Coast to coast: the best of Britain’s beaches

IT’S damp, drab drizzly day in Norfolk, just enough to deter all but the hardiest souls from the beach.

But in many ways the windswept stretch of the North Norfolk coastline near Blakeney is the perfect escape, whatever the weather.

WINDSWEPT: Cley Beach in Norfolk

This is Cley Beach on the coastal path, a lonely place on a wet day in April but part of an important nature reserve at Cley Marshes, created in 1926 when Norfolk birdwatcher Dr Sydney Long bought the land and established the Norfolk Wildlife Trust.

Birdwatching is important to the tourist industry in this part of the world, with the 430-acre site nowadays of international importance for its breeding and wintering birds.

COASTAL PATH: boats drawn up on the shingle at Cley

We are around three hours away from our Buckinghamshire home, but this is a world away from the landlocked Chilterns – and as we discussed earlier in the year, that yearning for a breath of sea air is a regular recurrence.

Luckily this year we have been fortunate enough to indulge with a series of seaside expeditions, and this is one of our first such adventures.

With some 1,500 beaches scattered around Britain’s coastline, we have a wonderful cross-section of coastal scenery to choose from, from smugglers’ coves and shingle spits to sweeping sands and inviting rockpools.

FAMILY FUN: beach huts at Frinton-on-Sea

Further round the coast and Essex boasts an extraordinary range of seaside towns and coastal villages, some of them among the most deprived neighbourhoods in England.

But for old-fashioned family fun, the beach huts at resorts like Frinton and Holland-on-Sea take a lot of beating, while the bigger and busier resorts like Clacton and Southend have been perennially popular with generations of Londoners.

WATERFRONT SNACK: the Beach Haven cafe at Holland-on-Sea

There’s a similarly innocent feel to Avon Beach at Christchurch, one of the closest to the Chilterns and a family-friendly place of beach huts and rockpooling, with the handily located Noisy Lobster providing a range of restaurant and takeaway treats for those who find that the sea air soon stimulates the tastebuds.

FRIENDLY FEEL: the seafront at Avon Beach

Just along the coast at Mudeford Quay, the entrance to Christchurch Harbour is a popular stopping-off point, with great views out to sea and towards Christchurch town.

MUSICAL MOMENT: watching the boats at Mudeford Quay

The quay is the perfect place to watch boats coming in and out of the harbour, as well as proving a popular spot for families crabbing from the quayside.

A busy year-round sailing and windsurfing destination, there’s also a ferry dropping cyclists and walkers over to Mudeford Sandbank, which boasts some of the most expensive beach huts in the country.

EXCLUSIVE ESCAPE: Mudeford Sandbank

From here, the 95-mile long Jurassic Coast beckons, from Swanage to Lulworth and Weymouth, then on round to Lyme Regis, Charmouth, Seaton and Beer.

The world-famous geology draws the crowds here, fascinating by the rocks, fossils and intriguing landforms that make it Britain’s only natural World Heritage Site.

FAMOUS LANDMARK: visitors gather at Durdle Door

Durdle Door on the Lulworth Estate is one of Dorset’s most photographed beauty spots, a magnificent natural limestone arch formed by waves eroding the rock, but also one of the busiest attractions for miles around.

Hardier souls can escape the crowds by tackling a stretch of the South West Coast Path, England’s longest waymarked long-distance footpath and national trail, stretching for over 630 miles from Poole Harbour round to Minehead in Somerset and immortalised in print by Raynor Winn.

CLIFFTOP ESCAPE: the South West Coast Path

Even here, on a section of coast where the car parks are full of day trippers, it doesn’t take long to shake off the other tourists and find yourself alone with your thoughts.

Round the other side of Weymouth, Chesil Beach is an 18-mile long shingle barrier beach stretching from West Bay to Portland, and another of Dorset’s most iconic landmarks.

NATURAL BARRIER: Chesil Beach in Dorset

Unlike the golden sands of Bournemouth or Weymouth, this is a wild, rugged, elemental landscape where the surf crashes relentlessly onto the ridge.

It stretches off for miles towards the horizon, the pebbles graded in size from potato to pea depending on their precise location, allegedly once allowing smugglers landing on the beach at night to judge their position along the coast simply by picking up a handful of shingle.

FOSSIL HUNT: Charmouth beach is world renowned

Next stop Charmouth, a seaside village with a beach renowned across the world for its fossils.

Families fascinated in the life of dinosaurs can immerse themselves in the past at the Charmouth Heritage Centre and even sign up a guided fossil hunting session on the beach, where pyrite ammonite and belemnite fossils can often be found loose among the pebbles.

PERIOD DRAMA: Kate Winslet in Ammonite

This is also the place to find out more about the extraordinary life of English fossil collector, dealer and paleontologist Mary Anning.

Born in 1799, the discoveries she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds along this coast changed scientific thinking about prehistoric life – though Francis Lee’s 2020 romantic drama Ammonite seems more concerned in speculating about her sex life than in her scientific reputation.

