The relaxing prospect of a seaside retreat doesn’t call for jetting off to faraway lands. Looking for a romantic getaway? A family-friendly trip rich in culture and nature, with activities to suit everyone? Or – speaking of activities – have you been desperate to get on your bike or hike along some of the country’s finest coastline?
Read on to rediscover five of the UK’s iconic seaside towns – and to find the perfect break you’re craving.
1. St. Ives
St. Ives, legend tells us, began with the evangelism of an Irish princess. The story goes that princess Ia was so taken with Christianity in the 5th century that she left home and crossed the sea (in a giant leaf, no less) to spread the good word to Cornwall, where she founded an oratory and preached for many years.
When she died, a church was constructed over her grave – the church of St. Ia, which stands to this day. And thus the birth of St. Ives.
For centuries a sleepy fishing town, St. Ives rose to prominence in the late 1800s, when novelty-seeking Victorians discovered that it had the makings of an ideal resort town: year-round mild weather, sublime coastal scenery and a climate uniquely suited to that quintessentially British past time, gardening.
Fast forward to today, and St. Ives’ reputation as a sophisticated leisure hotspot has gone international. Gardens such as the St. Ives Garden and Barbara Hepworth Garden are admired the world over. The latter is studded with the works of iconic modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose former studio grounds are now administered by the Tate St. Ives as a museum and memorial.
Indeed, the St. Ives region is widely touted today as one of England’s artistic hubs, having hosted many noted artists over the decades and actively supported its creative community. This is best exemplified by The Minack Theatre, a cliffside, Greek-style outdoor amphitheatre abutting subtropical gardens whose combination of natural, cultural and architectural beauty epitomises the Western Cornwall area.
Holidaymakers craving fine weather and diverse leisure activities (gallery-hopping followed by surfing anyone?) whilst seeking to avoid the party culture of the Spanish coast will find that St. Ives hits all the right buttons.
Best known in the US for that fair song, as popularised by Simon and Garfunkel, Scarborough’s history as a seaside resort stretches way back. Vikings have been suggested as the first long-term settlers of what is now Scarborough, but little evidence supports a stable community in the area until the 12th century, when merchants from all over would come to trade their wares at the Scarborough Fair – which, if not quite the Coachella or T in the Park of its day, was still an important summer festival and commercial event.
It was in the 17th century that Scarborough began to assume its modern character, becoming recognised as a spa town for the reputed healing properties of its nearby waters. By the Victorian era it was an established resort.
Today, Scarborough remains bustling. Years of catering for holidaymakers have outfitted the city with an array of amusements that few other resort cities can match. There are the lovely beaches, of course, but that’s only the beginning. The Yorkshire coast, with walking and cycling trails aplenty, is pristine, gimmick-free, rich in the fresh salt air that has for so long been prescribed as a general tonic and costs nothing at all.
Although continuously inhabited since the Neolithic era, Brighton – which the 11th century Domesday Book assigns the romantic-sounding ‘Bristelmestune’ – hit its stride as a fashionable seaside resort in the 18th century, when bathing and even drinking seawater became the leisured class’s health fad du jour. Indeed, the Prince Regent himself famously took the waters there in 1783.
Today, Brighton remains one of the UK’s best-known and best-loved seaside resorts, boasting a near endless list of to-dos and must-sees. Outdoorsy types might enjoy the opportunity to go sea kayaking, because nothing says fun like paddling the waves in a vitamin-sized boat.
To satisfy your retail and culinary desires, the Brighton Marina is a logical choice: no, it’s not exactly an undiscovered gem, but the ambience and sheer array of choices are hard to beat.
Brighton is also, of course, England’s premier LGBT mecca, and its celebration of diversity is tightly woven into the city’s local culture. Kemp Town, moments from the beach, is where the majority of the LGBT bars are; various themed happenings take place year round, but the largest is undoubtedly the internationally recognized Brighton and Hove Pride festival, which occurs every August.
Ah, Portmeirion, Wales’ quirkiest, and perhaps most distinctive seaside resort. Built over five decades, beginning in 1925, by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the holiday community was inspired by the ambience of Mediterranean seaside villages, particularly the Italian town of Portofino.
Intentionally whimsical and bordering on unearthly, Portmeirion’s unique montage of highly divergent architectural styles rather evokes the playful townscapes of a Dr. Seuss book for me. Portmeirion has also, over the years, racked up a pretty impressing list of film credits, and is especially well-known as the setting for the 1960s television series The Prisoner.
Interested in paying the resort a visit? Caveat: one does not simply walk into Portmeirion. Day visits require an admission ticket – but luckily, adult tickets only a mere £8.50 if purchased online, and various family and other discounts are available. Alternately, you may decide to rent one of the many rooms in the city; indeed, most of the city’s buildings are lodgings – including the imposing Castle Deudraeth.
When you’re not merrily traipsing through the city snapping pics of everything in sight, you’ll be delighted to find that Portmeirion is well stocked with shops, restaurants, a gelateria, a spa and, naturally, luxurious, colour-soaked gardens designed with the same taste for the exotic that characterises the rest of the town.
Not surprisingly, Portmeirion is a highly-sought wedding venue; numerous wedding packages are available, some of which are quite lavish – want to rent an entire castle for your big day (and subsequent night)? If you’ve got the reddies, anything’s possible at Portmeirion.
The classics, they say, never die and Margate is the most delightfully traditional English seaside resort. Located on the Isle of Thanet in East Kent – which formerly actually was separated from the mainland, and has been inhabited since the Bronze Age at least – the area today is known for the spectacular cliffs of Dover and its charming seaside resort towns.
Of the latter, Margate is hard to best as one of the UK’s most characteristic – indeed, it was one of the first. It was also the first seaside resort to offer donkey rides, which remain popular with kids to this day.
Countless tides have turned since those inaugural rides, but for all that the town has remained a top holiday destination; the Turner Contemporary Gallery boasts one of the edgiest art collections in England, but at its heart, Margate remains a quintessentially traditional British resort.
This ambience pervades the Old Town especially; think cobblestone streets, shaded café tables outside boutique eateries and, of course, the shopping. God, the shopping: books to trinkets; jewellery to clothing; designer to vintage. If you happen to visit during spring or summer, don’t miss the Margate Bazaar, an outdoor market brimming with locally produced wares, open from 11 to 4 every Sunday.
All of these attractions are just moments from the vast, creamy expanse of Margate Main Sands. Thanet Island’s beaches are world-renowned for their purity (there are seven blue flag beaches in this little corner of Kent), their scenery and their storied past. The Viking Coastal Trail, for example, spans 32 miles of coastline, encompassing many of the region’s most gorgeous beaches.