essex coastline by an ancient causeway, the fortunes of this estuary island are linked to the ebb and flow of the tides. They provide the perfect conditions for the oysters that have been cultivated here since Roman times but they can also be treacherous, as anyone who has made the mistake of driving across the Strood at high tide with seawater lapping at their wheels will testify.

For as long as I can remember my family’s summers have been punctuated by trips to Mersea, whether it’s an outing to eat vinegar-soaked cockles on a bench overlooking the estuary, or a September foray in search of the first Colchester native oysters of the season. But it’s not just the seafood that brings us back. It’s the sense of something shifting when you cross on to the island.

A pontoon, West Mersea.
West Mersea is the island’s main hub. Photograph: Eastern Views/Alamy

Life moves at a different pace here. Even in West Mersea, which is the hub of the island’s tourism activity, the attractions are delightfully low-key: crabbing off the jetty, watching sailing boats from the marina and strolling around the little tangle of fisherman’s cottages known as “the Old City”.

Down on West Mersea’s shingle beach, a row of beach huts cuts a bright swathe through the muted landscape of watery blues and browns. A handful have been kitted out in vintage style and can be rented by the day from the Little Beach Hut Company.

On summer weekends the West Mersea waterfront can get busy but it’s easy enough to escape the crowds. Our favourite spot for beachcombing is Cudmore Grove country park on the island’s eastern tip, where fossils and hippopotamus bones have been uncovered by coastal erosion and, if you’re lucky, you may spot a red squirrel.

East Mersea is also home to Mersea Island Vineyard, where you can pick up a bottle of white wine or oyster stout, and Seafood at Dawn, an unpretentious restaurant on a country road, serves up fresh seafood platters.

As the sun sets, the exodus back to the mainland begins. But if Mersea is beginning to work its magic on you, check into the White Hart, a newly renovated inn from the team behind the Sun Inn in Dedham, offering six jaunty guest rooms and an adventurous menu that runs the gamut from bone marrow custard tart to steamed mussels. And oysters of course. There will always be oysters.
Joanne O’Connor

Cliftonville and Margate, Kent

The ‘loveliest skies in Europe’ cliche really is justified

My earliest memories of Cliftonville are of being a toddler and having temper tantrums on the pavement along Northdown Road. Or so I’ve been reminded by my mother over the years. Back then, it was a key shopping stretch for anyone living, as my family did, in the suburban blur between Broadstairs and Margate.

Although we left the area long ago, we continued to visit every summer to wander the chalk cliffs and swim in its bays. The harbour arm is especially atmospheric at low tide, with boats marooned on hard sand, the whiff of seaweed in the air. And a true constant are the flaming sunsets: that well-worn cliche of the “loveliest skies in Europe” – attributed to Turner – really is justified.

But back in the bleak mid-00s, all talk was of the delayed new Turner Contemporary. The first palpable sense of change I can remember was the burning of Antony Gormley’s towering Waste Man in 2006, when cafes and pubs were rammed.

Looking towards the Turner Contemporary.
Looking towards the Turner Contemporary. Photograph: David Willis/Alamy

After the gamechanging gallery finally opened in 2011, I’d peer out of its first-floor windows at the sea in awe. Soon the Old Town began to reinvent itself, while up on Northdown Road, new businesses took over derelict units on a street that, since my childhood, had fallen on hard times.

Fast forward to 2023 and Margate is confidently in its stride, I’m always sure to check out new galleries such as Carl Freedman and head to now-classic restaurants like Sargasso, Dory’s or Bottega Caruso (tip: don’t miss the newer Fort Road Hotel’s double-height basement cocktail bar).

And yet it’s Cliftonville’s re-emergence – a century ago, Margate’s most fashionable quarter – that continues apace. Some of my favourite friendly neighbourhood openings include Good Egg, the taco joint Daisy and the chic wine bars Sète and The Streets. A rising LGBTQ+ community is adding to its distinctive identity and celebrated in venues like the Margate Arts Club, and the fun Camp Margate.

