When muggy summer weather descends, there's really only one place to be: the beach. Not to knock London's urban beaches – or refreshing outdoor lidos – but sometimes only an authentic sea breeze will do.
Everyone knows that Cornwall and Devon are home to some cracking beaches. But when it comes to dodging the crowds, we're more interested in little hidden coves accessible only by foot, or secluded shingle shores untainted by tacky souvenir shops.
Here's our pick of the best beautiful and hidden beaches across the UK.
RECOMMENDED: the 10 best beaches near London
The best off-the-beaten-track UK beaches
Where is it? On the south coast of Cornwall, two miles north-west of Lizard Point
Why go? In the rush down the A3083 to Lizard Point, many people miss the discreet sign on the right pointing them to Kynance Cove. It’s a shame, because this dramatic spot is heavenly. The spectacular contrast between the white sand beach studded with outcrops, arches and caves and the colourful 200ft cliffs behind them are reason enough to visit; add in the brilliant turquoise tones of the sea on a sunny day and you have, to many minds, the best beach in Cornwall. If you’re on the north coast, Bedruthan Steps’ crags and peaks are equally dramatic.
Nice neighbours: Poldhu Cove, Kennack Sands
Getting there: 300 miles/six hours from central London
Where is it? On the Gower Peninsula
Why go? The Gower coast is filled with gorgeous beaches, but we love Oxwich for the alluring mix of sand dunes, salt marshes and woodland that back its two-mile sandy stretch, and for the pretty village of Oxwich. Around the headland, Rhossili is staggering and dramatic, but Oxwich is gentler, with rolling hills behind it and safe shallow waters. These do make it a popular spot during the summer, but walk east, towards Tor Bay and Three Cliffs, and the crowds give way to walkers, twichers and cyclists making the most of the glorious expanse of hard-packed sand.
Nice neighbours: Rhossili, Broughton Bay, Cefn Sidan Sands
Getting there: 200 miles/four-five hours from central London
Where is it? On the Jurassic Coast
Why go? Thanks in no small part to its arresting array of limestone-carved arches and amazing views of them from the South West Coast Path, Dorset is a deserved chart-topper when it comes to outstanding beaches. For our money, Man O’War beach tops that list for being a respite from the crowds of more famous and more accessible spots (it’s a steep 800-metre long footpath from the clifftop car park, with 150 steps), for being a great (and safe) swimming spot, for its appealing mix of sand and fine pebbles, and for its clean, shallow waters.
Nice neighbours: Lulworth Cove, Studland Bay, Chesil Beach
Getting there: 130 miles/three+ hours from central London
Where is it? Just below Ventnor, on the southern coast of the Isle of Wight
Why go? It really is hidden. There’s no road access, so you’ll have to go on foot, by winding down a narrow path – all of which means there’s no road noise, no pesky crowds and no shops selling awful souvenirs. Instead, you’ll find a charming, colourful bay with a slight Mediterranean feel, fishing boats bobbing along peacefully, rock pools and fabulously fresh lobster. The beach itself is a mix of shingle and sand, and while it may not have the jaw-dropping, tropical-imitating ‘WOAH’ factor of some headline UK beaches, Steephill really does have its own unique charm. Spend five minutes here and you’ll see why.
Nice neighbours: Ventnor, Bonchurch
Getting there: 100 miles/three-four hours from central London
Where is it? Nine miles north of Whitby
Why go? Despite its glorious sweep, Runswick Bay is invisible until the last minute, when you crest an unassuming hill that leads down to it. From this point, surprises and hidden treasures unfold before you; the impossibly sweet village, comprising of 90 cute honey-coloured cottages capped with red tiles, doesn’t appear until you reach the bottom of the hill, packed in as it is under the shelter of the cliffs rising up Lingrow Knowle. Closer inspection of the beach and bay, stretching north to the head of Kettleness, reveals wooden huts, rock pools, picturesque staircases carved out of the cliffs and – at Kettleness – impressive fossils dating back 180 million years.
Nice neighbours: Sandsend, Whitby
Getting there: 275 miles/five+ hours from central London
Where is it? County Antrim’s northern coastline
Why go? A glorious, three-mile arc of white sand, tucked into a secluded spot on the otherwise very rocky Giant’s Causeway – the first World Heritage Site in Northern Ireland. The nestled location also keeps crowds away even on sweltering summer’s days. There’s a backdrop of ancient dunes, Elephant Rock (a rock that looks freakishly like – yes – a huge elephant, in the right light) and you might even catch a glimpse of dolphins of porpoises.
Nice neighbours: Portrush, Portstewart, Cushendun
Getting there: 500 miles/ten-11 hours from central London
Where is it? Halfway between Margate and Ramsgate
Why go? Older visitors will be humming ‘There’ll be bluebirds over, the white cliffs of Dover’ as they take in the chalk cliffs backing this lovely bay, but younger ones will be goggling at (and probably trying to scale) the towering stacks that characterise Botany Bay, and hunting for fossils at low tide. This is when the beach is at its best, revealing rock pools, an extensive chalk reef that’s deemed to be one of the best in Britain, and a hugely enjoyable shoreline walk to Broadstairs, an hour away. Stock up on sarnies and fizzy drinks from the friendly folk at the kiosk.
