With foreign travel still a tricky prospect, it looks like being a bumper summer for the British seaside. And yet that means the most popular places are bound to get very busy indeed. To avoid the queues and traffic jams, I’ll be revisiting some of Britain’s less familiar seaside towns.
Of course, these places are very familiar to folk who are lucky enough to live nearby, but they don’t attract the bumper crowds you get in big resorts like Blackpool or Skegness. Nor are they terribly fashionable, like Padstow or St Ives. Some of them are a bit offbeat, but they’re all places where I’ve had great days out. You’re bound to have your own favourites, but if you fancy trying somewhere new this summer, here’s my personal top ten.
Hidden in a sheltered valley a mile inland from the Jurassic Coast, this quaint village takes its name from the Benedictine monastery which stood here in the Middle Ages. The monks are long gone but they left behind a medieval tithe barn, a thriving swannery and St Catherine’s Chapel, a hilltop church with stunning views across the English Channel. Thanks to its balmy microclimate, Abbotsbury boasts 20 acres of subtropical gardens, a lush site established way back in 1765, bursting with all sorts of exotic plants. It’s also a great starting point for a hike along Chesil Beach, a paradise for birdlife (and birdwatchers) sandwiched between the Fleet Lagoon and the open sea.
‘With a fine sea view in front, the mountains behind, the glorious estuary running eight miles inland, and Cadair Idris within compass of a day’s walk, Barmouth can always hold its own against any rival,’ declared William Wordsworth. Two hundred years later, not a lot has changed. The arrival of the railway turned this historic port into a seaside resort, but its relatively remote location has preserved its distinctive character. Snowdonia provides a dramatic backdrop, and the broad sandy beach is sublime. Cadair Idris is 10 miles away, nearly 3000 feet above sea level, but if you’re not feeling quite that fit there’s plenty to see in Barmouth, including the Roman hill fort of Dinas Oleu, one of the first sites to be adopted by the National Trust.
Beaumaris is famous for its magnificent castle, built by Edward I in 1295, and the pretty town that grew up around it features numerous medieval relics. The 14th Century parish church contains the tomb of Joan, Princess of Wales, daughter of King John, and the 15th Century Bulls Head Inn was already old when General Mytton, commander of the Roundhead forces, made it his HQ when Beaumaris was besieged by Royalists during the Civil War. The town’s position, at the eastern entrance to the Menai Strait, is spectacular, there are some nice cafes on the waterfront, and the proximity of Bangor University, across the Menai Bridge, gives it a youthful, energetic buzz.
This rugged border town, on the disputed frontier between England and Scotland, changed hands countless times before the English finally secured it in 1482. Over 500 years later, it still has a dual identity. A lot of families are of mixed descent, and the local football team, Berwick Rangers, play in the Scottish league. The town walls date back to Tudor times – a walk along the ramparts is a great way to get your bearings. LS Lowry used to come here on his holidays – a Lowry trail guides you around the lively scenes he painted here. The Museum & Art Gallery, housed in the old barracks, has a fine collection of French Impressionists. Paxton House, a stately home with interiors by Robert Adam and furniture by Thomas Chippendale, is five miles away, across the border, an idyllic walk along the River Tweed.
A huge expanse of shingle jutting out into the English Channel, Dungeness feels more like a desert island than part of the British mainland, and the nuclear power station on the horizon gives it a futuristic, post-apocalyptic air. A barren no-man’s-land littered with derelict shacks, abandoned boats and rusting machinery, a less likely beach resort would be hard to imagine, yet it exerts a potent, almost intoxicating appeal. You feel on the edge of the world out here – on the edge of England, at any rate. You can see why this parched landscape has been such a popular backdrop for pop videos and album covers – everyone from the Lighthouse Family to Pink Floyd. The site that sums up its strange allure is Prospect Cottage, an old fisherman’s hut bought by the artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman in 1987 and transformed before his untimely death in 1994. With its tar black walls and yellow window frames, the cottage is striking, but it’s the garden that surrounds it, decorated with driftwood and scrap metal, which makes it an amazing objet d’art.