A Margate sunset.
A Margate sunset. Photograph: Stephen Emms

One problem that plagues the resort is accommodation. There still aren’t enough well-priced hotels for the volume of summer visitors, while Airbnbs can charge silly prices, especially around uber-popular Margate Pride. A new arrival, No 42 Guesthouse, usefully replaces the former Sands Hotel on the seafront this month (B&B from £180), while another option is George & Heart House (B&B from £115), a beautifully restored 18th-century building whose six artist-designed bedrooms reference Margate’s colourful past – while feeling utterly contemporary.
Stephen Emms

North Norfolk coast

I tramp along shingle past wetlands and yellow horned-poppies

The salt marsh is purple with sea lavender and alive with ringed plovers and oystercatchers. The Norfolk coast feels timeless, but these marshes were once sea, drained and farmed, now restored and full of wildlife. Two spoonbills fly overhead; another is probing a muddy fen nearby. I’ve never seen these rare birds before and suddenly they are everywhere. There are smaller birds, too, round the coconut-scented gorse bushes: pipits, soaring larks and ruddy-breasted linnets in a twittering flock.

Salt marsh between Morston and Blakeney.
Salt marsh between Morston and Blakeney. Photograph: Chris Herring/Alamy

Since we moved to Essex a decade ago, I’ve got the train to Norfolk dozens of times and grown to love its wild marshes and huge changeable skies. I’m here again for a couple of days to walk the coast path between Cromer railway station and Wells-next-the-Sea. The Coasthopper bus runs parallel to the 22-mile route with views across fields of poppies to the sea. The path climbs over flowering headlands and tramps along shingle, past yellow horned-poppies and wader-rich wetlands, until finally the brick tower and white sails of Cley windmill appear across reedbeds.

Next morning, mist streams from the warming sands and a wrecked wooden boat is melting into silvery purslane. Arriving in Wells, past winding creeks and quayside lobster pots, the afternoon is sweltering and the beach, with its cheerful huts on stilts, is another mile away along a shadeless bank. A new electric bus shuttles summer visitors back and forth and its air-conditioned seats are blissful. Two seals flollop on to the sand while I’m swimming. I walk on through dunes and pinewoods to Holkham’s Lookout cafe and eat wrapper-free real-fruit lollies while nesting swallows circle through the slatted wooden walls.

White spoonbill at Holkham, Norfolk
White spoonbill at Holkham, Norfolk. Photograph: Nature Picture Library/Alamy

The colourful Globe Inn (B&B doubles from £119), overlooking a chestnut-lined park in Wells, is a minute’s walk from the bus stop. Cheaper options include Deepdale Camping, farther west along the coast path. There are several great pubs such as the Dun Cow in Salthouse.

Previous trips involved chips on the pier and whole-crab sandwiches from Cafe Main in Cromer. I’ve climbed the viewing towers in Sheringham Park to look out over mauve, pink and crimson rhododendrons (free), taken boat trips from Morston to see the seals, and visited peaceful churches.
Phoebe Taplin

Barafundle Bay, Pembrokeshire

From the first swelling of pink light on the horizon it was magical

It started when we crossed the grassy headland and emerged above Barafundle Bay. It was shortly before dawn on Midsummer Day and we were about to scale some Pembrokeshire cliffs with the rock-climbing instructor Henry Castle. I had no idea what to expect, but from that moment on it was magical: from the first gentle swelling of pink light on the horizon to the last murmuration of starlings in the gloaming.

Barafundle is a popular beach on a good summer’s day. We were alone that morning, but in my experience the sands can be busy, although never packed. The half-mile walk does deter some. Swim out to the rock arches on the right for a bit of excitement, or swim left for Lort’s cave. If you’re strong, keep going all the way back to Stackpole Quay where there’s a good National Trust cafe and car park.

