There’s something about a day at the beach that, for the British, captures the essence of happy family life. Dad, relaxed, and buried up to his neck in sand. The Zen-like intent of hunting crabs in rock pools. Gentle chats on the mile-long walk out to the sea at low tide. Salt on your lips. The sheer joy when the clouds pass over and the sun comes out once again. Grubby faces at the end of the day, flushed with sun and wind and the promise of a deep, dreamless sleep.
We love it, which is why a trip to the seaside can conjure up some famously British nightmares too such as watching your precious bank holiday slip away as you circle yet again for a parking space.
The joy of the beach is that it’s free, natural entertainment. All of the beaches I’ve chosen here have good parking, are big enough to soak up crowds, even in high season, and are full of delight for every member of the family, from babies to grandparents. Roll out a blanket in the dunes and enjoy the simple pleasures.
Camber Sands, East Sussex
Miles of south-facing golden sand backed by dunes, ample parking even in high season, and picturesque Rye on your door-step—Camber Sands is an unsung gem. At low tide, the beach is vast, easily absorbing any crowds that London might throw at it. Camber itself is an unpretty holiday settlement with a couple of caravan parks, but The Place, a new trendy motel and brasserie, is a sign of changing times head here for a good lunch. Or make your way to the Kit Kat cafe on the beach for a hearty, all-day breakfast. In high season, there are trampolines for hire next door. Signposted from the A259 east of Rye. Car parks are dotted along the coast road to Lydd. The first car park in Camber offers level access to the beach and is closest to the Kit Kat cafe. For more information, visit www.rother.gov.uk
The jewel of the glorious north Norfolk coast. The sands form part of a nature reserve (come early and you might see a seal), and are backed by woodland. Holkham is popular, but the miles of beach soak up high-season multitudes. Enjoy lunch at the stylish Victoria Hotel on the Holkham estate (best to book), or drive or walk east down the sands to Wells-next-the-Sea for fish and chips. Car park signposted from the A149, and 10 mins walk (level) from the beach. For more information, visit www.holkham.co.uk
Northumberland’s beaches are among the best and quietest (and, it has to be said, the chilliest) in Britain. Bamburgh is striking. A mile of golden sand backed by dunes and looking out over the Farne Islands would be enough in itself, but the magnificence of Bamburgh Castle also towers above. The beach is never packed. Combine sandcastles with a castle tour, and eat at the tea rooms. Castle signposted from the B1342. There’s parking at the beach, or up the hill at the castle
Yellowcraig beach, East Lothian
Yellowcraig is an essential part of Edinburgh summers. The honey-coloured sands, backed by woodland, lie 25 miles west of the city, east of North Berwick, with delightful views over the Forth island of Fidra and its lighthouse. Robert Louis Stephenson wandered these powdery sands, and it’s said that Fidra was the inspiration for Treasure Island. For lunch, bring raw meat and charcoal there’s a barbecue area (to book, telephone 01620 893957). The best place for children is the level sandy section to the east of the main path. Follow signs for Dirleton/Yellowcraig from the A198. There’s a large car park behind the beach
Harris is famous for its amazing beaches, and Scarista is one of the best. Three miles of shell sand, gently warmed by the Gulf Stream, with views across the water to the mountains of Taransay. Even in August, you can have the place almost to yourself, but, for most of us, this isn’t going to be a feasible day trip. All the more reason to book into the stylish Scarista House Hotel (www.scaristahouse.com), a Georgian former manse that’s a comfortable 200-yard stroll from the beach.
Llanddwyn is a real find. Tucked away behind protected pine forest and dunes in the south-west corner of Anglesey, miles of soft sands look out over Llanddwyn peninsula. It’s a treasure trove for explorers young and old, with rocky coves, a ruined priory and a lighthouse. Apart from lavatories in the car park, there are no facilities, so bring a picnic.
Watch out for signs in Newborough on the A4080. You then follow a woodland track to a Forestry Commission car park, 100 yards from the beach
Owned and carefully tended by the National Trust, Barafundle has it all a sheltering collar of cliffs, rock pools, caves, golden sand (cleaned daily), clear water and sun from dawn to dusk. The sand has even been voted the best for making sandcastles. There’s no vehicular access you have to walk from a car park over clifftops and down through dunes and woodland (10 minutes, steep in places). There are tearooms in Stackpole Quay, or bring a picnic. Follow signposts for Stackpole Quay from B4319. Barafundle is signposted from the NT car park
Rhossili, Gower, Swansea
King of the Gower’s 70-odd beaches and coves, this three-mile stretch of sand lies at the tip of the peninsula, with great views across Cardigan Bay to Pembrokeshire. Rhossili faces the Atlantic head on, which makes it popular with surfers; families with young children tend to stick to the more-sheltered southern end. Access is via a good but steep path from the village of Rhossili, which has plenty of cafes and tea shops.
B4247 to Rhossili
Woolacombe beach, Devon
One of the loveliest beaches on this stretch of coast, Woolacombe is perfect for buckets and spades. There are cafes galore in Woolacombe village at the north end of the beach the southern Baggy Point end is quieter, and a haven for seabirds later in the season. The north Devon waves will keep swimmers and surfers happy, and there are lifeguards in the summer months. There is competition for spaces in the beachside car parks, but Marine Drive, which runs parallel to the beach but higher up, is used for parking.
B3343 to Woolacombe
Studland Bay, Dorset
Studland Bay, owned and managed by the National Trust, has three miles of glorious sandy beach, backed by dunes, all part of a nature reserve that harbours a rich variety of wild flowers. The beach has distinct zones: favourite for families is the area around Studland village at the south of the bay; there’s a Trust centre and watersport hire at Knoll Beach; and a discreet naturist section further along. Shell Bay, at the north end, is best reached by ferry from the exclusive Sandbanks rest here to watch the sea traffic into Poole Harbour. B3351; car parks are dotted along the access road the access road
● In case of a long walk, weigh up equipment versus hassle. A base camp in the dunes is just as effective as a windbreak
● Some staples are worth investing in. A good-quality bucket and spade will last for years, and hooded towelling beach-robes for children are a modern godsend
● Thinking ahead and packing necessities will avoid endless irritating trips back to the cafe/shop. Adult essentials include plenty of rugs, the paper and thermoses of coffee
● A picnic is the most economical and most pleasant way to feed a family. To protect against sand in your sandwiches, pack small portions in individual, sealed recyclable bags rather than in one huge tub
● Bring plenty of water. You’ll need a supply for washing hands, cleaning fruit, and so on
● If you go to the beach often, choose a different ‘special’ activity each time. A kite or a cricket set will give the day some focus
● Have an agreed meeting point for anyone who gets lost. The base of a flagpole is good
● Beat the traffic in high summer by going late in the day. Beaches empty towards the end of the day, and if your location is south- or west-facing, you’ll enjoy hours of sunshine, a great sunset and empty roads home