Britain's 20 greatest beaches

Learn how to surf at Watergate Bay
Learn how to surf at Watergate Bay Credit: getty

Britain is home to some exemplary beaches, but don't let the changing of the seasons put you off, embrace life and make a dash to the seaside this weekend. To help you pick the best stretch of sand, we asked our experts to recommend their favourite beaches around the country. Some of the nominations are deservedly popular spots along the south and western coast of Britain, while others are of the wild and unspoilt variety, where even at the height of summer you can find a secluded spot beneath cliffs or among dunes. If you are looking for more suggestions for wild, out of the way places, see our guide to Britain's best secret and remote beaches.

North Cornwall

1. Watergate Bay, Newquay

Two miles of golden sand backed by cliffs and caves, where the Atlantic swells produce reliable surf and peregrine falcons, gulls and fulmars wheel overhead. Spot strawberry anemones and crabs among the rock pools, walk along the clifftop, or book a surfing or kitesurfing lesson with the excellent Extreme Academy on the beach (extremeacademy.co.uk).

Eat: Both overlooking the beach, Watchful Mary is currently rustling up takeaway pizzas while The Beach Hut bistro serves up delicious fresh seafood – the squid and moules frite are a must (watergatebay.co.uk).

Stay: Watergate Bay Hotel has a spectacular indoor pool with sea views, plenty of beautiful public spaces and their 'not a spa' spa is now offering treatments. Read the full review.

South Cornwall

2. Porthcurno, near Land's End

Set beneath the clifftop Minack Theatre, this is arguably the county's most beautiful bay: a funnel of sand caught between lichen-encrusted granite cliffs. Easily accessible, it has fine white sand and is popular with families. It's best at low tide when you can walk to other beaches in the bay (one of which is nudist) and sit on sandbars beneath the ancient cliff fort of Treryn Dinas, surrounded by Grecian-blue water.

Porthcurno beach Credit: AP

Eat: At the Coffee Shop at the Minack Theatre, above the beach offers coffee, Cornish cream teas, and light meals. You have to pay for admission to the site, but this includes access to the gardens. (01736 810694; minack.com).

Stay: The Old Coastguard hotel in Mousehole offers a spacious bar/restaurant, and a superb location with views over the palm-filled garden sloping down to the sea. Read the full review.

Isles of Scilly

3. Pentle Bay, Tresco 

Pentle Bay induces a broad grin. You can't help it after crossing Tresco Island's lush interior and walking through sandy grass into a wall of dazzling colour: bleached white sand, emerald-and-turquoise ocean dotted with islands and impossibly blue sky. Everything is light, bright, almost tropical in its brilliance. It takes a dip in the briny – two degrees colder than the mainland – to confirm that you are still in Britain.

Eat: The Ruin Beach Café is currently open daily for alfresco or takeaway lunch and dinner. Tresco Stores is a good source of picnic supplies. 

Stay: See tresco.co.uk for details of hotel and self-catering accommodation.

North Devon

4. Saunton Sands

Behind this untamed three-mile stretch of beach is Braunton Burrows, one of the largest sand-dune systems in Britain, and home to myriad rare plants and butterflies. Atlantic rollers sweep on to the vast sandy beach.

Saunton Sands is home to one of the largest sand-dune systems in Britain Credit: ALAMY

Eat: The Sands on the Beach, sister cafe to the Saunton Sands Hotel, offers casual dining options (sauntonsands.co.uk).

Stay: The Saunton Sands Hotel offers family-friendly accommodation right above the beach, with indoor and outdoor pools, a health club, and sea-view rooms. Read the full review.

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£ 168
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South Devon

5. Blackpool Sands 

Three miles south-west of Dartmouth is this sheltered and peaceful crescent of fine shingle, backed by wooded hills. It's popular with families, and a great spot for swimming as its turquoise waters are clean and usually calm. You can hire kayaks and paddle boards.

Eat: The Venus Café, right on the beach, serves takeaway snacks and burgers (lovingthebeach.co.uk).

Stay: Strete Barton House is a stylish b&b housed in a 16th-century manor house near Dartmouth. Read the full review.

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£ 155
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Dorset

6. Studland Bay 

Four miles of pristine white sand, which shelves gently into milky-blue waters, with a backdrop of dunes and heathland. The northern stretch, most easily reached by chain ferry, has an away-from-it-all, desert-island feel, appreciated by the naturist sunbathers at Shell Bay; the southern Knoll Beach is popular with families.

Studland Bay is four miles of pristine white sand Credit: getty

Eat: The National Trust Beach Café, Knoll Beach (nationaltrust.org.uk).