Sunrise over the beach at Barafundle Bay.
Sunrise over the beach at Barafundle Bay. Photograph: WL Davies/Getty Images/iStockphoto

That dawn we climbed out through a thicket of stunted gnarly trees and walked to Stackpole Head, arguably one of Britain’s most impressive headland cliffs. Beyond there we hitched ourselves to an abseil point and dropped down into deserted coves that are undermined by impressive sea-smoothed caverns, a lost world only accessed by climbers and kayakers.

Trefalen Farm has a campsite, which is the closest accommodation, but the National Trust also has some lovely cottages dotted around the hinterland, which includes Bosherston Ponds, a gorgeous tranquil freshwater lagoon best circumnavigated on the mile-long lily ponds trail. You may spot otters popping their heads up in the lilies: I’ve seen them several times in the distance, never close.

There is also a four-mile mountain bike trail that explores the nearby wooded valleys: great for springtime bluebells and a stop at Stackpole’s church with its medieval effigies and Crimean war memorial window.

Kayaking around the headlands is a great way of exploring an inaccessible coast.
Kayaking around the headlands is a great way of exploring an inaccessible coast. Photograph: Stephen Jones/Alamy

The vast estate was once part of the lands of a Scottish clan chief, the Thane of Cawdor, after a 17th-century Pembrokeshire heiress married into the family. They dammed the narrow valleys and created the lily ponds, but abandoned the place as uneconomic after the second world war. The house was then demolished.

Farther west along the coastal path, the land is part of the Castlemartin firing range for the Ministry of Defence, but when the range is not in use, you can reach St Govan’s Head with its little chapel built into the cliff face. The onward walk to the Green Bridge of Wales and Bullslaughter Bay is also well worth doing if it’s open. There’s lots of good, adventurous swimming available.

For Henry and I on that Midsummer Day, we climbed out of our lost world, leaving the rising tide behind and strolled back under those inexplicable miracles, the swirling clouds of starlings.
Kevin Rushby

Porthkerris, Lizard peninsula, Cornwall

The waters here are still and clear, perfect for learning to dive

I have at least 50 favourite beaches around the Cornish coast, for surfing and sailing, shell collecting and beachcombing, creeks and sheltered spots in which to swim and canoe. But among these, I am particularly fond of Porthkerris on Cornwall’s Lizard peninsula, where I learned a whole new appreciation of the sea.

Porthkerris is a well-known mecca for scuba divers, though it is also a leading centre for freediving, the art of diving into the deep on a single breath. When I signed up for the two-day beginners’ freediving course, run by a national champion, Georgina Miller, I had never dived before. The idea of turning head-down and swimming into the depths made me more than a little nervous, though from the moment I arrived, Georgina’s calm, enthusiastic manner was infectious.

Free-diving in Porthkerris.
Free-diving in Porthkerris. Photograph: Daan Verhoeven

After a morning of theory and safety briefings in the open-air beach classroom, we practised breath-holds on the beach before donning two-piece wetsuits, snorkels, masks and metre-long fins to practise diving offshore.

It is a difficult experience to put into words, though many divers describe freediving as feeling more like flying than swimming, a deeply meditative, almost spiritual experience, and a unique way of experiencing the sea. I was hooked from my first dive, even if it took me a few attempts to get the hang of it.

With its secluded position on the Lizard, tucked out of the prevailing winds, the waters of Porthkerrishere are often still and clear, perfect for learning to dive. While the world champions of the sport reach depths of more than 130 metres, the deepest waters in which you will learn at Porthkerris beach are a more realistic 18 metres, and for more experienced divers, charter boats from the beach also run trips to the Manacles reef for wreck and reef diving. What made the experience for me, though, was learning a skill I could take to other parts of the coast, diving with seals and dolphins, through kelp forests and jellyfish blooms.

