With over 5000 miles of coastline on mainline Britain alone, it’s no wonder the nation has an almost endless array of watery destinations to explore. Here’s twelve spectacular spots that are very much worth a detour.
Going coastal: 12 of Britain's best seaside spots
The North Norfolk coast
The North Norfolk Coastal Path allows you to explore an unusual semi-watery landscape, and to access some of the quirkiest settlements in the country. At Wells next-the-Sea, the dinky narrow-gauge Wells Harbour Railway chugs back and forwards between the lively, rackety town and the shore every fifteen minutes in high season.
Next stop is the village of Stiffkey, a gorgeous little place with red-brick and flint houses, narrow streets, antique shops and the Red Lion, which serves Norfolk ales and seafood. Perhaps the high point of the route is the resort town of Blakeney, with its bobbing dinghies, canoes, and riotously competitive crab-catching contests. Take time off from the walk for a boat trip to view the common and grey seals. Just to the east, near Cley-next-the-Sea, you’ll find excellent tearooms at Wiveton Hall, housed in a brightly painted wooden building with outdoor seating and PYO raspberries and strawberries in season. The end point of the walk, Cromer is a Victorian resort town with all the requisite attractions: a sandy beach, a pier, fish and chip shops and a carnival held in August.
See www.nationaltrail.co.uk/peddarsway for further details.
Tintagel: landscape of legends
Looking down from top of Tintagel Castle staircase onto the beach in Cornwall © Roman Fox/Shutterstock
The very name Tintagel is steeped in myth. Just about anywhere west of Wiltshire claims a connection with the legend of King Arthur, but since Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) most Brits believe that it was in the island stronghold of Tintagel that the legendary sixth-century king was conceived. Excavations had already unearthed evidence of a powerful contemporary Celtic court here when, in 1998, archeologists discovered a tablet bearing the name “Artognou”.
Clinging to a cliff above a sandy bay, the toothy remains of today’s fort date from the thirteenth century. Catch it on a quiet day – or better still when an Atlantic gale lashes Barras Nose headland beyond the battlements – and it is impossibly evocative. The long-distance South West Coast Path tracks the shoreline above a fabulously fractured coastline. How far you follow it is up to you.
Tintagel Castle (www.english-heritage.org.uk) is open daily year-round.
The Fife Coastal Path
The coast of Fife, on a good day, is one of Britain’s most postcard-perfect peripheries. And as an official way-marked route, spanning 65 miles from the Forth to Tay bridges, it’s often thronged by day-packed ramblers.
On a cloudless late-autumn afternoon, however, you might just have it to yourself: suspended between sun-fired wheat stubble and a cobalt North Sea, it’s a dreamscape of Scotland at its most benign. This is the polar opposite of the country’s wilder stereotypes; the rolling geometry of a heavily farmed plain bound by successive swathes of Blue Flag beach, cliffs and golf courses is akin to a more rugged East Anglia, an impression compounded by the unlikely vision of an eighteenth-century windmill near the village of St Monans, a relic of a time when coal-fired pans evaporated sea water to produce salt.
The traditional, unfailingly picturesque fishing villages of Pittenween, Anstruther and Crail, have famously become a magnet for artists and musicians, inspired, perhaps, by the same boundless horizons as the ramblers, and braced by the same edge-of-Europe air that makes this coast so endlessly alluring.
See www.fifecoastalpath.co.uk for more.
The seaside in Southwold
Ranks of jolly beach huts, golden sands split by wooden groynes, a slender pier reaching into the sea… the little town of Southwold on the Suffolk coast has all the traditional British seaside enticements, plus a dash of vintage chic that’s all its own.
Tilly’s on the High Street is a temple to the English high tea, with staff in fetching 1920s maid’s outfits serving lovely “layered teas” – tall tiers of scones, cucumber sandwiches and cakes. As well as kite-flying, fish and chip eating and very bracing North Sea swimming, Southwold is a great place for drinking: Adnams ales have their brewery in the town centre, and you can sample their renowned regular and seasonal ales at the cosy Swan or the Crown hotel pubs on the High Street.
Strolling the prom and the pier, whose uniquely inventive Under the Pier Show is not to be missed, provide good antidotes to high teas and beer, but there are scenic walks in all directions – not least around the town’s backstreets and green spaces. Longer walks crisscross the unspoilt surroundings, including a three-hour route south across the River Blythe (via a little ferry) into the ancient village of Walberswick, where you can have a restorative pint at the 600-year-old Bell Inn.
Guernsey’s hidden coves
Guernsey lives up to its reputation as a sleepy place of soft-eyed cows, warm scones, ripe tomatoes and rambling country lanes. But it does have a wild side, too.