Most visitors to Harwich pass through without stopping, straight onto the car ferry to the Hook of Holland. They don’t know what they’re missing. The modern ferry terminal is unremarkable but the Old Town is charming, a cluster of narrow streets lined with handsome Georgian townhouses, like the set of a nautical costume drama - Carry On Horatio Hornblower, if you like. This is where The Mayflower was built and launched, and the house of Christopher Jones, the man who skippered it on its momentous voyage, is now a modest but evocative museum. The Pier Hotel houses a first class restaurant (the bedrooms are plush and comfy, too) and the Electric Palace Cinema is one of the oldest in the country. Look out for the High Lighthouse and the Low Lighthouse, both open to visitors. There are lovely walks along the Stroud Estuary, towards Manningtree, on the Essex Way.
‘A town caught still in a timeless charm,’ wrote Poet Laureate (and Spectator contributor) John Betjeman, in praise of Sidmouth. I couldn’t have put it better myself. This elegant resort is like the setting for an Agatha Christie whodunnit. You half expect to see Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple strolling arm in arm along the esplanade. The beach is splendid, flanked by the red sandstone cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. You can go fossil hunting in Lyme Bay, Dartmoor is a 40 minute drive away, neighbouring Budleigh beach provides some coastal variety and there are bracing walks along the front in both directions, all part of the epic South West Coastal Path.
Travelling to Portsmouth, for work or leisure or whatever, you’d never guess it had its own beach resort, just down the road. It may be a suburb of Portsmouth, but it has a character all of its own, and when you’re on the front, admiring the view across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, you could easily be back in its Edwardian heyday, when it was one of the smartest places on the south coast. Rudyard Kipling spent his childhood here, H.G. Wells used to live here, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a GP in the area, waiting for patients and writing detective stories to pass the time. Today it’s a pleasant, unpretentious place, with plenty of fun stuff for families: an aquarium, a natural history museum, even a model village. Clarence Pier has a traditional fairground and an adventure playground. The King’s Theatre is a superb slice of Edwardiana, designed by Frank Matcham, the master builder of music hall.
Like a lot of Sassenachs, I came to Stonehaven to visit the Carron Fish Bar (formerly the Haven Fish Bar) to sample the legendary deep-fried Mars Bar, which was created here. In the end I chickened out, but the fish and chips were excellent, and Stonehaven is a super spot, only half an hour from Aberdeen but well off the tourist trail. It used to be an important fishing port. Nowadays the harbour is mainly used for recreation, yet it’s still intensely atmospheric. The Tolbooth Museum is housed in the old gaol. The boardwalk links the harbour to the beach, and there are several other scenic walks, most notably to Dunnottar Castle, a crumbling clifftop fortress like a scene from Excalibur. There’s an Art Deco open air swimming pool, and the Stonehaven Folk Festival is an annual highlight. Sure, the resorts on Scotland’s West Coast may be more picturesque - but this was a place where I felt I was really travelling.
The ruined castle of Tintagel, perched on a steep promontory on Cornwall’s craggy north coast, is supposed to be the site of King Arthur’s Camelot. Did the Knights of the Round Table really get together here? Probably not, but it was a big settlement during the Dark Ages, bigger than London at the time, and when a medieval scribe called Geoffrey of Monmouth decided it was Arthur’s birthplace, Richard of Cornwall (one of the richest men in England) built a new castle here, which soon became party central. After several centuries of R&R the site fell into obscurity, but then Tennyson put it on the tourist trail, and now English Heritage have built a new footbridge, linking it to the mainland. The adjacent town is full of gift shops hawking all sorts of Arthurian knick-knacks, but who cares? Tintagel has always been a work of fiction, yet that doesn’t stop it being a magical place to spend a day.