Kynance Cove on the Lizard.
Kynance Cove on the Lizard. Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy

A two-day SSI-accredited Level 1 freediving course with Aquacity, including equipment hire, costs £345. The only requirements are that you are over 15, in good health and a confident swimmer. Accommodation at Porthkerris ranges from camping in a field with glorious views over Falmouth Bay and the Manacles (£15 per person, per night), self-catering apartments (from £70 a night based on two sharing) and a log cabin (£260 a night for eight sharing). Fat Apples Cafe, a short walk away, offers homemade burgers and frittatas, which are welcome after a long day exploring the depths.
Wyl Menmuir, author of The Draw of the Sea

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Silverdale, Lancashire

It’s just great to enjoy the seaside without the crowds

The sun is shining and the tide retreating, revealing miles of golden sand beyond the pebble beach. I wind my way down a narrow path between butterfly peppered blackberry bushes to the shore. Here, I remove my shoes and socks and find a rockpool where I paddle in the cool water. To the north, trees edge the cove, their roots wriggling through the eroded limestone rocks; to the west a flock of oystercatchers dig for cockles; and above my head a marsh harrier passes by. Today I have walked through native woodlands and wildflower meadows, seen herons in their salt marsh home and climbed the coast path to enjoy panoramic views across Morecambe Bay.

The Pepperpot monument near Eaves Wood overlooking Silverdale.
The Pepperpot monument near Eaves Wood overlooking Silverdale. Photograph: Jon Sparks/Alamy

Bar a few cyclists whizzing by and the odd dog walker, I have barely seen another soul on my trek through the nature reserves that surround the small village of Silverdale, tucked away where the foothills of the Lakeland fells meet the Lancashire limestone coastline.

Sitting in the heart of the Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this really is an extraordinary spot to experience the British coast as nature intended. I love a bit of English Riviera and fancy fine dining as much as the next person, but on some summer days it’s just great to enjoy the seaside without the crowds. After my walk I leave the beach and head to the Blossom Bird coffee shop. Here, I find a seat in their pretty little courtyard and order homemade scones with tea, while others around me enjoy minted lamb pies and thick slices of carrot cake.

The intertidal sandflats and mudflats of Morecambe Bay at Silverdale Bay, Carnforth.
The intertidal sandflats and mudflats of Morecambe Bay at Silverdale Bay, Carnforth. Photograph: Paul Deaville/Alamy

As well as wildlife, the local area is rich in history and heritage, and hosts the ruins of a medieval tower and stone cairns, as well as being renowned in metal detecting circles for the Silverdale Hoard, one of the largest collections of Viking silver ever found in the UK. You can stay at the friendly, family-run Silverdale Hotel from as little as £105 a night B&B, even in the height of summer, and enjoy their home-cooked fish pie or local game after watching the sunsets from the beach a couple of minutes away.
Alex Fisher

Portaferry, County Down

I sit outside an agreeable pub on the quayside with a pint of Guinness

As far as seaside activities go, for me nothing beats hanging around on a quayside waiting for a ferry. It is a few moments of anticipation embellished with the smallest tinge of adventure, the experience boosted by a bacon sandwich bought from a convenient food van. My favourite ferry shuttles across the Narrows between Strangford and Portaferry on the tip of the Ards Peninsula in County Down, where the powerful current of the Irish Sea rushes into Strangford Lough.

Much of the pleasure of this trip is rolling off the boat at Portaferry, a town centred on its quayside but a place to linger in and around. At the market, held on the first Saturday of the month, you can stock up on local cheeses, decent bread and potted shrimps for a packed lunch.

Surf on the Ards peninsula.
Surf on the Ards peninsula. Photograph: Alain Le Garsmeur Northern Ireland/Alamy

A short drive takes you to Kearney Village, 19th-century whitewashed cottages restored by the National Trust, and once home to 33 families including the legendary Mary Ann Doonan, who captained the She-cruiser, a fishing boat crewed entirely by women.

The packed lunch is eaten on the sandy beach at Knockinelder, a short walk away and a safe, if bracing, place to swim. Further along the coast, and another recommended picnic spot, is Ballyquintin nature reserve, a coastal grassland peppered with wildflowers.

