The English Coast

The English Coast

The South East Coast of Britain from Bournemouth to the Wash.

Between the golden sands of Bournemouth and the seals on the North Norfolk coast the South East shores of Britain encompass every imaginable kind of coastal feature; long sandy beaches, windblown cliffs, lonely marshes and dunes, defensive castles, bijou fishing villages and swanky yachting marinas, and that most quixotic of English creations, the pier.

Much of the South coast is very popular, full-up is not too harsh a term. Great swathes are colonised by retired folk, and they like to pull up the drawbridge behind them. Access to the shore can sometimes be a problem and signposting tends to be thrifty; road names like Sea View and Sea Lane give the game away. Traffic is purgatorial in the summer months but buses and trains are a reasonable alternative as is cycling or walking; there are several long distance walks along the Solent Way and the Saxon Shore Way following ancient routes right along the coast. Best of all take to the sea; little ferries, river cruises and even paddle steamers ply the waters.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid the caravans on the map; they may indicate good beaches but you can be sure they are ruined, if only aesthetically. Then understand that the English class system is alive and well when it comes to choosing your seaside. For bingo and roller coasters go to Margate, for a nice cup of tea on the sands you go to Broadstairs, if you’re a yachtee you go to Lymington. If you want to be fashionably ahead you go to Whitstable for an oyster lunch or Walberswick for Adnams beer with the locals. If you’re an American in search of a bit of real old England go to Rye, and if you simply want to retire try Eastbourne.

In high summer it makes a lot of sense to go to the big resorts rather than cram into a tiny fishing village, and for a well-organised bucket and spade holiday Bournemouth cannot be faulted. Purpose built as a health resort in the 19th century, it caters for thousands with complete aplomb, fully equipped with beach huts, lifts from the cliff top, car free promenade, and sand as fine as flour. The central area around the Pavilion, gardens and the pier buzzes with amusements and funfairs; at dusk it is still the “glittering novelty” that amazed Tess of the Durbervilles.

There is a serious surfing scene here, lots of new clubs and cafes, including a Cybercafe, and a growing gay population- (Studland is the favoured beach.) Or you can simply sit outside your beachhut on deckchairs and drink tea all day.

The Chines, secluded wooded ravines leading down to the beach, have effectively limited solid development, and provide pine shaded havens for villas and guesthouses. Durley Chine has one of the few Blue Flag beaches on the entire coast. Accommodation ranges from bed and breakfast, through traditional boarding houses to the grand hotels which dominate the 100 feet cliffs. Stay in one of the grandest, the Swallow Highcliff, to embrace the best of Bournemouth, complete with palatial lobby, panoramic sea views, indoor and outdoor pools for those too nesh to do more than paddle in the sea.

To the east little Boscombe is a more modest resort, with its own pier, its candy coloured seaside hotels, and Shelley’s heart, buried in the churchyard. From the wide sandy (Blue Flag) beach at Fishermans Walk you can walk all the way to Hengistbury Head, and a completely undeveloped stretch of south facing pebble beach, good for fossil hunting. The cliffs above are a cherished wilderness of dragonflies and wild flowers with wonderful views.

Round the headland is Christchurch Bay where several sleepy little resorts offer gentle paddling, patches of sand among the pebbles and gorgeous gorse covered cliff tops for windy picnics. Mudeford Quay is an excellent place for crabbing, and a short ferry ride away is Mudeford Spit with its colony of highly-prized beach huts. The old village of Milford on Sea is as pretty as a greetings card with Georgian bay windows, a Norman church and annual great pumpkin competition on the village green. It even has a decent restaurant in Rochers (01590 642340) for the famous Christchurch salmon.

The bobbing white sails that throng Christchurch harbour are just a taste of the bustling marinas that fringe the Solent and Southampton Water, packed out with people messing about in boats from motor cruisers to ocean going yachts, functional little dinghies to brightly coloured canoes, millions of pounds worth of the latest in nautical design which seems to spend most of its time bobbing gently at anchor.

Lymington has always been a port and boat building centre but is a delightful place for landlubbers too, with its rosy brick cottages, cobbled quayside, and lots of pubs with harbour views. It is more relaxed than its reputation- today weekend sailors in khaki shorts and deck shoes have eclipsed the brass-buttoned blazers of the Royal Lymington Yacht Club.

