Millions of Britons may have to swap their usual holiday in the Med for a staycation. But with Cornwall and Devon oversubscribed, where can you go for peace and quiet? Our UK experts suggest their favourite lesser-known corners for a late summer escape.
Best Cornwall alternatives for a UK staycation
Carmarthenshire: Cinderella of the Welsh coast
This criminally unsung county’s shore is the Cinderella of the Welsh coast, overshadowed by the Gower to the east and rugged Pembrokeshire to the west. Yet the generous curves of Carmarthen Bay are draped with gold – notably the eight-mile stretch at Cefn Sidan, Wales’s longest beach. Swimmers and sandcastle architects are drawn to this broad strand, along with photographers capturing views across the ribs of decaying shipwrecks to the Gower.
Beyond its grassy dunes stretches Pembrey Country Park (pembreycountrypark.wales), a 500-acre wooded hinterland offering a host of family-friendly activities including cycling, nature trails and even a dry ski slope. Across the Tywi estuary to the west you’ll find the smooth sweep of Pendine Sands, site of several world land speed record attempts, and lovely Morfa Bwchan, a more peaceful swimming spot.
Dylan Thomas found inspiration in “The heavenly music over the sand / Sounds with the grains as they hurry”; visit his Boathouse (dylanthomasboathouse.com) in nearby Laugharne, where you can also sip a pint in Brown’s Hotel, reputedly his favourite watering hole. Bed down in Mansion House Llansteffan, a Georgian restaurant with rooms overlooking a delightful cockle-speckled beach guarded by the ruins of a Norman castle.
Northumberland: a low-key beauty
The A1 is both a good and a bad thing. It speeds you through Northumberland (to Scotland or London) but deprives you of tantalising glimpses of one of England’s finest coastlines; so good, 40 miles (from Warkworth to Berwick-upon-Tweed) form an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Pick any point and you won’t be far from whispery-soft sands (Alnmouth, Bamburgh, Beadnell, Low Newton), sea-views sprinkled with islands (Coquet, the Farnes and magical Lindisfarne) and wind-whipped sand dunes. Ah, yes, sea breezes; these are beaches for tangling your hair rather than tanning bodies, for flying kites, spotting birds or wind-surfing waves, and just generally un-plugging on frisky walks. Having said that, pretty Beadnell or dinky Low Newton are good bets for a more sheltered spot of sunning.
Apart from its film-set castles – stark Dunstanburgh, Disney-esque Lindisfarne and skyscraper Bamburgh – this is a low-key sort of coast. Seahouses is the closest to a ‘resort’ with pitch-and-putt, a handful of souvenir shops, and boat-trips to the Farne Islands. Its fish and chips are good, best eaten on the harbour wall. Or try Amble with its smart marina and revamped harbour front – plus Italian ice cream from Spurreli’s.
My favourite beach is Ross Back Sands. A one-mile-walk across sand dunes from the huddle of cottages at Ross, this wild and windswept beach rewards with few people and views north to Lindisfarne Castle, on Holy Island, and south to the towering bulk of Bamburgh Castle.
Lesser-known Dorset (mind the firing range)
Take a quick look at the crowds by Durdle Door and then turn the other way, because east of this hotspot lies one of the most dramatic but underdeveloped shorelines in the country.
The eight magnificent miles between Lulworth Cove and Kimmeridge Bay sit within Dorset’s Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site but also the British Army-owned Lulworth Ranges. Firing practice limits public access to certain days (usually weekends and some holidays – check online), meaning few know about it.
Fitness limits access too – the stretch of South West Coast Path here rollercoasters steeply, via crumpled cliffs, 135-million-year-old tree fossils, seabird-flocked rocks, an Iron Age hillfort and wild beaches: the broad sweep of sand at Worbarrow Bay is a lovely spot for a picnic. A mile inland from Worbarrow is the ‘ghost village’ of Tyneham, evacuated in 1943 by the MOD and never repopulated – detour to visit its abandoned buildings, including the exhibition in the old school.
You can’t stay within the ranges, but both Lulworth and Kimmeridge have options. Kimmeridge Farmhouse, set on the hills overlooking the bay and coast, has B&B doubles from £95pn.