My nose always twitches when I see a sign pointing to a well, and St Cooey’s Well, two miles east of Portaferry, doesn’t disappoint. Its various springs gives it a reputation as a place of healing, and it is still a popular destination for Catholic pilgrims as the “clootie” rags (scraps of cloth) hanging from hawthorn bushes attest. The springs offer different beneficial properties and the words “drink”, “wash” and “eyes” are engraved on a slate above each. A path leads through reed beds to the ragged shore where hollows in a slab of rock mark where St Cooey was said to pray.

Strangford Ferry crossing Strangford Lough.
Strangford Ferry crossing Strangford Lough. Photograph: David Hunter/Alamy

Then it’s back to Portaferry to sit outside an agreeable pub on the quayside with a pint of Guinness to watch the ferry come and go and study the timetable for the return journey across the churning Narrows.

Barr Hall Barns, converted farm buildings on the shore of Strangford Lough, has a range of accommodation from £250 for two nights for three people, and the Salthouse Restaurant majors on seafood. Grab a table by the window for views of the Narrows, Portaferry marina and the occasional dolphin.
Clare Gogerty, author of The National Trust Book of the Coast, and Sacred Places: Where to Find Wonder in the World

St Agnes, Isles of Scilly

After a week of roaming, the kids will know every beach and promontory

I usually rail against naming favourites. How can I possibly choose my favourite bird, flower, mountain, writer or performer? But favourite seaside destination? That’s easy.

I was 11 the first time I set foot on the white sand bar that links St Agnes with its tiny neighbour Gugh (pronounced “Goo”) at low tide; the first time I saw sunlight glittering off grains of quartz, shell and mica through water so clear it dazzled, and so cold it took my breath away; the first time I filled my pockets with multicoloured periwinkle shells, lost myself in miraculous rockpools, watched fish, seals and seabirds at close range and met other birds so tame they’d sit on my hand. The Isles of Scilly have had my heart ever since, and as my interest in natural history grew, they have kept several steps ahead – they feel very much “overseas”, with a flora and fauna to delight, bewilder and humble far more seasoned naturalists than me.

The Turks Head on St Agnes, Isles Of Scilly.
The Turks Head on St Agnes, Isles Of Scilly. Photograph: Design Pics Inc/Alamy

Getting to Scilly requires a ferry crossing from Penzance to the larger island of St Mary’s, from where small launches shuttle back and forth to the other islands. Bryher and St Agnes have wonderful “wilder” campsites. The former shelters in the island’s narrow interior, while Troytown Farm on St Agnes is a genuine outpost. At times campers may have to weather the full force of Atlantic storms but the payoff is the most glorious of sunsets.

This is one the best places I know to see the rare optical phenomenon called “the green flash”, as the sun dips below the horizon. It’s also home to the best ice-cream I’ve ever eaten, courtesy of the island’s Jersey cows.

Swimming on St Agnes.
Swimming on St Agnes. Photograph: Stephen Bond/Alamy

I’ve been back many times, brought friends and family, who never fail to fall under its spell. It’s a wonderfully freeing place for children – small enough that after a week of roaming they can know every beach and promontory, every rocky castellation and hammock of salvaged fishing net, every roadside stall selling vegetables and handmade knick-knacks.

The “roads” are narrow tracks and traffic is almost nonexistent. The place to eat and drink is the Turks Head by the quay, mere steps from the sea. Be prepared to share your crumbs with the hand-tame house sparrows.
Amy-Jane Beer

Seahouses, Northumberland

The beaches are enormous, golden and energising

The simplicity of a holiday in Seahouses begins with the name; head away from the houses and toward the sea. You now have a choice of splendid beach walks: turn left in the direction of Bamburgh Castle or right for Beadnell Bay and Dunstanburgh Castle beyond. Sand, castles, sea – Northumberland’s holy trinity.

I first came to this area as a child. The dunes seemed so big I thought I’d never see my parents again. Now, a parent myself, the beaches seem no less impressive. They are enormous, golden and energising, so that every step seems to put strength in your legs and you feel you could keep walkingwalk for ever; past the castle, past Holy Island and on into Scotland. Easier, though, to go back to Seahouses for the local delicacy – a hot kipper on a bun from Swallow Fish.

