With temperatures set to soar this weekend and the ever-changing rules over travel abroad causing headaches, a British seaside holiday has never looked so appealing. Recent media images may have shown the UK’s most popular coastlines heaving with holidaymakers, but there are plenty of hidden beaches up and down the country just waiting to be explored. Award-winning travel writer, photographer and environmental consultant Daniel Start has spent years doing just that, discovering the UK’s best secret coves and bays for wild swimming to compile into a travel guide book, Hidden Beaches. Here, he reveals the 12 best beaches to visit off the beaten track.
Spectacular Kynance Cove on the Lizard was immortalised by the Romantic poets and painters of the 18th century. It’s not hard to see why – shiny black serpentine rocks tower up in pinnacles around the beach and green and purple minerals colour the water. The result is dramatic, to say the least. Though this National Trust beach is well known, the walk from the car park limits visitor numbers. The hidden parts are on the far beach by Asparagus Island, only accessible on a falling tide. Here, the Devil’s Letterbox blowhole hisses and bellows and several deep pools appear among the rocks. Daredevils jump from the high black crags and snorkelers explore overhangs and caves.
Mwnt is the most perfect sandy cove, sheltered by sandstone cliffs and watched over by a tiny 14th century church. The gently rolling waves and golden swathe of sand are a pull, but it’s the wildlife which steals the show – here, you can spot wild bottlenose dolphins at play in the bay, as well as porpoises and basking sharks. Though remote, it is however far from secret, so if you’re yearning for a wilder adventure, explore a few hundred yards along the coast path to the east. Here you’ll find great slabs of rock that shelve into perfect pellucid seas, ideal for sea-caving and snorkelling.
The Outer Hebrides, an island chain off the northwest coast of Scotland, are places of pilgrimage for the beach connoisseur. Ribbons of snow-white sand drift down the islands’ Atlantic coasts and collect in sweeping bays, while meadows covered in wildflowers provide the perfect backdrop and offer endless wild camping potential. If you only visit one beach, Luskentyre sands, on the west coast of South Harris, is a must. Even on overcast days, acres of white sand glow under turquoise shallows, with the mountains and a scattering of tiny islets providing an amazing backdrop. The water may be freezing but the intensity of the colours cannot fail to move you.
As you explore the Exmoor coast it’s difficult to imagine an easy way to access the remote and dramatic foreshore lying far below, often invisible from the land. But beneath the steep, woodland-cloaked cliffs – where waterfalls tumble from moorland down to the sea – are a series of hidden beaches. Tucked away between Watermouth and Combe Martin is one such – Broad Sands. The descent is steep, which makes it alluringly remote, but once you arrive, you’ll be rewarded with two picturesque shingle beaches and crystalline water – there’s also an island lookout to climb and a series of rock caves to explore.
For dramatic scenery, Speke’s Mill Mouth is a vision of high cliffs and precipitous plunge pools, not to mention a waterfall which plummets 60 ft from the wildflower-strewn cliffs onto jagged fingers of rocks below (it’s the tallest waterfall in the South West). Sand here is precious, as in most of Hartland, and where it collects it drifts into the folds of the wave-cut platforms – the stumps of old seamed cliffs worn down to ground level by the constant gyrations of sea, pebbles and storms. Warm water also collects in these long channels, creating shallow pools that are perfect for paddling in at low tide.
Pedn Vounder is a dramatic bay protected by the stunning cliffs of Treryn Dinas; here, sandbars and lagoons form between towering granite outcrops, creating shallow pools which are deliciously warm on sunny days. The beach is reached by a flower-lined track but a tricky descent helps to keep the crowds away. Those that persevere are rewarded with a swathe of powdery white sand and a gently lapping turquoise sea. Bathers can swim in among little inlets or wade over to the Logan Rock headland, where a cantilevered rock once stood until some local lads tipped it into the sea as a challenge nearly a hundred years ago.
Suffolk’s coastline is one of the least developed in England, its villages and resorts, set among woods and marshland, offering an unspoilt charm. So too, many of the beaches, where under an evening sky at low tide, with the surf rushing over the sand, the sea fades into a soup of pink and mauve, making the shoreline a mesmerising place to swim. Covehithe, just north of Southwold, offers stop-in-your-tracks natural beauty. Often described as “the beach at the end of the world”, it is accessible only by foot or bike via a footpath from a ruined church, which leads to a golden sandy beach, enticing lagoon and, best of all, seclusion.
The coast of St David’s in Pembrokeshire is home to some of Wales’s most savagely beautiful scenery, while the combination of sandy coves and dramatic coastal formations is perfect for wild swimming. Below cliffs cloaked in buttercups and sea-lavender, Porthmelgan cove – on the northern tip of the popular Whitesands Bay – lies tucked away into the rocks. Thanks to its position, it’s not only sheltered from the elements but also a sun trap. Rockpools abound with starfish and sea anemones and there are sea caves ripe for exploring, but big swells here can generate rip tides along the cove edges, so leave any explorations for a calm day.
While people flock to Whitby Sands, leave the holidaymakers behind and head out to the wide, wild sweep of Runswick Bay – or, to be more precise, Kettleness, at the southern end of the bay, which is accessed by walking down winding narrow lanes past a remote chapel and farm. Here, the slippery mudstone and silvery-blue shale cliffs shimmer in the evening light, feathers of rock extend in an arc out to sea; a steep path leads down to the sands and a network of rough trails fans out across a lunar plateau bearing the scars of old alum mine workings. The beach is also well known amongst the fossil hunting community, who regularly find dinosaur and ammonite along the foreshore and in the cliff.
Scolt Head is Britain’s very own desert island. A whaleback of white sand and dune hills, decked with green marram grass, it is accessible only via small sailing boat or by swimming. To the north of the island is the sea but the south side is a network of snaking sandy channels and pools which, with the help of a little local knowledge, you can navigate. The best routes out are from Burnham Overy Staithe, one of the prettiest harbours on this coast. The raised path follows the right-hand side of the creek up to Burnham beach, a dazzling stretch of sand with panoramic views from the dunes atop Gun Hill.
The Llyn Peninsula, with the Irish Sea on one side and Cardigan Bay on the other, is wildly beautiful, with its wild stretches of coast, long-extinct volcanic peaks and grassy hillsides dotted with picture-perfect seashore cottages and ancient forts. While its sunny southern coast is a mecca for walkers and wakeboarders, the north-west coast offers wildlife, moorland and a string of pearly coves. Do make time to visit Porth Iago, my favourite among all these coves for wild swimming. The thick crescent slice of white sand occupies a deep cleft between the cliffs and there are perfect rocks for diving, jumping and snorkelling in the clear, blue waters.
Chichester Harbour’s wide expanses and intricate creeks are major wildlife havens; one of the least developed sites on the south coast, this is a paradise of muddy tidal creeks and perfect white sandbars. Pilsey Island, a small islet within the harbour, is perhaps the most remote beach and Sussex’s own answer to a desert island. It’s actually an acre of cockle beds, mud flats and shingle, fringed by white beaches on its east side and accessible only by boat or via a very long walk across military land. Here, you can while away hours beachcombing, finding little treasures such as pearl-lined limpet shells, razor clams and whelks. The bird life is also outstanding.
Hidden Beaches: Explore the Secret Coast of Britain by Daniel Start