Puffin cruises can be taken from here around the Solent and the Isle of Wight, and inland the great moors and woods of the New Forest beckon, still a protected haven for wild horses, deer and many rare birds. Lymington, “by sea and forest enchanted” is a good base to enjoy both.

The stately home industry takes over at Beaulieu, but best of all is Buckler’s Hard, a perfectly preserved 18th century shipbuilding village with an excellent museum and cottages fully furnished right down to the bed linen. Stay in the Master Builder’s House, now a fine hotel (01590 616253) with gardens down to the river.

The vast urban conurbation surrounding the great ports of Southampton and Portsmouth still yields several stretches of attractive coast including two Blue Flag beaches. A fine overview of the bustling, polluted expanse of Southampton Water can be had from the top of the chapel dome in Royal Victoria Park, all that remains of the vast military hospital. It is a moving place for a quiet walk along the wind buffeted shore of shingle and pines. The poetic ruins of Netley Abbey nearby, carpeted in soft grass, make a perfect quiet picnic spot, free of ice cream vans.

The river Hamble is Howard’s Way country, with one of the first marinas built in the country, now jammed with megayachts. Hamble itself is a pretty little village of timber and herringbone brick cottages snaking down to the river. Sailmakers and ship’s chandlers abound – as do pubs – though the yacht club as usual occupies the prettiest harbour front building of all. The Key pub and restaurant (01703 545314) on the waterfront offers a catch of the day tasting plate. A ferry will take you over to Warsash (famous for its crabs and more recently its strawberries) and the peaceful bird-haunted marshes and nature reserves beyond.

The view from Ports Down, the chalk ridge of hills cradling Portsmouth is often called one of the finest in England, a panorama from Southampton to Sussex, Portsmouth Harbour and the Isle of Wight.

Southsea is Portsmouth’s popular urban seaside, with three miles of seafront and some fine Regency buildings. Hayling Island, accessible by road bridge from Langstone Harbour, is also very popular but remains remarkably rural and unspoilt inland, despite the caravan parks. The south facing pebble and sand beach has a coveted Blue Flag Award and can get very crowded. The best bit is the gorse covered sand dunes of the

Sinah Common nature reserve to the west, near the Ferry Boat Inn.

Chichester harbour has 47 miles of navigable water and its little creeks accommodate sailors and anglers galore. Cruises around the harbour are available or you can take the ferry from West Itchenor across the river and walk to the sweet little village of Bosham with its flint cottages, wooden mill and ancient Saxon church, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. It is a popular place for evening stroll, and the Anchor Bleu pub has decent food and nice terrace overlooking the quay. Boats are tied up at the stone steps of the houses on the shore, and care needs to be taken parking where the tide comes in.

My five year old co-researcher voted West Wittering the best beach of all -with the tide out there are miles of good sand and lots of warm pools for paddling. It’s a classy resort with a hefty car park charge, but once at the beach there are only rows of beachhuts, and no amusements other than buckets and spades.

But it is Selsey Bill, at the very end of the peninsula that gets the Blue Flag. There nothing much there except sand and shingle, and once over the seawall the horizon is empty of all except sea and sky. Fishing boats bring in the famous Selsey cockles here, and a stall sells them along with winkles and crabs, or you can stop to eat at the Crab and Lobster Inn in Sidlesham on the way home.

Beyond the sheep and skylarks of the South Downs is a coast of fine resorts with high sunshine ratings; all good reasons why this is a popular retirement area. Car parking restrictions mean that access to all but the most public beaches can be quite limited, though public footpath notices sprout defiantly.

“Dear little Bognor” as Queen Victoria called Bognor Regis, still has an air of innocence about it, crazy golf and all. Lobster pots and fishing boats nestle between the merry-go-round and the pier- currently being restored. The beach is as long, sandy and safe as claimed, (though no Blue Flag) the sun really does seem to shine more here than anywhere else.

From Bognor to Brighton is almost continuous residential development, but between the little private enclave of Middleton-on-Sea and Littlehampton is a gem- Climping Beach, a long undeveloped stretch of beach, with only green fields behind. A hundred yards from the beach is Bailiffscourt, (01903 723511) an extraordinary hotel, a Gothic folly constructed from architectural fragments in the 1920s, which cost £1 million to build even then. It is the height of secluded luxury (tapestry hung four poster beds, helicopter landing pad and all) worth visiting for lunch or tea.