Bygone Isle of Wight
Often ignored even by those who live on the south coast mainland, the Isle of Wight still retains the charm of a more innocent, bygone age. Ranking high among its many coastal attractions is Compton Bay in the south-west of the island, not far from the better known Tennyson Down in the far west.
The downland surrounding the beach is criss-crossed with footpaths including the Isle of Wight Coastal Path which runs around the bay and has sweeping views towards the vivid white chalk of Freshwater Cliff. Owned by the National Trust, the wildlife-rich grassland is famous for its wildflowers (pyramidal orchids) and rare butterflies (glanville fritillary).
The broad, sandy and gently shelving beach itself is considered one of the best on the island, perfect for families, but also popular with surfers and kite-surfers taking advantage of the prevailing south-westerly wind. It is also famous for its fossilised dinosaur footprints which can be seen at low tide and is popular with fossil hunters searching for smaller examples.
Perfect for both its nearby location and olde worlde thatched charm is Afton Thatch (sleeps up to 11) and its accompanying Lodge and Old Coastguard’s Cottage.
Suffolk without the crowds
England’s North Sea coastline might not boast the creamy sands of Devon or Cornwall, but Suffolk’s rambling pebbled beaches go in for wild and windy walks, as opposed to trudging along with pasties and scones with the crowds.
Aldeburgh’s beachside high street resembles a Battenberg of peppermint green, custard yellow and crayon pink, and unlike the West Country’s eddying Atlantic swell, the sea here is often flat calm. So skim some stones in the direction of Holland.
A coast road runs north towards Sizewell via Thorpeness. It’s here where you’ll find The Dolphin Pub selling East Anglia’s famous dressed crabs. Eating them here feels like less of a tourist cliché than up north in better-known Cromer.
Some people stick their nose up at nearby Sizewell, because its home to an infamous nuclear power plant covering 245 acres. But Sizewell Tea is particularly popular with cycling and motorbike groups on warm summer mornings. They do a roaring trade in bacon sandwiches and Full English breakfasts.
There are plenty of accommodation options nearby, but for peace and nature, right on your doorstep try Five Acre Barn. Its gardens merge into the surrounding woodland – home to woodcock, rabbits, pheasants, slowworms and muntjac deer.
Devon’s answer to the Greek isles
Almost any beach west of Exeter which has a car park nearby is going to draw crowds on sunny days in summer. People want to be offload their kids, picnics and windbreaks from the SUV right on to the sand. The trick is to combine your trip with a walk – most of which are doable with a papoose if not a pram.
Wyscombe Beach, reached via the South West Coast Path, is only a few coves up from Bigbury-on-Sea but it doesn’t get anything like the traffic. The surrounding cliffs and coastal shelves make for an eye-pleasing, dramatic setting that reminds me a bit of the Greek islands, and on either side of noon you can usually find bits of shade and places to lean back on to read or enjoy a bite to eat.
It’s lovely to swim out far enough to look left, spot Burgh Island, and imagine the hubbub. This whole stretch between the inlets for the Erme and Avon is quite lovely, and there are always quiet times either early in the day or after around 4pm when people start heading home.
There’s good pub grub, and loos, from Wed-Sun at the Journeys End Inn (thejourneysendinn.co.uk) and luxury self-catering at Sunridge Treehouse (sunridgetreehouse.co.uk), as well as lots of B&Bs just a few miles inland.
A private Narnia in County Down
When I was eight years old, on the drive back to Belfast after a day at the seaside, I confidently informed my parents that Rostrevor must be the most beautiful place in the world. I still remember the gratification when my dad nodded at the wheel and said that funnily enough, some chap named CS Lewis agreed. “That part of Rostrevor which overlooks Carlingford Lough is my idea of Narnia,” is how CS Lewis, author of my beloved Narnia books, described this small seaside village at the foot of Slieve Martin.