Stay: The Pig on the Beach hotel, which offers cosy interiors, superb breakfasts and an extensive kitchen garden. Offers views of Old Harry Rocks and the Isle of Wight. Read the full review.

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Isle of Wight

7. Compton Bay 

A rural and unspoilt stretch of coast caught between the English Channel and the grassy downs of West Wight. Walk south to Brook Bay at low tide and you may find ancient dinosaur tracks revealed on the foreshore, or spot fossils in the crumbling cliffs (see dinosaurisle.com for details of fossil walks). Access from the clifftop car parks (National Trust) is by steep wooden steps.

Eat: The Café at Dimbola Lodge in Freshwater Bay (dimbola.co.uk), is set in a charming photographic museum and serves teas and lunches.

Stay: Compton Farm Caravan and Camping (comptonfarm.co.uk) is close to the beach.

Sussex

8. West Wittering

It's a long, narrow and often traffic-choked road to the Witterings from Chichester, but that's what gives this Sussex beach its remote feel. The fine, open stretch of sand, overlooking the Solent and Chichester harbour, is spotlessly clean and at low tide there are pools for paddling. Out on the water, acrobatic windsurfers sweep past. From the far western end, you can cross a narrow ridge to East Head, a lovely and remote sand-dune spit at the mouth of the harbour. Get there early to avoid the queues and bag a parking spot.

West Wittering is an open stretch of sand, overlooking the Solent Credit: getty

Eat: At the well-run beach café, which serves a range of snacks and sandwiches (westwitteringestate.co.uk).

Stay: Church Lodge is clapboard-fronted b&b a stone’s throw from West Wittering’s celebrated beach. Read the full review.

Kent

9. Botany Bay

This is the most northerly of Broadstairs's beaches, and perhaps the prettiest – a 660ft curve of sand backed by white cliffs, with chalk stacks, rock pools and safe swimming. At low tide you can walk to Joss Bay, Kent's best surf beach.

Eat: Bessie's Tea Parlour (bessiesteaparlour.co.uk) is a popular option. 

Stay: The Reading Rooms is a restored Georgian townhouse on genteel Hawley Square, a stone's throw from Margate's sandy beach. Read the full review.

Suffolk

10. Walberswick 

The wooden bridge leading from the picturesque village of Walberswick to the beach is always crammed with children clutching crabbing lines and plastic buckets. Clamber over the ridge of dunes into the magical light of the Suffolk coast and you'll understand why so many artists are drawn to paint this long and empty stretch of sandy beach.

Bask in the magical light of the Suffolk coast Credit: getty

Eat: The Anchor serves up superior pub food (anchoratwalberswick.com).

Stay: In Southwold, stay at the Crown Hotel or the Swan Hotel, which offers an old-fashioned welcome and family-friendly service.

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Norfolk

11. Wells/Holkham 

You don't know the meaning of "big sky" until you cross the wooden boards through the dunes and tip out on to this vast stretch of sand, midway along the north Norfolk coast. You can lay out your beach towels here or walk east on a path through the pine woods to the slightly more sheltered beach at neighbouring Wells-next-the-Sea. In high summer it's easier to park at Wells and walk the other way. In any case, take a windbreak – and watch out for the caprices of the incoming tide.

Eat: The Beach Cafe on the Holkham Estate is backed by pinewoods and near the beach. Food is homemade, using local produce, and includes hot and cold snacks, lunches, and sandwiches, as well as ice-creams and drinks. Dogs welcome (holkham.co.uk).

Stay: Cley Windmill overlooking the salt marshes is about 11 miles east along the coast. Read the full review.

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Yorkshire

12. Sandsend 

Set against a backdrop of grassy cliffs, where the wide sweep of beach from Whitby ends, this stretch is quieter and prettier than its famous neighbour. Children play in the little becks that flow across the sand and ducks waddle across the green in charming Sandsend village. This is a great place for fossil hunting at low tide.

Sandsend is a great place for fossil hunting at low tide Credit: getty

Eat: The Woodlands is a lovely café-cum-restaurant close to the beach.

Stay: The Porthole is a converted 19th-century bunker built into the cliff with a private terrace overlooking the sea (sandsendcottages.co.uk).

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Northumberland

13. Bamburgh 

Overlooked by Bamburgh Castle, this beautiful stretch of wild coastline offers clear seas and huge sands that stretch to Seahouses, three miles away. On a clear day you can see out to Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands.

Eat: The Old Ship Inn, Seahouses (seahouses.co.uk) is an atmospheric pub with sweeping sea views; local seafood is the speciality. 

Stay: St Cuthbert's House (stcuthbertshouse.com) is an elegant 200-year-old former chapel in North Sunderland near Seahouses.

