Updated Feb 2021
Having spent a lifetime of staycations in the UK, interspersed with sporadic international travel, I have come to realise that the UK beaches, when the weather is with you, are some of the most spectacular our planet has to offer.
Maybe it’s because the sun is not guaranteed that a) the beaches have not been over-developed and pre-populated with loungers, and b) you really, really appreciate it when the skies decide to gift you a sunny day, lending your day at the beach a touch of magic. The National Trust gets a shout out too for owning large tracts of it , and providing strategically placed cups of tea and loos.
I have not seen them all, but on my domestic travels so far I have discovered white and gold cliffs, seals, unexpectedly Caribbean-hued waters and miles and miles of golden sands, accessorized by crumbling castles and coastal paths. Come and have a look at this collection from the South and West of the kingdom…
Best beaches in UK: And the winners are...
Porthcurno, at the the tip of Cornwall’s toe, has got to be my all time favourite UK beach, gaining top marks in all categories – the water, the rocks, the seals and, the icing on the beach-cake, the open air theatre.
Stone flanking: The beach is flanked by enormous Thai style yellow boulders on one side and a stairway, carved into the rocks, leading to the open-air cliff-top Minack theatre on the other. (Be warned – do not use these steps, the path is deadly.)
Wildlife: A seal has followed me from one end of the beach to the other, so extra marks for that. Luckier people see basking sharks.
Water: The water is a shade of turquoise green, which growing up by the North Sea, I did not know you could get in England.
Beach tip: Since Poldark, the road down to the beach can get gridlocked in the summer. Head down early for a car parking space. Combine you day trip with a matinee show (bring all weather gear and a cushion).
Best beaches in UK no. 1 Porthcurno photos
The Minack Theatre
Porthmeor gets a top billing in these categories:
Location, Location, Location: It backs on to the cobbled streets of St Ives, with it’s chocolate box fisherman’s cottages, cutesy shops and pasty potential. This is one of St Ives‘ many beaches, which leave it looking like an inverted daisy.
Cafe life: West beach café hugs the base of the cliffs at one end of the beach, piping out music from yesteryear, providing indoor blankets for the rain and al fresco benches for the shine. Top location for an all season beach breakfast with a sea view.
Beach life: More cafes and bars sit right on the edge of the sand. Surfing lessons are available (go for a wetsuit and gloves).
Headlands walks: Being a bit of a show off, it has these at both ends. There is a 10 minute but hugely scenic circular mini-walk around the lighthouse outcrop. Seal- strewn boulders erupt through the waves. For a longer coastal walk along these sparkly-as-sapphire waters, head to the West End on the the coastal path to the fabulously named, Zennor.
Beach tip: Book literally months ahead to secure a table at the elevaned and glass fronted Porthmeor Beach Cafe for amazing sunsets (we didn’t but wish we had).
Where to stay? Stay in one of these higgledy-piggldy cottages, or a swanky ocean-view apartment, or even the ancient and pirate-y Sloop Inn on the harbour.
Best beaches in UK no. 2 Porthmeor photos
Marks go to number 3, Durdledoor, for its rocks, water and name.
Double beach: Drop down either side of this shard of coast for a golden sand experience but head right for the beach-bells and whistles.
Rock offerings: Going above and beyond for effort, Durdledoor boasts 2 fabulous rock features – towering white cliffs and an impressive natural arch from which the brave can dive bomb into the sea (not from the top mind).
Crystal waters: Crystal clear and Mediterranean of hue.
Name: Great Harry Potter-y sounding name too.
Best beaches in UK no. 3 Durdledoor photos
Vertiginous orange cliffs: A celebrity entrant, featuring in Broadchurch, West Bay plays host to crazily steep and bright orange cliffs. They have been known to collapse and land on people – so beware.
Access is by walking past what looks from the side to be a petrified wedge of cheese.
Best beaches in UK no. 4 West Bay photos
This beach has also been described as Thailand in Cornwall, with its aquamarine water and dramatic beach rocks.
Edgy access: You access the sand by way of a pretty steep and edgy coastal path. There is always a slight fear of a child just disappearing off the side when the wind’s up.
Caves: Explore rocky caverns as the tide goes out and stand on sea boulders as it comes in around you.
Beach bays: There are many different sections to this beach, hiding behind corners. Handy rocky ledges are ideal backrests for towel draping.
Beach tip: The beach is only accessible at low tide. Plan ahead.
Best beaches in UK no. 5 Kynance Cove photos
Its remote location and stone arch entrance way make Barafundle a winner for Wales. With its clear sparking waters, it’s like Welsh Greek Island.
Remote: Accessed via a 20 minute coastal cliff path walk, the crowds are kept away while you float the afternoon away. The more adventurous arrive be canoe from the launch point by the car park at Stackpole Bay.