There is a small car park at the end of the lane signed to Climping Beach off the A259, or you can walk from Littlehampton. The cognoscenti of Littlehampton (considered rather funky by the standards of this coast) also favour the sandy dunes of the west beach of the Arun river, accessible by ferry boat from the jolly little harbour.

This is the Sussex of floral clocks, croquet lawns and bowling greens, and nobody does bowls better than Worthing, home of the national championships. White cardies are de rigeur. Both Worthing and Hove are quieter, shabbier versions of Brighton. The beaches are okay unless there’s a lot of seaweed which combined with hot sun, can result in a malodorous stink. The wonderful Waverley Steamer, the oldest sea going paddle steamer in the world, can be joined here for a coastal tour as far as Bournemouth.

Brighton, the “sea-end of Wardour Street” is the refreshing antithesis of all this stuffiness. It has always been a cosmopolitan kind of seaside, and it doesn’t matter that the beach is mainly pebbles. One of the largest gay communities in Europe has reinforced the exotic flavour established with the Prince Regent’s famous Royal Pavilion. You can sunbathe nude, swim in the middle of the night, or drink Chablis with your fish and chips. Do visit the Palace Pier, stroll along the front and have a drink at the Grand Hotel. The Sussex Arts Club is a fashionable cosy place to stay, and The Greys is a pub-restaurant good for live jazz and lunch. English’s Oyster Bar, in a converted fishermen’s cottage, is the best place for oysters and fish.

The finest walk along this part of the coast is the cliff walk along Seven Sisters between Cuckmere Haven and Beachy Head. In the middle is Birling Gap where steep steps lead down to the sea and a tiny beach much favoured by smugglers. Beachy Head itself gives new meaning to the word bracing; it’s the highest cliff on the south coast with fabulous views.

Hastings is still a down at heel beatnik timewarp. Check out the half-timbered houses and pretty weatherboarded cottages of the old town, the smugglers’ caves on West Hill, (a popular location for raves too these days), the dizzying beach lift to the castle ruins, and best of all, the fishing boats and tarred black net huts on the shingle shore. The Mermaid is a little whitewashed hut selling fresh and smoked fish and magnificent fish and chips. In complete contrast is the elegant Regency resort of St Leonard’s, a fine example of the work of architects James and Decimus Burton.

Rye and Winchelsea are both equally delightful, though no longer on the coast. Long abandoned by the sea Rye perches picturesquely above the marshes, offering a film set cliche of cobblestoned streets and mullioned windows. The ancient Mermaid Inn (07973 3065) is the best place to stay, with four poster beds, log fires and Romney lamb on the menu. Winchelsea Beach, a short distance from the town, is a quiet unspoilt stretch of shingle. Round the bay is Camber, a windy expanse of pure sand dunes.

Romney marsh is another world, a 100 square mile patchwork of ditches and dykes, eerie marrooned villages and ancient churches. The shore here is wild and bleak too, though the Dungeness headland offered Derek Jarman inspiration for his now famous garden. There is a wonderful new hotel here, facing the sea, Romney Bay House, a grand white mansion built in the 1920s by the architect of Portmeirion, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, for the legendary Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. The terraced gardens of 14th century Lympne Castle give splendid views of this whole coastline from Dover to Hastings and over to France on a clear day.

Folkestone and Dover are blessed and blighted by cross-channel business, though both have surprisingly pleasant beaches. Folkestone is much the nicest, with cockles and whelks stalls and a sandy beach sheltered by harbour walls. The best beach near Dover is St Margaret’s at Cliffe, down a steep wooded road to a tiny bay nestling between steep chalk cliffs. It is the traditional chilly starting place for channel swimmers. You can follow a White Cliffs trail along the cliff top between Dover and St Margaret’s though the best view of the White Cliffs themselves is from the sea.

Pegwell Bay is right on the edge of the Thanet seaside sprawl, the Pegwell Bay Hotel (01843 586001)is in a good location right on the cliff top with smugglers tunnels connecting parts of the hotel. There is no access to the beach here, however, a perennial problem in these parts.