Nice neighbours: Viking Bay, Joss Bay, Minnis Bay
Getting there: 80 miles/two+ hours from central London
Where is it? On the northern coast of Essex
Why go? Wrabness is a tiny, quirky, arty village – the population is around 400 – with a similarly equipped beach. It’s a peaceful spot, ruggedly beautiful but still charming, and it contains an unexpected cultural gem in the form of ‘A House for Essex’. Designed by one Grayson Perry, this eye-catching building is gloriously at odds with the surrounding scenery and has to be seen if you’re in the area (it can be rented out too, for a cool £2200 for a three-night stay). The beach itself is a hotspot for fossils and offers great walks in either direction along the coast.
Nice neighbours: Harwich, Manningtree
Getting there: 82 miles/two hours from central London
Where is it? Nine miles north of Great Yarmouth
Why go? It’s not on the north Norfolk coast and you’ll be hard-pressed to find cold-pressed coconut oil, but what you will find at Winterton is one of Norfolk’s best-kept secrets. Wind your way through the picturesque village to a huge expanse of beach (complete with a ridiculously cute holiday park whose Hobbit-like round huts were inspired by huts in South Africa’s Hermanus Bay), dunes and grasses that are home to all manner of wildlife, and the ace Winterton Dunes Beach Cafe, which serves huge slabs of homemade cakes and other treats.
Nice neighbours: Great Yarmouth, Cromer, Holkham beach
Getting there: 135 miles/three hours from central London
Where is it? Halfway between Portsmouth and Bognor Regis
Why go? This Blue Flag beach is backed not by brash amusement arcades but a 20-acre expanse of grasses, wetlands and reedbeds filled with butterflies and birds. As if that weren’t enough, the gently undulating South Downs lie not far beyond as well. The sand dune spit of East Head, reached from the far western end of the West Wittering beach car park, makes for a great bit of exploration as an SSSI (site of special scientific interest), as do the shallow pools that emerge at low tide. Pack a picnic and you’ve got the perfect day out from London.
Nice neighbours: East Wittering, Bracklesham Bay
Getting there: 90 miles/two+ hours from central London
Where is it? 19 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed
Why go? If a pristine white sandy beach set beneath a properly perfect twelfth century castle isn’t enough, there are also lovely views of the Farne Islands, the pretty Bamburgh village (a three-mile walk at low tide from the lighthouse at Harkness Rocks to Seahouses) and boat trips from there to the Farnes, where seals and seabirds make the most of the remoteness and serenity. Nearby, Ross Back Sands offers three more serene miles of unspoiled dunes and beach – and with a one-mile walk from the nearest car parking, you’re likely to have it all to yourself.
Nice neighbours: Holy Island, Embleton Bay
Getting there: 340 miles/six hours from central London
Where is it? 18 miles east of Edinburgh
Why go? The stretch of coastline east of Edinburgh is filled with some lovely beaches, but Aberlady is a standout for its nature reserve, great views of Arthur’s Seat and the wreck of a submarine sitting ethereally on the expanse of golden sand. It’s a beautifully desolate spot that’s transformed into a riot of activity in autumn, when thousands of pink-footed geese descend.
Nice neighbours: Gosford Sands, North Berwick
Getting there: 390 miles/seven-eight hours from central London
Where is it? On the mouth of the River Dart in Dartmouth, Devon.
Why go? We love Dartmouth, but sometimes peak tourist season can get a little too much. That's easily solved though: take a 20 minute walk from town to the secluded Sugary Cove, a glorious beach known only to the locals (and the more determined tourists) and accessed only by foot or boat. Traverse a beautiful track along the coastal path to a shingle beach where swimming is safe and dogs run free. Magic.
Nice neighbours: Castle Cove, Blackpool Sands
Getting there: 5 hours from central London
Where: in the Dwyfor locality on the Llŷn Peninsula
Why go: It's sandy secluded bliss. There's a beautiful walk to reach Porthdinllaen - a natural harbour and old fishing village that's tucked from view by sweeping hills. No matter how blustery the trip, it's almost always calm in this sheltered little cove, where the few tourists treat themselves to a pint from the Tŷ Coch Inn - once named among the ten best beach bars in the world.
Nice neighbours: Porth Nefyn, Borth Wen
Getting there: 6 hours from central London
Where is it? Near Barnstaple on the north Devon coast
Why go? You’ll need strong legs to get to Saunton Sands, hidden as it is behind the largest dunes in Britain, but once you’ve conquered Braunton Burrows, what lies before you will have been well worth the effort. Three miles of gorgeous golden sands pounded by Atlantic breakers make it very popular with surfers, but video and film-makers have recognised its beauty too – as might you, from Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’ video or Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 sci-fi film ‘A Matter of Life and Death’.
Nice neighbours: Lee Bay Beach, Wildersmouth, Mortehoe
Getting there: 220 miles/four+ hours from central London