Coastal walks and kippers at Seahouses.
Coastal walks and kippers are the thing at Seahouses. Photograph: eye35/Alamy

We stayed at the Old Badger Inn when last in Seahouses (seven nights from £827, sleeps four), a lovely cottage just a stroll from the harbour with its bright fishing boats. The tourist cruises leave from there and once on a trip to Inner Farne my friend Brian was pecked so badly by an arctic tern that it drew blood from his scalp. Rather put off by this, we now take the boat to Longstone and go up the lighthouse.

There are usually a few lolling seals, full of indolent curiosity, and many puffins whirring about, beaks stuffed with sand eels. You can look out of the window from which, in 1838, Grace Darling, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, saw the shipwrecked Forfarshire on the rocks and aided in the rescue of the survivors.

Beadnell Bay.
Beadnell Bay. Photograph: 2ebill/Alamy

Her grave is in the churchyard of St Aidan’s, Bamburgh, which is so picturesque it is forever being proclaimed Britain’s best seaside town. But I reckon Seahouses is a better base because it’s so well placed for walks up and down the coast. Staying put is fun, too. Our boys spent ages exploring the rocks below the caravan site that lead out to the odd little stone hut known as the Gunpowder House and were excited to spot a pod of porpoise arcing through the waves.

I am just as happy enjoying a more common Seahouses sight – the swallows that build mud nests in the eaves of seafront homes and then zip back and forth, tiny stunt pilots, catching bugs on the wing and taking them to their chicks. Such things are food for the soul.
Peter Ross, author of Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church

Melvich, Sutherland

The whole sweep of the bay came into view, and was blissfully empty

I’d slowly wound my way through the heart of the bog-laden Flow Country in northern Scotland to reach Melvich, and so by the time a glimmer of blue sea appeared on the horizon it felt like a mirage. The beach itself is hidden from view as the north-coast road swerves around it; it was only when I checked into my room at the laid-back Melvich Hotel (doubles from £80 a night) that I saw anything of it – dusky orange sand caught between two green headlands.

Have the place almost to yourself at Melvich.
Have the place almost to yourself at Melvich. Photograph: Mark Ferguson/Alamy

Over dinner at the hotel (and what I’d stake my reputation on being the best pizza on the north coast), I watched the colour of the bay shift with the sky – from gunmetal grey beneath the clouds to a cool turquoise when they disappeared.

I’d first come here one March, slipping inelegantly down the steep, grass-covered sand dunes while surfers struggled uphill with their boards – a sight I’d not expected in these far northern reaches of mainland Britain. On this evening in June, however, I met no one else except for a handful of campervanners finishing up their dinners in the car park, and so there was no one to witness as I swore loudly when the whole sweep of the bay came into view, totally and blissfully empty. I walked the shoreline for an hour, playing tag with the incoming tide that varied between lapping gently at my feet and rolling, soft-mint-coloured waves exposing steeply shelving sand and soaked my rolled-up jeans.

Portskerra. Photograph: ESPY Photography/Alamy

Melvich itself is a small village of low, sea-facing houses; with just one other coffee shop and restaurant in addition to the hotel, tourism seems more of a byproduct than a focus. This means that for those of us that like to linger, it feels like ours to explore: by surf- or paddleboard with North Coast Watersports; along steep cliffside paths to watch puffins zooming overhead at nearby Wester Clett; or the simple, childlike pleasure of rolling down dunes and jumping waves.

On my last morning, I walked the craggy headland of Portskerra, where a couple of hardier souls were swimming in the clear waters below me, before picking my way along the rocks back towards the beach. The sand, its whole slow curve on show in front of me, glowed golden in the morning sun, and a few wet-suited surfers were already making their way out of the water. I sat and watched them until the beach was empty again, and then returned to claim it as my own.
Emma Gibbs

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