Between Ramsgate and Margate the Isle of Thanet has coaleseced into one great seaside conurbation with just a handful of lovely bays worth seeking out. Ramsgate has a major ferry port, a massive marina, and a fine view of it all from the elegant houses on the Royal Esplanade above the town. It offers all the traditional amusements, a casino and a pavilion, and has a decent sandy beach. Broadstairs is prettier though and Margate has better sand.

Despite the Dickens teatowels, Broadstairs is beguiling- though its discreet charms are better appreciated out of high season. Dickens spent his summers here, enjoying the “rare good sands” of Viking Bay. His house, now called Bleak House, is full of idiosyncratic memorabilia and his bedroom still has the best view overlooking the sea. The little streets of the fishing village lead down to the harbour where there are several good seafood restaurants (very reasonably priced oysters) or you can take trays of tea and sardine sandwiches for the beach or the bandstand.

The best bay along this stretch, Joss Bay, a broad sandy beach sheltered by cliffs, and good for swimming. Perched on the cliff is the Castle Keep Hotel, (0843 65222) with outdoor swimming pool, a huge conservatory with wraparound sea views and an eccentric ruined folly in the garden.

Margate has a blowsy kind of appeal. When it comes to traditional seaside pleasures Margate’s “magic mile” has it all; seaside landladies, ferris wheels, donkey rides, swings, Punch and Judy, candy floss, the Tunnel of Love and proper English sunburn.

Margate’s west end merges into the quiet little resorts and small bays of Birchington and Westgate, all trim and neat, with rows of little blue and white beach huts. Rossetti liked it here. Minnis Bay is a good safe sandy beach with rock pools for shrimping.

You can walk along the sea wall defences to Reculver, a superb Roman fort with a Saxon church built within. It is visible for miles, but sadly so are the caravans which completely surround it. Herne Bay could be nice, but it’s not, ruined by a monstrous 60s replacement for its original pier. Go to Whitstable instead, which has now been well and truly discovered by day trippers from Hampstead. Black and white fishermen’s cottages line the shore, and you can walk right out on the rocks at low tide. Beyond the famous Walls which have held back the sea for centuries, is a town of sweet little cottages, sail lofts and chandleries, a good source of stripey sweaters. Beards predominate in the Royal Native Oyster Stores, a splendid restaurant in an old fish warehouse right on the shore. The sweet, white local oysters have been popular since Roman times, deep fried dabs and chargrilled sardines are good too. There is a good fish market too so don’t forget the coolbox .

After that the Isle of Sheppey and the Swale mean that coastal access is restricted to small creeks and inlets. The Isle of Sheppey, surprisingly, merits two beaches in the Good Beach Guide, at Sheerness and Leysdown-on-Sea, complete with Eel and Pie shops. but the most surprising thing about both Sheppey and the Isle of Grain is how remote they feel, bleak windswept marshes, nature reserves harbouring all manner of wildfowl, geese, herons and croaking frogs.

On the other side of the Thames Estuary Southend is London’s beach, seven miles of sand and esplanades crammed with casinos, crazy golf and bingo. Sadly dilapidated is the celebrated mile-long pier, the longest in the world, saved from demolition by Sir John Betjeman, who said it was the only place one could go to sea without getting seasick. Should you got to Southend and want to get away from it all, the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, painted by Constable, make a good picnic spot with views all the way to Kent.

After Southend that’s it for traditional seaside attractions till you get to Clacton, and more of the same. In between are miles of marshland, bird reserves, oyster beds and saltworks, intersected by creeks and little estuary ports like Burnham-on-Crouch, Brightlingsea and Maldon, perfect for weekend sailors, and landlubbers with a taste for nautical pubs, clapboard houses and Mersea oysters.

It is typical of most of the coast of East Anglia, which has one of the least developed coastlines in England- not surprising since the eroding coastline means eventually everything either falls into the sea or perversely the sea leaves it behind. The region has succeeded in remaining a comfortable backwater, cherished by its indigents and canny urban refugees alike. Even in holiday season when the roads are choked by caravan convoys, it is still easy to escape to a remote untrammelled stretch of heath or shingle beach for solitary windy walks. Binoculars are recommended and sedentary beach-dwellers do well to equip themselves with sturdy windbreaks.