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£ 130
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Lancashire

14. Formby 

The monumental dunes here are classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and from their tops there are views of the Cumbrian mountains – and even Blackpool Tower on a clear day. Footpaths lead through the pinewoods behind to a red squirrel reserve (this is one of the last outposts in Britain), and on the vast expanse of beach you can sometimes spot prehistoric human and animal footprints. The sunsets are spectacular. Read our guide to a walk along the Formby coast.

The monumental dunes at Formby are classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest Credit: istock

Eat: This remote spot is best enjoyed with a picnic among the dunes.

Stay: Bay Tree House b&b in Southport has six cosy rooms (baytreehousesouthport.co.uk).

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£ 80
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East coast of Scotland

15. Lunan Bay

This magnificent two-mile strand on the unheralded Angus coastline is backed by dunes and overlooked by Red Castle, a crumbling 12th-century fortress. Its pink sandstone hues match the colour of the low red cliffs and curious rock formations on the beach below.

This is a great place for birdwatching, and is popular with surfers and riders. Some swear the sands have a rosy tint; certainly the shore glitters after a storm, when semiprecious stones such as agate and jasper can be found. Take care when swimming as there are strong currents.

Eat and stay: Gordon's Restaurant with rooms in nearby Inverkeilor (gordonsrestaurant.co.uk) is a place for serious foodies and offers rooms.

West coast of Scotland

16. Sandwood Bay, Cape Wrath, Sutherland 

Sutherland's, and arguably Scotland's, best beach is Sandwood Bay: a glorious, mile-long stretch of sparkling sand that is pounded by North Atlantic rollers and backed by undulating dunes. The beach is popular with intrepid types – there's a hike of four and a half miles from Blairmore.

Sandwood Bay is arguably Scotland's best beach Credit: getty

Eat: The sand is the perfect place for a picnic.

Stay: Mackay's Rooms, Durness, has seven stylish bedrooms, two self-catering properties and two crofts. Read the full review.

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£ 149
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Scottish Islands

17. Luskentyre, Outer Hebrides

Hidden at the end of a winding road on the wild north-west coast of the Isle of Harris, this long stretch of brilliant sand is washed by shallow, startlingly azure water. Farther out are the steel-grey rollers more often associated with Scotland, studded with empty, windswept islands.

Eat: There are no cafes within walking distance so take a picnic.

Stay: Whitefalls Spa Lodges have huge bathrooms, modern interiors and stunning views (whitefalls.co.uk).

Northern Ireland

18. Portstewart Strand

A magnificent beach on the Causeway Coast, bounded at one end by low basalt cliffs and at the other by the River Bann. The dunes that back the two-mile-long Strand reach heights of 100ft and more, lending it an air of wildness and mystery. The waves that crash on to the beach provide reasonable surfing. In neighbouring Portrush you can marvel at sea-sculpted shapes in limestone cliffs on White Rocks beach – the Cathedral Cave, the Lion's Paw and the Wishing Arch.

Portstewart Strand is a magnificent beach on the Causeway Coast Credit: getty

Eat: Try Ramore Wine Bar, on the harbour in Portrush (ramorerestaurant.com).

Stay: The Royal Court Hotel (royalcourthotel.co.uk) stands above Portrush, looking down on the town, the East Strand and the Royal Portrush Golf Course.

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£ 125
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Wales

19. Marloes Sands 

There is a half-mile walk from the car park to this magnificent National Trust-managed beach, but it's worth it for the crystal-clear water, dramatic sandstone cliffs, views of outlying islands, fossils, rock pools, seals, surf and space.

Eat: Pop into the Lobster Pot Inn at Marloes for traditional pub grub (thelobsterpotmarloes.co.uk).

Stay: Coastal Cottages offer a wide variety of self-catering accommodation across Pembrokeshire (coastalcottages.co.uk).

20. Rhossili beach

The Worm's Head promontory marks the beginning of this four-mile stretch of golden sand. Set at the western tip of the peninsula, it bears the full might of Atlantic swells, and is popular with surfers, walkers and paragliders. Access is tricky, involving a walk down the cliff path. Look out for the hull of the Helvetia, wrecked on the beach in 1887. There can be strong undertows when the surf is high.

Rhossili is a four-mile stretch of golden sand Credit: Getty

Eat and stay: Eat and sleep at the Worm's Head Hotel, where nearly all the rooms have sea views (thewormshead.co.uk).

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With contributions from Ian Belcher, Gill Charlton, Hugh Graham, Francesca Hoyles, Michael Kerr, Nigel Richardson, Caroline Shearing, Lizzie Porter, Joanna Symons and Penny Walker.