Rostrevor sits at the foothills of the Mourne Mountains, right where the Kilbroney River meets Carlingford Lough, and the attractive seafront – lined with hotels, pubs, restaurants and sweetie shops – hasn’t been mucked with much since the town’s Edwardian heyday, when CS Lewis visited. Today it remains a town almost eerily blessed by natural beauty; there’s a rippling brook, moody mountains, shingle beaches and an enchanting glen called Fairy Glen, because we aren’t shy about magic in Ireland. Rostrevor and the neighbouring port of Warrenpoint will never see the crowds that Portstewart and Portrush draw, but this little corner of Northern Irish coastline is still my own private Narnia.
Crotlieve Barn offers self-catering, eco-minded accommodation in stylish barn conversions.
North Yorkshire – for ancient treasures
There’s gold in them thar hills – black gold. Fossick beneath the cliffs of the so-called Dinosaur Coast and you might just turn up a gleaming nugget of jet – Queen Victoria’s favoured gem, post-Albert. But that’s far from the only jewel to unearth on the stretch of shore that marks the eastern edge of the North York Moors National Park. This craggy coastline is studded with geological, archaeological and palaeontological treasures – relics of ironstone and alum mining, along with ammonites, crinoids and other fossils – along with winsome coves, beaches and fishing villages.
String together the greatest hits on a one-day walk along the Cleveland Way long-distance trail east from Saltburn. Delve into the chocolate-box tumble of Staithes, between rainbow-hued cottages wedged into a ravine above fishing boats bobbing at anchor. Continue south-east and descend to the ghost harbour of Port Mulgrave, once a loading point for ironstone, now a fossil-hunting hotspot. Then kick off your boots and sink your toes in the sand of Runswick Bay, named Britain’s best beach earlier this year.
Combine heritage with home comforts at Alum House Luxury B&B, in a dramatic clifftop spot a little west of Staithes at Boulby.
Remote Wester Ross
If you like your beaches remote, your coastal drives with a dash of proper adventure and aren’t afraid of the of the big bad wolf of Scottish weather, Diabaig in the Northwest Highlands is pure fantasy stuff.
Getting here is half the fun. Leave Torridon’s surly munros behind you and gear-crunch your way west along a laughably narrow, twisty single-track, which picks its way precariously across the crumpled, rocky moor. This is hands-down one of Britain’s most dramatic drives. Towards the end of the road, you’ll almost nosedive into the fishing and crofting village of Diabaig, where a pretty shingle beach reclines forgotten and serene on the shores of flint-blue loch.
The rabbit-out-of-the-hat moment is Gille Brighde, a lovingly converted schoolhouse where you can dig into the gastronomic likes of local hand-dived scallops and wild Highland venison (advance bookings are essential). Self-catering is the way to go. Try Scottish Cottages or hole up in a luxury log cabin in Diabaig’s ancient woods at Tigh Brachen Bothies.
More beaches? Drive (or if you’re up for a seriously wild hike, walk) north to Red Point for the thrill of finding two ludicrously gorgeous dune-flanked beaches near empty. Edging further north still brings you to aptly named Big Sand, an incredible sweep of blonde sand with views over the turquoise sea to Skye.
Pembrokeshire’s unheralded north
Before my first visit to north Pembrokeshire a few years ago, I’d nosed into south Pembrokeshire on my way to and from places a few times and while it was nice, it was just a little too knowing for my liking. When we holiday with the kids, it’s generally the less busy the better for us, and in north Pembrokeshire, there’s a quieter, untouched feel that really appeals.
The night skies are sometimes so clear you can see the Milky Way and there are also lots of ancient burial chambers and standing stones that we love dragging the kids to (they’ll thank us one day). Porthgain, just eight miles around the coast from St Davids, is a charming old harbour hamlet right on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path that has a great pub in the Sloop Inn, even better fish and chips from The Shed Bistro and a couple of art galleries. It’s a little like Cornwall in miniature. Just a two-mile walk west along the coastal path brings you to the Blue Lagoon, a former quarry known for its vivid colour, where you can often see seals swimming. Around three quarters of the way you’ll find Traeth Llyfn, a gorgeous beach with golden sands, reached by steep stairs, that is often empty.
Ty Llwyd (http://www.ty-llwyd.co.uk) is a charming B&B in a rural setting just over three miles outside Portgain where breakfasts are cooked in the Aga, while www.qualitycottages.co.uk has some nice self-catering places.