South of St Peter Port, the coast of St Martin is edged by steep cliffs of ancient, granite-like gneiss, crinkled by time. Farmland and woodland flows down to the clifftops, to be met by a wilderness laced with more than 28 miles of glorious paths. The views are of lush coastal greenery and cornflower-blue sea; head out to the points – Icart or Jerbourg – to enjoy the full drama. Protected from development since the 1920s, this entire coast is a rambler’s paradise to match the very best corners of Sussex, Dorset, Devon or Pembrokeshire.
Pick your way down one of the steep, rocky descents, and you’ll find yourself on a perfect little scrap of beach, its pale sand washed clean by the sparkling tide. There’s a string of these beauties, from those shown on the map – Petit Bôt Bay, La Bette Bay, Saints Bay, Moulin Huet, Petit Port – to the tiny, secret strands that only the locals and aficionados know.
See www.visitguernsey.com for more information.
The seaside at Filey
There’s something about the traditional British seaside (think Blackpool, Margate or Skegness) that encourages a back-to-basics hedonism of rowdy amusements, raucous entertainment and near-the-knuckle double-entendres. It’s a winning format that’s been exported to the Brits-abroad costas, and you either love it or hate it, but it turns out that not all seaside resorts are cut from the same gaudy cloth.
Filey – perched elegantly on the North Yorkshire coast between bigger, brasher Scarborough and down-to-earth Bridlington – is a little different. There’s a long, wide sandy beach, but the promenade of houses and villas behind doesn’t feature a single amusement arcade. Donkeys plod up and down the sands, a pristine paddling pool sits below the town’s beautifully maintained Victorian crescent and gardens, while families explore the rocks and pools of nearby Filey Brigg coastal nature reserve. It’s improbably wholesome and unexpectedly refreshing – the raciest the seafront gets is by the harbour where you can buy fish and chips and watch the kids trundle round on the carousel. The harbourside notice board, meanwhile, advertises the week’s hot tickets – to an afternoon tea dance or a date with country and gospel singer Paul Wheater (“Yorkshire’s Jim Reeves”).
Filey Tourist Information Centre, John St, Filey, North Yorkshire, www.discoveryorkshirecoast.co.uk.
Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove
Durdle Door, England © C Jones/Shutterstock
It’s easy enough to see how Durdle Door earned its name – but less straightforward to get to see it in the first place. From Lulworth Cove car park, the white chalk trail to the site stretches up a mile or so over the hills. Admittedly it looks a fair distance on first glance, but it’s only when you’re a third of the way along, huffing, puffing and drawing sympathetic glances from walkers on their way down, that you really begin to wonder if you’re nearly there yet. Push on: the reward is worth it.
At the summit, the iconic door emerges below, carved out of the limestone by the unrelenting strength of the sea. A precarious set of steps, crumbling like cinder toffee from the cliff side, lead to the shore. The beach is typically brimming with families, picnicking, paddling and watching the surf crash through the arch. Some people attempt to “swim the door”, but on all but the calmest days it’s a fool’s game – the waves, that will one day reduce the door to a stack of stones, fling swimmers around like so much flotsam and jetsam.
Back up on the clifftop track, the peaks of the ragged chalk hills stretch out like a giant dinosaur’s spine – rather apt for such a famous area of the Jurassic Coast. It’s easier heading down the path, and the views are glorious. The turquoise water of Lulworth Cove – another dramatic landform sculpted by the erosive power of the English Channel – shimmers at the foot of the trail. It should be your next stop.
See www.lulworth.com for more.
The White Cliffs of Dover
The full scale of the White Cliffs of Dover is best appreciated several miles out at sea, but to experience their dramatic views and sheer drops there’s no substitute for striding out along the clifftops themselves. Head west, towards Shakespeare Cliff – named in honour of its starring role in Lear – and you can descend to the tranquil nature reserve of Samphire Hoe; constructed from the spoils of the Channel Tunnel, it’s one of the newest parts of the kingdom.
Walking along the North Downs Way takes you though the fascinating Western Heights, a vast network of fortifications constructed to withstand the Napoleonic threat; part is given over to the ominously titled Dover Immigration Removal Centre, suggesting a purpose that’s no more friendly today. From here, the panorama across the shimmering-green Dover Straits – and even to France on a clear day – is spectacular.
Shakespeare Cliff and Samphire Hoe, www.samphirehoe.co.uk.
Llandudno’s Great Orme
Great Orme Llandudno © Gail Johnson/Shutterstock
Riding the train along the North Wales coast, try to imagine how the two-mile-long, 679ft-high hunk of limestone headland that is the Great Orme might have appeared to Viking raiders a thousand years ago. With its smaller acolyte, the Little Orme, you can just about picture them as a giant Nessie-style monster. An impossible-to-prove theory derives Orme from the Old Norse word for sea serpent – and is the root for the word “worm”.
