Pretty much every summer, my family and my cousins head for a farm in north Cornwall, strategically situated for visits to our favourite beach: Trevone. A beautiful cove with breakers, cliffs and an unobtrusive shop, its chief appeal is the opportunity it provides for building colossal sandcastles. Each year, our ambitions grow ever more Babylonian. This summer we excelled ourselves. It was my nephew’s 21st birthday, and to mark his coming of age he wanted to build a sandcastle on a truly lunatic scale. His dream was fulfilled. Armed with industrial shovels and a wheelbarrow, we constructed a vast array of fortifications: a towering central donjon; a wall of which Hadrian would have been proud; Minas Tirith-style rings of defences; enigmatic neolithic monuments. We even had paddy fields. And then, after eight hours’ solid work, the tide came in and, like Atlantis, it all vanished beneath the waves.
We’ll always have… Thanet. You can keep your Paris, your Rome, your Casablanca. There’s no more romantic place on earth than Margate when it drizzles. The replacement bus service from Ramsgate, the December rain becoming sleet, the wind, the trawlers, the derelict mini golf course, the boyfriend down on one knee in the bladderwrack. I’m thinking of having a T-shirt printed: ‘I went to Margate and all I got was this lousy proposal.’ No Waste Land Margate now with its hipster Regency, its ironic rollercoasters, its semi-demi gentrification. Turner’s Margate, Tracey’s Margate. Artists will tell you about the light of St Ives, but Margate light is like a match striking magnesium. Margate has my heart.
Scolt Head Island, Norfolk
The first time I walked the north Norfolk coast path, I slavishly followed the signs which take you away from the coast at Thornham, up through turnip fields and down through the marshes, and don’t return you to the sea and sand until Holkham, ten miles further on. I didn’t realise at the time that it was possible to take the direct route — so long as you have one vital piece of equipment: a tide table. For about half the time your way is blocked by three creeks — which are full of dangerous, swirling waters when the tide is up but become benign at low tide. The first, at Thornham, you hardly notice as it brushes your ankles. The next two, at Brancaster and Burnham Overy Staithe, are a little more serious, though still the water is no more than thigh-deep at low tide. Between those latter two is Scolt Head Island and the loneliest beach in southern England: a glorious six-mile stretch of sand flanked by a crest of dunes which look like distant cliffs on their first appearance. There is just about time for a swim — no need to bother with trunks, as there are only seals to watch you. But you must then either hoof it on — or commit yourself to staying in the dunes for another 12 hours, only 120 miles from London but very likely the sole inhabitant of this little paradise.
West Wittering, West Sussex
The best seaside holidays have to be in the past because we couldn’t cope with them now. Ice cream apparently made of whale blubber, freezing seas, the astonishing force of an ocean-liner’s bow wave if it hit you unawares from behind (a major hazard on the shores of the Solent) all abide in the mind as pleasures, though I wouldn’t like them now. I never liked sunburn.
It all ended for me when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were arrested in West Wittering, the Sussex village where I had spent so many childhood summers. Mick Jagger? West Wittering? The grown-up world had come striding into that vague, somnolent paradise of sea-glitter and idleness, and I’ve never had much time for the seaside since.
Aldeburgh is perfect if you hate sand. The bloody stuff gets everywhere (clothes, food, places I won’t mention). Shingle is much better, as this wonderful Suffolk town proves. The Boxing Day swim will take your breath away (literally: the cold water makes you hyperventilate — great fun). Kids will love Maggi Hambling’s ‘Scallop’ (a huge metal shell honouring local boy Benjamin Britten), and Seahorse Cottage, from CBBC’s Grandpa in My Pocket. You can stay there, or, if you prefer hotels, it has to be the Brudenell, once owned by James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, after whom the cardigan is named.