ROOM WITH A VIEW: the Rock Point Inn at Lyme Regis

In nearby Lyme Regis, her home and first fossil shop is now a museum, while a local fossil shop was used as her home in the film.

Head west from here and we’re into Devon and a whole new world of seaside delights, from the picturesque foreshore at Branscombe to the cheerful seafront snackbars of Beer.

TIME FOR TEA: the beach at Beer

Devon attractions range from the heritage trams of Seaton to the sweeping beaches of Exmouth or picturesque quayside at Exeter: but then these delights were more fully explored in our rundown on some of the most intriguing secret hideaways of South Devon.

Highlights included the town trails in Topsham, an intriguing 16-sided house near Exmouth and a step back in time on the South Devon Railway.

SIMPLE PLEASURES: on the beach at Beer

But if there’s one place where the location can justifiably be called spectacular, it’s the extraordinary Burgh Island: an iconic art deco landmark on its own tidal island, surrounded by golden beaches and restored to its 1930s glamour.

One of our favourite visits of the year, the historic adjoining Pilchard Inn is similarly only accessible via a sandy causeway from Bigbury-on-Sea that disappears under the waves at high tide and provides a gloriously laid-back outlook over the surrounding beaches.

GLORIOUS OUTLOOK: the Pilchard Inn on Burgh Island

From here, our final summertime seaside foray of the year takes us to the opposite end of the country and the equally spectacular coastline between Aberdeen and Inverness.

The Moray Coast is a childhood stamping ground where the timeless solidity of the prettily painted fishing villages have a special appeal.

MORAY FIRTH: fishermen’s cottages in Findochty

The sun may not always be shining on the north-east coast, but when it does, there’s no prettier place in the country, even if trains no longer run along the clifftop towards the glorious beaches at Cullen, where the viaduct still provides an imposing backdrop to photographs from the harbour.

But the attractions of the Moray Firth are captured in another article exploring some of Scotland’s most glorious countryside.

IMPOSING BACKDROP: the old railway viaduct at Cullen

Back home in Buckinghamshire, we haven’t exhausted our love of the seaside, but we’ve seen some glorious scenery and met some wonderful people along the way.

The Chilterns is not quite the furthest place in the country from the coast: that honour goes to a small farm in Derbyshire, according to Ordnance Survey, although Lichfield in Staffordshire also boasts a plaque laying claim to being England’s furthest point from the sea – a distance of 84 miles.

CALL OF THE COAST: a seagull in Dorset

But with the waves of the English Channel less than a couple of hours’ away it hopefully won’t be too long before we get the chance to hear the sound of the surf and cry of the gulls again.

Picture of the week: 24/01/22

ONE OF the (very few) drawbacks of living in the Chilterns is our distance from the sea.

For those who love the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt in the air, it can seem a long haul to the nearest beach (if you ignore Ruislip Lido, that is).

But if you find yourself dreaming about sandcastles and beach huts, it’s perhaps not quite as much of an expedition as you might think to dip your toes in the surf or hear the cries of the gulls.

Depending on your exact home location, an array of coastal resorts claim to be well within a two-hour drive, from Kent and Essex to Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset (where these pictures were taken).

Fancy a breath of sea air at Southend or Sheerness, Brighton or Bournemouth? Get your bucket and spade out.

“Humans are naturally drawn to the water,” Megan McCubbin tells us in Back To Nature, the new book she has co-written with stepdad Chris Packham. “Studies show that being near a water body – the ocean, rivers or lakes – has a positive impact on our minds, boosting creativity and lowering anxiety and stress.”

It’s this “Blue Mind” phenomenon which draws us to the seaside, but as Megan goes on to point out, we are our own worst enemies: the crowds descending in droves on popular resorts often leave tonnes of rubbish in their wake and local communities in despair.

Dorset litterpicker, beach cleaner and outdoors lover Anna Lois Taylor posted on Twitter at the height of the 2020 invasion: “So much litter. I’m done sacrificing my own time to clean up an area that’s repeatedly abused. We cleared it yesterday evening and returned today to find ourselves right back at the beginning. I cried all the way home.”

UNDER SIEGE: Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast PICTURE: Anna Lois Taylor

It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. At this time of year many beaches are in pristine condition, winter storms notwithstanding, and it takes little effort for all of us to try to follow the much-quoted travel mantra “take away only memories, leave only footprints”.

Now, more than ever, the concept of treading lightly on the landscape is crucial to our future existence. Yet our main roads are lined with litter and it often feels as if our countryside is under siege.

Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than at the seaside, where however remote the location the debris of modern living is washed in with the tide from around the world.

The bay in the north of Scotland where I played on holiday as a child looks as beautiful today as it did half a century ago, but keeping our beaches clean is a constant battle.

By all means let’s continue to enjoy the timeless allure of spending days at the seaside. But even better if no one can tell that we were there at all.