Whatever its etymology, the Great Orme (Y Gogarth in Welsh) is inextricably linked with Llandudno, hunkered below its southern flank. As the Victorian middle classes flocked to this self-styled queen of the Welsh resorts for a little sea bathing and promenading, entrepreneurs devised ways to separate them from their holiday spending money, many of them involving the Orme. The views from the summit plateau across the Conwy Estuary to Snowdonia are just fabulous, and the Victorians have ensured that getting there is half the fun.
The essential tour is along Marine Drive, a four-mile circumnavigation via a wonderfully scenic one-way toll road, much of it cut into the limestone cliffs. Another lovely alternative is to take the Great Orme Tramway, a San Francisco-style cable car hauled up Llandudno’s steep streets and then out onto the open plateau.
Great Orme Tramway Victoria Station, Church Walks, Llandudno, www.greatormetramway.co.uk.
The Old Man of Hoy
The Old Man of Hoy, rising 137 metres from the waters off Hoy © David Woods/Shutterstock
There are no long-distance views; you’ll come across it quite suddenly. A soaring column stabbing out of the frothy ocean, precariously balanced on a ledge just offshore, a bit like a chopping knife, blade down. Catch your breath and soak in the view, the occasional puffin and the inevitable gaggle of super-human climbers, clinging to the rock like tiny red spiders.
Few visitors make the pilgrimage to the Old Man, the 449ft-high sea stack of red sandstone that pokes out of the North Atlantic; it’s not somewhere you can simply pull up in the car and take a photo. Hoy is a lonely, rugged place with a handful of inhabitants and a couple of hostels off the “mainland” of Orkney, accessible only by ferry. Once here, you’ll have to get hiking. From the pier at Moaness you must troll up the pass that hugs Ward Hill, then down the South Burn to weathered Rackwick Bay. It’s a wild and often bleak walk along the narrow “main” road, so don’t feel bad about accepting a lift from one of the locals – ancient tattooed sailors in 1970s Ford Escorts, local fiddlers on their way to the pub, and old ladies with cakes…on their way to the pub.
Two ferries (www.orkneyferries.co.uk) serve Hoy from Orkney.
The Isles of Scilly
This unique archipelago 28 miles off the south coast of Cornwall boasts one of the mildest, sunniest climates in the country. And in a place where two-thirds of the jaw-dropping landscape is water, the best way to explore is by boat. Don’t be fooled into leaving your waterproofs at home, however – this being Britain, unpredictable weather will decide whether you experience the islands in their sunniest glory or at the brunt of a wild Atlantic storm.
Each morning the quayside on St Mary’s – the main island – is a frenzy of activity as visitors queue for inter-island boat trips and tours to uninhabited isles. Meanwhile ferries also depart from Bryher, St Martin’s, Tresco and St Agnes, each heading for another slice of paradise where passengers can witness an abundance of wildlife, discover ancient sites and pad barefoot along white-sand beaches.
On board, there’s a palpable sense of sea-bound adventure. Binoculars are at the ready to spot seals, puffins, rare sea birds, porpoises, sunfish and basking sharks. On inclement days hoods are pulled tight around weather-beaten faces and passengers huddled inside strain for a glimpse of the scenery through steamed-up windows. With its five inhabited islands and hundreds of uninhabited islands and islets, the view is one of intoxicating beauty.
Check www.simplyscilly.co.uk for general information and travel to the islands.
Cruden Bay, Scotland
The ruin of Slains Castle at Cruden Bay © Targn Pleiades/Shutterstock
Look at a map of Scotland, towards the top, and you’ll see a wedge of granite jutting east into the North Sea. This is Buchan, a hard, flat region that, for all that it’s just next door to the Highlands, feels a world away. There are no lochs and glens here, no blur of heather and soft rain. Instead, farmland stretches under vast skies towards a savage coast where cliffs alternate with sweeps of wind-lashed sand. You feel the harsh beauty of this region most intensely at Cruden Bay. Bram Stoker certainly did: he stayed here while dreaming up Dracula.
The bay itself is a mile-and-a-half swoosh of stupendously white sand culminating at each end in jagged rocks. This is not a place for basking, then – the northeast does get an unfair share of Scotland’s sunshine, but still, it only gets really hot for a few weeks of the year. This is a place, instead, for stirring walks. One particularly Gothic hike leads north of the bay, skirting the golf course and crossing a picturesquely rickety white footbridge, the Ladies Bridge, to the tiny village of Cruden Bay.
For local history and information, try the Cruden Bay Community Association (www.visitscotland.com/info/towns).
Top image: The Old Man of Hoy, rising 137 metres from the waters off Hoy © David Woods/Shutterstock
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