Cornwall has become extremely fashionable in the past decade or so, thanks in part to the patronage of David Cameron and his family, and is likely to become even more so if a carbon tax is imposed on air travel. That means the beaches can get very crowded during the summer months, particularly on the Lizard. The solution is to head to the north coast. It’s less popular, in part because it takes a bit longer to get to if you’re coming from London, in part because the sea is a little bit colder, being the Atlantic rather than the English Channel. But that means less crowded beaches and much bigger waves. And Godrevy beach, which is owned by the National Trust, is just about the prettiest location on the north coast. It has everything you could want from a Cornish holiday: a surf school for the kids, access to the South-West coast path for the grown-ups and Godrevy Café, a well-above-average restaurant, for all the family. Be advised, however: dogs are not welcome on the beach in the summer between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Martin Vander Weyer
‘Bright, Breezy and Bracing’ said the pre-war posters, back when Bridlington was a fashionable resort. Now it’s faded verging on melancholy, eclipsed by Scarborough — ‘Queen of the Yorkshire Coast’ — and by Whitby’s Goths and tall ships. ‘Brid’ still has its odiferous harbour and its big sky over the grey North Sea, plus the house where David Hockney used to paint and the Old Town, where that terrible remake of Dad’s Army was filmed. Not much perhaps, but both my parents were brought up here and every visit is a pilgrimage of family memories; the fish and chips are good too.
Talland Bay, Cornwall
Beautiful, tiny Talland Bay in Cornwall is one of the smallest beaches I know. But it has everything. Sand. Rockpools. Shingle. And history. Talland is Cornish for ‘Holy Place on the Hill’ and a 13th-century church tower gazes calmly down on the beach. Its altar is on the exact spot where 5th–century Celtic Christians once worshipped. Stare south out to sea and you’re looking at the horizon where the Spanish Armada passed by in August 1588, to the abject terror of gathered locals. Turn around and there’s Talland Bay’s beach café nestling under the sandy bluffs. Prepare to have your senses shocked by the deafening, low sub-sonic pass of an RAF fighter-bomber. And there’s great fishing off the rocks at low tide.
The Antrim Coast, N. Ireland
During the Troubles, the Antrim coast was beautifully peaceful for the visitor. Since the peace process, it has been more troubled (by tourists); but it remains, in feeling, a sweet mixture of Ireland and Scotland. You can see the latter from the former. For me, it centres on Glenarm, whose romantic castle is the seat of (full disclosure) my kinsman Randal Dunluce, with its famed tea-rooms and gardens. Up the road are the ruins of Dunluce Castle, where his family, the Macdonnells, used to drop their guests to their deaths into the sea below, after dinner. You can stay in Clough Williams-Ellis’s Cushendun, or the Londonderry Arms at Carnlough; go round to the loveliest, largest, White Park Bay, and on beyond Castlerock, where the sea chews ever closer to the classical Mussenden temple. My grandparents spent their honeymoon at Glenarm in 1921, and noticed that the local carts still had solid wheels with no spokes. There has been progress since then, sadly, including the National Trust’s prissification of the Giant’s Causeway. Offshore is Rathlin Island, home of thousands of puffins and great Kate Hoey.
Priory Bay, Isle of Wight
Some of the happiest afternoons of my life have been spent on Priory Bay, near Seaview, on the Isle of Wight. It’s beautiful through the year: in the cold, the beach takes on a pleasingly austere character: the sea grey and close when the tide is in; the sand vast when it’s out. I love the sycamores and oaks that seem to hang over the water. In spring and summer, Priory transforms and starts to feel almost tropical: the far end of the bay is known as ‘Caribbean corner’. The sand softens, the water warms, the trees come alive. Last summer, an ambitious business opened a bar on the beach. For a few hot days, it felt like a party resort. Speedboats from the mainland came along and young people cavorted half-naked. All good fun, but I prefer the bleak days in January.
If we do not pretend the river Tamar is a national border, then Porthcurno is the best beach in England. If we are pretending it is a national border — and some of my neighbours in west Cornwall do — it is only the best beach in the duchy. It is sheltered by granite outcrops, including the Logan Rock, which rocked until Lieutenant Hugh Goldsmith and the crew of HMS Trimble pushed it over in 1824. They were made to put it back by the Admiralty, but it no longer rocks. Porthcurno is without seaweed, and is steeply shelved, so if the water is bracing you can jump right in. In August there are basking sharks, which alarm the grockles (the non-Cornish) and make page 5 of the tabloids. Its colours are extraordinary for England; the sand is crushed seashells, and the sea, in summer, is the palest blue. The Minack Theatre is above, if you seek amateur dramatics (no professional would compete with this view of Tristan’s Lyonesse, submerged), and behind it is the Telegraph Museum, which is not a homage to the daily newspaper, but is charming all the same.