The coast of Suffolk is the most beguiling, fringing a Constable country of broad brushed skies and somnolent villages of windmills, pink cottages and glassy millponds. The beaches are sand and shingle backed by crumbling cliffs, their shifting sands anchored by wooden groynes. Much however has already slipped into the sea- Aldeburgh’s lovely Tudor redbrick Moot hall with its fine carving, is now perilously close to the shore, along with what is left of Aldeburgh’s village streets. Local fishermen still land their catch here, in their distinctive blue and white fishing boats and a do a good early morning trade in fresh lobster and crab.

The famous music festival, founded by local scion, Benjamin Britten, is sensibly ensconced at Snape Maltings upriver, though events take place in churches and manor houses all around. Smart Suffolk folk combine bird watching and opera, and eat at the Lighthouse in Aldeburgh High Street. (01728 453377)

Dunwich is the most poignant of the lost towns of this coast;

once the biggest port in Suffolk, it is now more famous for what isn’t there. The last of its 12 churches slipped into the sea in 1919 and coffins from the graveyard still occasionally emerge from the cliffs. The bracken and heather of the clifftop nature reserve makes for fine walking as does the long shingle beach. And you can follow up with fine fish and chips and Adnams Bitter at The Ship Inn.

Southwold is the acknowledged gem of the entire coast. It too was a large port at one time, but a fire necessitated complete rebuilding and it is now an eccentric seaside town much favoured for second homes. Dutch gabled cottages cluster round its great white lighthouse, colonnaded neoclassical houses line the promenade and gaily painted beach huts provide shelter from the wind-bitten sand and shingle shore – probably the cleanest on the coast. The elegant Swan Hotel is the place to stay, and the Crown the place to eat; drink Adnams beer in the fashionably rustic front bar. Adnams is brewed here and still delivered by horse and cart.

To the south – by boat across the Blyth or a lengthy road detour, is little Walberswick, a river port favoured by artist Philip Wilson Steer and now a chic artists’ retreat with lots of little fishing boats and fishermen’s sheds to paint, a good beach, and weekenders in brand new Barbours chatting up the locals at the bar.

It’s back to candy floss, kiss-me-quick hats and sandy beaches at Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth; both have suffered dramatic reversals from the decline of the fishing industry- the sign as you enter Great Yarmouth “Great for holidays and great for industry!” does not, somehow, inspire confidence, but the seafront at Great Yarmouth is as jolly and as vulgar as Dickens’ Peggotty could wish. Heading north both Winterton-on-Sea and Happisburgh have churches worth stopping for and there are good beaches at Hemsby and beyond the dunes at Waxham Sands.

Norfolk it must be said is an acquired taste; birding and boating predominate. The sea which half surrounds it is often invisible beyond defensive dunes or a mile or so of misty marshland, and the flinty cottages and sturdy thatched roofs withstand biting winds. But the bleakness has a wild beauty too, and much of the isolated north coast has been declared an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, encompassing a precious variety of birds and wildlife in the spits and sandbanks sculpted by the powerful tides.

Cromer, its clifftop church tower standing sentinel to the east, has a wonderful period feel, with shop window displays of pinafores and teapots that seem little changed since the Fifties, though it is even longer since its heyday as a fashionable watering place. Now the once grand Victorian hotels on the cliff promenade are in danger of crumbling into the sea, and the celebrated Cromer crabs seem most appropriately consumed as sandwiches with a flask of tea on the beach. Still Cromer and nearby Sheringham have fine sandy beaches and recently improved water quality.

Remote this coast may seem, but undiscovered it isn’t- the little flintstone fishermen’s cottages of Blakeney and Brancaster Staithe have long been popular second homes and in summer the little creeks and estuaries are full of yachts and sailing dinghies. Wells-next-the-Sea isn’t – the beach is about a mile from the village, but it does have a fine restaurant, The Moorings, (01328 710949) serving excellent local dishes, lobsters, crabs and locally grown samphire. Cley-next-the-Sea isn’t either any more, but it’s a charming Dutch style village with a brisk walk through the marshes to the sea; the place to stay is Cley Windmill. (01263 740209)

The best beaches can be found at Stiffkey Freshes, Brancaster and Holkham, which has the largest coastal nature reserve in England, but it’s always advisable to check the tides to avoid a long walk to the sea. Perhaps the best way of all to appreciate the bracing pleasures of this coast is to take a boat from Blakeney or Morston Quay or walk along the shingle spit from Cley beach to see the seals at Blakeney Point. Here nature still reigns supreme.