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Cuckmere Haven on a bright sunny day

Ten beautiful British coastlines

From vast skies and shifting sand dunes to quaint fishing harbours and smugglers’ coves – these are some of Britain’s most remarkable stretches of coast

01/03/2021Updated 12/07/2023

Robin Hood’s Bay fishing village in North Yorkshire (Getty Images)

North York Moors Coast

In August, heather blossoms over the North York Moors, washing the uplands in pinks and purples before reaching towards the craggy coast with its mighty cliffs, steep wooded valleys and sheltered coves. Protected on three sides by this dense moorland, Robin Hood’s Bay was once a thriving smuggling community; with its narrow, cobbled streets, secret passageways and boltholes, it’s said that a bale of silk could pass through the village without ever leaving the houses. Down by the shore at nearby Boggle Hole, embark on your own clandestine mission by lifting rocks to reveal slippery butterfish and velvet swimming crabs hidden below.

High Life tip: Tuck into takeaway fish and chips by the harbour at Robin Hood’s Bay, and you might see ‘pilgrims’ finishing Wainwright’s epic Coast to Coast Walk, by dipping their feet in the North Sea.

Boats and lobster pots in Anstruther Harbour, Fife (Alamy)

East Neuk of Fife

Forming part of Scotland’s ‘East Neuk’ (pronounced ‘nuke’ and Scots for nook, as in ‘cosy corner’), the Fife coastline between Crail and Elie offers a charming string of fishing villages with sheltered harbours and homely pubs. Once the heart of a thriving fishing trade, it also allows ample opportunity to taste Scotland’s superlative seafood. Head to the picturesque harbour at Crail for crab rolls and lobster cooked on the quayside. Or wolf down battered haddock and chips on benches outside The Ship Inn in Elie, while watching the pub’s own team playing cricket on the beach.

High Life tip: Feeling intrepid? Seek out the Elie Chain Walk, a series of chains attached to the cliffs between Shell Bay and West Bay, allowing you to scramble your way for a quarter of a mile of the coast. (Check tide times carefully as you can get cut off.)

The Seven Sisters and Beachy Head lighthouse (Getty Images). Opening image: Cuckmere Haven (AWL)

Cuckmere Haven & The Seven Sisters

The glistening meanders of the River Cuckmere, curling through chalk grassland before spilling out to sea at Cuckmere Haven, is surely the most serene view in East Sussex. Amble beside the slow-flowing water to the shingle beach in search of hagstones – flint pebbles with natural holes bored through them, said to bring good luck – then get your heart pumping with a stomp over the Seven Sisters, a line of white cliffs topped with wind-bent trees and rising skylarks.

High Life tip: After walking along the rollercoaster cliffs to Birling Gap, head inland to East Dean for lunch on the green at The Tiger Inn, a thatched-roofed pub dating back to the 16th century with low-slung oak beams and mighty fine ales (it’s popular, so book in advance). The ‘Coaster’ bus service runs between Brighton and Eastbourne, calling at the Seven Sisters Car Park and East Dean, so it’s easy to catch a ride after your walk.

St Martin’s Flats and St Lawrence’s Bay at low tide, Isles of Scilly (Alamy)

Isles of Scilly

With turquoise waters and powdery white sands that wouldn’t be amiss in the Maldives, the Isles of Scilly – lying some 28 miles off the Cornish coast – are a world of wonder. Even more remarkable, the archipelago has one of the highest tidal ranges in the British Isles and, when lunar forces combine to create dramatic spring tides, the waters between Bryher and Tresco part and it becomes possible to walk between the islands. After checking the tide times carefully, venture out on to the sands in search of starfish and sea urchins stranded by the receding waves.

High Life tip: To coincide with the most impressive spring tides, the island of Tresco throws a shindig on the sandbar, setting up a bar and firepits as the water recedes, while Bryher’s Island Fish serves paella on Thursdays

Bamburgh Castle has stood for more than 1,400 years (AWL)

Northumberland Coast

With windswept dunes, imposing castles and haunted ruins, England’s wild northern reaches have a palpable sense of drama. An imposing stronghold has dominated the skyline at Bamburgh for the past 1,400 years, and at dusk, the sandstone walls of the present castle, spanning an enormous nine acres, are a sight to behold. Further along the coast, the remains of Dunstanburgh Castle perches on a dolerite outcrop over Embleton Bay, a two-mile curve of golden sand, backed by dunes. Numerous ghosts are said to haunt the ruins, most notably Thomas Plantagenet who was beheaded for treason in 1322. The region is also renowned for its fishing heritage, and all along the coast you can tuck into hearty portions of Craster kippers, potted shrimp and fresh lobster, delivered daily by the bucket-load.

High Life tip: Tuck into crab stotties and smoked kippers, served simply with thick-cut brown bread and butter, at The Ship Inn – a cosy pub with its own microbrewery, tucked between fishermen’s cottages at Low Newton. Alternatively, seek out local smokehouses, such as Swallow Fish of Seahouses, where they smoke their fish over oak sawdust, using methods dating back generations.

Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk (Getty Images)

North Norfolk Coast

With its broad skies and mercurial salt marsh, sculpted by shifting currents and tides, the North Norfolk Coast has a wild, and at times eerie, beauty. Head to Stiffkey with its inky blue mud flats and ‘Stewkey Blues’ cockles; stroll past rows of colourful beach huts on stilts at Wells-next-the-Sea or explore four miles of pristine pine-fringed dunes at Holkham. Time for lunch? Follow the coast road through flint villages, keeping one eye out for chalkboards advertising smoked fish and cracked Cromer crab.

High Life tip: Travel deep into the salt marsh by hitching a ride with the incoming tide on a traditional wooden sailing boat with Coastal Exploration Company, pausing to swim in the creeks or gather samphire and cockles for lunch.

Sandy beach and dunes near Sollas on North Uist (Getty Images)

North Uist, Outer Hebrides

It’s common knowledge that those who make it to the Outer Hebrides – a crescent of Atlantic islands lying 40 miles off the northwestern coast of Scotland – are rewarded with Britain’s finest, and most remote, beaches. Many head to the infamous white shores of Harris and Lewis. Detour to North Uist, however, and you may get miles of sand to yourself. Choose Clachan Sands for a sheltered bay with unbelievably clear water and sand made from crushed seashells. Or nearby Balranald RSPB Nature Reserve, where you can search for otter prints on the foreshore while short-eared owls fly low over the machair, a fertile grassland peppered with wildflowers.

High Life tip: From North Uist, drive over a causeway to the nearby island of Grimsay, which has a strong seafaring tradition. Pick up freshly landed scallops, crab claws and langoustines from Kallin Shellfish, a small shop adjoining a seafood factory, or sit outside the nearby Seafood Café beside the bustling pier, keeping a watchful eye on the skies for passing eagles.

Southwold Pier (Getty Images)

Southwold to Orford Ness, Suffolk

Eccentric pier arcades, secret military experiments and Suffolk’s ‘Atlantis’ – this is as quirky as Britain’s coastline gets. At Tim Hunkin’s The Under the Pier Show on Southwold Pier – a collection of homemade machines and simulator rides – you can play Whack-a-Banker, battering bald heads with a splat-a-rat style mallet, or descend to dystopian depths in The Bathyscaphe. Further along the coast, gaze out to sea where the drowned town of Dunwich, once a thriving port rivalling 13th-century London, was lost to the waves over 700 years ago. Most curious of all is the bleak but beautiful Orford Ness, a remote spit of land once used for military experiments, now an important coastal nature reserve where wild-eyed hares shelter in the bomb-pitted shingle and seabirds nest in disintegrating laboratories.

High Life tip: Exposed to the elements, Orford Ness can be a blustery spot; fill up on fine coffee and stuff your pockets with pastries from Pump Street Bakery in Orford, before hopping on the ferry over to this National Trust Nature Reserve.

The vast sandy beach in Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula (©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey)

The Gower, southwest Wales

From wild open moors to golden beaches, undulating grasslands to precipitous cliffs, the compact Gower Peninsula is unexpectedly diverse, and there’s a stretch of sand to suit every taste. Favour the classically beautiful? Rhossili Bay is a three-mile swathe of golden sand washed by Atlantic swell. (The Independent called it “the supermodel of British beaches”). Looking for something more secluded? Pebbly Pwlldu Bay (which translates as ‘black pool’, although it couldn’t be less like its northern namesake) can only be reached on foot. Fancy something wilder? Head to Whiteford Burrows – a dune and pine plantation on the north coast of The Gower, where the tidal Loughor Estuary delivers abundant beachcombing opportunities.  

High Life tip: With its dragon’s spine of limestone cliffs, ruined castle and the Pennard Pill river snaking across the sand, it’s no wonder Three Cliffs Bay is one of Wales’ most photographed sights. Wake up to the unbeatable view by pitching your tent at the (understandably popular) Three Cliffs Bay Holiday Park.

Ponies graze on Murlough National Nature Reserve, County Down (Alamy)

Murlough National Nature Reserve, County Down

“I have seen landscapes (in the Mourne Mountains), which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge,” wrote CS Lewis, describing his fondness for the lofty granite peaks that sweep down to the sea at Murlough, near Newcastle in County Down, Northern Ireland. The Belfast-born author was raised in this crisp Mourne Mountain air and often described his fondness for its ‘Northernness’ – the remote and empty landscapes that eventually inspired Narnia. Huddled in the shadow of these mountains, Murlough National Nature Reserve is a 6,000-year-old sand dune system looked after by the National Trust. Even if you can’t find Aslan wading in the rippling shallows, you may be lucky enough to spot a lounging seal.

High Life tip: Follow a network of boardwalks through the dunes, woodlands and heaths in search of wading birds such as curlews and lapwing, or one of the 22 species of butterfly that call this magical place home.

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