Littlehampton, West Sussex
When we first went to Climping beach it was a sunny Saturday in summer and there was hardly anyone there. Well, just a few people enjoying picnics. We sat behind a groyne with the dogs and ate our lunch. Then we took a dip and the Sussex sea was as warm as the Med. That evening, in the nearby town of Littlehampton, we were served delicious, inexpensive lightly battered fish and chips at a window table overlooking the cheerful harbour. ‘Why is everyone so lovely here? Have we died and gone to heaven?’ I asked the builder boyfriend. He explained that the lack of cheap thrills or anything that can be misconstrued as glamour or fast living has made this one of the most low-key and therefore nicest stretches of the English coast. In fact, it’s so nice, I’m not convinced it isn’t down some sort of wormhole.
Brancaster beach, where I have spent every summer, harks back to a world that goes at a gentler pace. Here you will find stretches of deserted sand, shabby beach huts, sleeping seals and a tide that goes out for over a mile. As a little girl I would walk hand in hand with my father towards the shipwreck that sits on the horizon. Beware of the tides and currents — there is a danger of getting stranded. My mother once had a fright on her horse when she was nearly cut off by the tide.
Uig, Isle of Lewis
During my thirties I finally worked out why I dislike beach holidays. It is not the sun-lounger extortion, tattoos or other people’s music, but the fact there are other people on the beach. Growing up, I was spoilt by family holidays on the Isle of Lewis. There you get miles of golden sand all to yourself. To run on, build dams on, fish from the rocks on and eventually learn to drive on. Facing the Atlantic, with nothing between it and America, if anybody knows of a more beautiful beach than Uig I should like to hear about it. Naturally it is not there to be sunbathed on. Nor is the sea there to be swum in. On exceptional days you might take off your shoes and go in up to your ankles. I have heard of people going in up to their knees. But here, even after the midges come out, is the place under the sky most like heaven.
Well, I’ve been to Goa. That seemed to be the beach to go to if you want sand, sun, and the aroma of cannabis. I’ve paddled in Brighton with Max Miller. Bondi in Australia is, as you know, the best beach in the world. But given the choice I’d go to Balmoral, also in Oz. I was sent to Torcross, a tiny seaside heaven in Devon to stop the Luftwaffe killing me. Unfortunately they found me on the beach and tried to kill me there. My ideal beach would be one with the Famous Five on it. We’d picnic on ginger pop and buns and leave no litter.
North Berwick, East Lothian
Robert Louis Stevenson looked to the North Berwick coast for literary inspiration. I head there for less noble pursuits: chips on the beach (often in the rain), hermit crab hunting, gannet watching and an annual New Year’s dip. Back in the 16th century it was home to witch trials, but these days it’s a friendlier place. While tourists flock there in the summer, quiet coves are there to be discovered if you’re willing to spend the day exploring the various trails.
Tenby North, Pembrokeshire
Pleasurable expectation always fills me on the short walk from Tenby station, past the black painted quoins of the B&Bs, past the Poundland opposite the medieval town walls and suddenly out into the brightness of the Norton, a street of seaside houses on one side and the North Beach on the other. It’s not too far to lug a good hamper of cold fowl and drink. The town is cheery, the beach empty early, when it catches the climbing sun. My husband soon dozes in a deckchair.
And why would anyone blab about a beach whose splendour lies in its remoteness, emptiness and unspoiled beauty precisely because its fame is restricted to a very few local cognoscenti? Oh, all right then. Start where else but at Start Point, Devon. Walk the vertiginous mile around the cliffs and descend to a rabbit-cropped lawn. Notice the bloody great seals preening on a rock just offshore. Close at hand: gorse, foxgloves, painted ladies, sheep, rabbit droppings. In the offing nothing but sea, sky and exposed geology. Mattiscombe beach — crashing waves, shingle, golden sand, flotsam and jetsam, sea-wrack, rock pools, and a lively salt air — is below you. Sorry guys.