Grand entrance: Like walking through the ruins of an ancient city, duck under the stone arch and follow the tumble-down wall and stone stairway to the golden sands below.
Cream tea cafe: Don’t miss the fab national trust cafe for pre/post-beach cream teas, also by the car park.
Beach tip: Calm seas make for good for boating. Bring an electric pump for your dingy. With new batteries – we didn’t.
Where to stay? Hire one of the old farmhouse style National Trust cottages next to Stackpole Quay for a spot of seaside luxury.
Best beaches in UK no. 6 Barafundle Bay photos
What makes Perranporth a cut above the rest beach destination?
Sand and dunes: Perranporth’s USP is its vast swathes of empty white sand and associated huge run-down-me dunes. When the tide is out you can literally walk for miles along its pale length.
Wildlife: Snakes sun themselves on the headland path you have to take to the campsite when the tide catches you out.
Cafe on the sand: Drop in at the Watering Hole, the only cafe I have found in this country which is right in the middle of the sand, with tropical raffia umbrellas and everything (and windscreens for the other kind of weather we get).
Where to stay? Book a cliff top caravan at Perran Sands Holiday Park, right on the beach.
Best beaches in UK no. 7 Perranporth photos
Dinosaur bones: The ability to hire chemistry goggles and a hammer from a beach porta-cabin and the prospect of uncovering your own dinosaur bones (or at least an ammonite or 2) give Charmouth the edge on the Jurassic coast.
Go after a storm, of failing that, as the tide goes out, for the best fossil pickings.
Rock shop: Check out the fossil shop at the end of the beach and marvel at the incredible skeletons found by the luckiest hunters.
Best beaches in UK no. 8 Charmouth photos
Dunes: Wander over a mass of sand dunes, big enough to get lost in. Hide and seek is a bad idea.
Thatched pubs: A tree lined walk from the seafront takes you to the thatched Thatch in the surfy-vibed Croyde village. A drink here is practically mandatory.
Beach activities: Do some surfing and check out the headland walk at Baggy Point (if it’s not too windy).
Stay on the beach: Hire a lodge just behind the beach, which you can run to in your wetsuit when on the edge of hypothermia after an early season body boarding session.
Best beaches in UK no. 9 Croyde photos
Nautical colours: My own personal winner of the UK’s whitest sand/bluest sea award. It looks like the living embodiment of a nautical jumper.
Stormy waters: If you think the waves are frothing here, check out the pictures of the towering storm wave over the headland in all the cafes.
Like Australia without the killer sharks.
Best beaches in UK no. 10 Sennen photos
Comedy best beaches in UK winner - Bigbury on Sea
Sea tractor: This South Coast beach comes with a lumbering aquatic sea tractor which will transport you to Burgh Island where a 700 year old pub and Art Deco hotel await. Alternatively, at low (ish) tide you can wade over to the island, which bring its own comedy value. (You can even row around the island in a dingy, if feeling particularly gung ho.)
Google how the sea tractor gets on in winter – it’s a white knuckle/water ride.
It is famous enough to get its own mini-me recreation at Legoland.
Best Beaches UK Runners up
Bamburgh, Northumberland – wild, windswept, sand-duned and overlooked by a magnificent castle
Blackpool Sands, Devon – wooden-decked beach cafe, emerald waters and green fringed crescent beach
Brighton Beach – pier and party beach
Castle Beach, Tenby – one of Tenby’s golden sandy beaches, with a Napoleonic Fort perched on a tiny Island joined to the mainland when the tide is out
Hayle, Cornwall – 5 miles of empty white sand and body-boarding water
Rhossili, The Gower- huge Welsh tracts of unspoiled beach
Saunton Sands, Devon – Croyde’s big brother with a very cute row of rainbow beach huts
Tintagel, Cornwall – King Arthur’s home with beach waterfall and dramatic cliff top castle ruins
Watergate bay, Cornwall – vast rock-pooled sands
Least attractive UK beach award goes to Severn Beach in the Bristol Channel.
Wooden spoon for this one. The walk from the train station passes depressingly grey prefab style housing to mud flats where dying seagulls flap oily wings in the rubbish strewn stretch of “beach” leading to the thick brown gloop of estuarine “sea”.
Also, give Kidwelly a miss unless you enjoy killer quick sand/mud.
Best beaches UK summary
These are the most magnificent beaches I have found so far in the UK, some of them literally only in the last year. I know there are many more waiting to be discovered, especially as I am limited by driving distance from Bristol.
I’ve yet to see 3 sisters in Wales or Hollywell in Cornwall and I have a date with Castle Rock beach in Northern Ireland if the US is called off again.
Where have I missed and where should I go next (obviously all of Scotland for a start)?
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