9 Best of British beaches

Lola Borg

There’s nothing wrong with miles of glorious sand—
and there’s lots of that in the UK. But there are also plenty of unusual seaside spots for those who want more than just the bucket-and-spade experience.

For the best arrival

Barra, Outer Hebrides, Scotland (Flights operate from Glasgow and other airports)

Arriving at Barra in the Outer Hebrides is about the most extraordinary landing you could hope for. The island’s runway is, in fact, Traigh Mhor Beach, a two-mile cockle strand on a tiny, thin peninsula at the top of the island. The plane, a Twin Otter, carries just 18 passengers, and flight times have to be flexible (as the airline’s website quaintly puts it, the runways “disappear with the tide”).

On windy days —and the Western Isles have a few of those—planes have to be tied to a pole. Just opposite is a perfect surfing beach popular with campers, but also good for seal spotting. Or visitors can pick and cook the freshest cockles they’ll ever eat (as long as they don’t stray onto the runway). All this on a tiny, unspoilt spit of an island just eight miles wide. What’s not to love?


For literary connections

Margate Sands, Kent 

Margate is an unlikely place for a literary shrine. But it was here in October 1922, in a plain beach shelter overlooking Margate Sands (pictured), that the most important poem in English of the 20th century was written. T S Eliot, then 33, came to Margate with wife Vivienne to recover from a nervous breakdown.

Each day, after taking a tram from his boarding house, he sat alone and composed his bleak elegy The Waste Land. The shelter is now a listed building.

Once a beach associated with every seaside cliché, “Merry Margate”, as it was known, has also been linked with other creative types, such as artist Tracey Emin (born here) and the painter J M W Turner. It fell into decline with the arrival of the cheap foreign holiday, but has recently had an artistic boost with the new Turner Contemporary Gallery, opened by Emin and built on the site of the seafront boarding house run by Turner’s lover. 


For the superfit

Clovelly Beach, Bideford, North Devon

A small, pebbly beach at the bottom of an asthma-inducing hill—nothing remarkable there. But Clovelly is a pretty village that grips onto the rocks of the north Devon coast and is probably so unspoilt because, unusually, the entire village is owned by one family and has been since 1738, when it was bought by a lawyer.

Also unusually, cars are banned—to get to the beach from the car park, visitors must schlep 400 feet down the cobbled main street and then later haul themselves up again.


for urban types

Southbank Beach, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London

It’s only a sliver of sand overlooking the Thames, but it means it’s possible for Londoners to be beside the sea-side in the centre of town. Inspired by the Paris Plage—the little bit of the Riviera that pops up alongside the Seine every summer, Southbank Beach is Britain’s first urban beach.

Proving popular with Londoners, it has all the trappings of the seaside: beach huts nearby (which contain art exhibitions), fish and chips, deckchairs, a funfair and celebrations to help mark the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain. There are also beachside pop-up parties at night.


For Atmosphere

Crosby Beach, near Sefton, Liverpool

Antony Gormley (extreme left) is the most famous sculptor in the UK today—just about everyone knows the Angel of the North—and he’s made a career out of casting his own wiry frame. At Crosby, just outside Liverpool city centre, you can view Another Place—100 cast-iron, full-size replicas of his body placed on the sand. All the eerie statues stare out to sea, echoing Liverpool’s history during the 18th and 19th centuries as a departure point for emigrants—it’s thought the figures represent the hope of a new life in “another place”. View at low tide to see the full bodies (some are half a mile out to sea), although it’s equally moving when they’re half-submerged by the water.


For Natural Beauty

Durdle Door, Near Lulworth Cove, Dorset

It’s the most famous spot on the Jurassic Coast, a slice of Dorset and East Devon that’s been designated England’s first “natural” world heritage site. Durdle Door might be familiar (it’s been used as a back-
drop for films such as Nanny McPhee and, yes, Cliff Richard videos), but it’s still extraordinary: 140 million years old and a natural archway of limestone eroded by the sea.


For Exhibitionists

Studland Beach and Nature Reserve, near Swanage, Dorset

With views of Old Harry’s Rocks and the Isle of Wight, Studland Beach and Nature Reserve is a glorious, four-mile strip of coast. Its dunes are crawling with wildlife and birds, but its biggest claim to fame is as Britain’s most popular naturist beach. If you want to let it all hang out, this is the slice of sand to head for. The nudey bit is the section known as Knoll Beach, popular with all ages. Dress is optional for those of a more conservative nature, and the National Trust patrol discreetly—no saucy goings-on are allowed.

The water is crystal clear and ice-cold, so it’s an exhilarating experience for swimmers—many come to “swim the door”. You can also watch as mad fools jump off the top (known as “tombstoning”) —it’s 95 feet, in case you’re thinking
of it. Not an accessible beach due to steep steps, the whole area is popular with walkers because it’s a stunning part of the coast.


For nostalgia

Steephill Cove, Ventnor, Isle of Wight

If you’re looking to step back in time to around the 1950s, then come on down. At Steephill Cove, you’ll find a refreshing absence of modern seaside trappings.

Accessible only by boat or by foot, this calm little cove is a well-kept secret—the prettiest spot on the Isle of Wight (those looking to recreate a childhood summer holiday will fall in love). Local family the Wheelers have fished here since anyone can remember—eat the freshest lobster, crabs and prawns alfresco at the Boathouse restaurant, or try a local crab pasty from the Crabshead.


for romance

The Mussenden Temple, Downhill Beach, Castlerock, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland

Teetering on the cliff top of Downhill Beach, a sandy stretch of the north-western coast of Northern Ireland, is a one-time library, the Mussenden Temple. This rotunda, built in 1785 and modelled on the temple of Vesta (goddess of the hearth) in Rome, has words from the poet Lucretius inscribed around the side —“Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore/The rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar.” 

A famous landmark and a popular spot for weddings, the temple was built by the flamboyant fourth Earl of Bristol, Bishop of Derry, as a monument to his married cousin Frideswide Mussenden, with whom he was said to be wildly in love. The cliff top has eroded, so the temple is now perilously close to the edge.