Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear
‘It has a wide sweep of beach perfect for building sandcastles’
Dawn on the east coast is special. The sun rises over the sea and whether it’s midwinter with frost on the sand or midsummer when it hardly seems to get dark at all, there’s a glory to it. It’s worth celebrating. Cullercoats, the little cove to the south of Whitley Bay, is sheltered and contained. People swim at dawn and practise yoga. Whitley is that sort of place now: arty and liberal.
When my kids were little, we lived in a village a little way inland. We went into Whitley for shopping but not to play on the beach. The seafront was tacky then: the fairground at Spanish City on its last legs, the clubs and bars attracted stag dos, and on bank holidays the streets were full of pub-crawling drunks.
But it has reinvented itself as a place for family holidays. It has a wide sweep of beach perfect for building sandcastles. Cullercoats hosts paddle-boarding and kayaking – you can hire both in the village and take lessons.
I work early, and by mid-morning I’m ready to stretch my legs and head for coffee. If the weather’s good, I’ll get a takeaway at Di Meo’s hut on the seafront, sit on a bench and watch the big ships making their way to the Tyne.
A longer walk takes me to the tidal island of Saint Mary’s to look at the seals. My grandchildren have had birthday parties at the visitor centre there. They go pond-dipping with the rangers, and back at the centre they identify the contents of the nets before they devour the cake. The most energetic can climb to the top of the lighthouse for a spectacular view.
I often take visitors for a fancy afternoon tea in the newly refurbished dome. Spanish City was built in 1910 (a replica apparently of some unnamed town on the Mediterranean) and attracted thousands, the holiday park of its time. Its crowning drama was the dome, which fell into disrepair in the 1990s. Now restored, it’s as grand as it ever was. There’s a champagne bar, a fine-dining restaurant and, on the ground floor, fish and chips – so something for everyone.
On weekend evenings, there’s still a pub crawl of sorts along Park View, Whitley’s main street. But this is a promenade not a stagger, and idlers are drinking cocktails and cava, not brown ale. The Guardian once named Park View one of the best shopping streets in the UK. The locals were astonished, but they’re getting used to the idea.
Ann Cleeves, author of the Vera Stanhope novels and The Rising Tide (out in September)
Millport, Firth of Clyde
‘We’d sit in the heat and look at the seals lolling on the tiny islands offshore’
To return, year upon year, to the same seaside town is to lay down layers of memory so that, as you stroll along the beach, you are passing over the remembered joys of the past. This is true, for me, of Millport – although I also go for the ice-cream.
It should be bought from the Ritz Cafe and consumed in a red vinyl and Formica booth. Raspberry sauce should be added for both flavour and colour coordination. The Ritz appears to have altered little since the 1960s, an impression reinforced on a recent visit by the jukebox playing You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.
Millport is on Great Cumbrae in the Firth of Clyde. The island is not large, but is so named to distinguish it from Wee Cumbrae half a mile south. Getting there is part of the fun. You take the ferry from Largs, and the 10-minute is crossing short enough for the excitement of departure and arrival to meet and mingle like a confluence of waters.
When the kids were small, we would spend summer days on the sand. The boys would build castles and guddle in rock pools. We’d sit in the heat and look at the seals lolling on the tiny islands just offshore. This would go on until the fat and gleaming creatures began to seem too accurate a mirror of our own laziness and we’d rise, creaking at the knees, and go in search of cake.
Now, we find it suits us better to visit in spring, when it is cooler and not as busy. It is a quiet Sunday delight to walk up to the Cathedral of the Isles, Britain’s smallest cathedral, passing from the smell of wild garlic that carpets the grounds to the smell of incense that lingers inside, Eucharist being lately over. Afterwards, still in the mood for all things miniature, we stop by the model railway exhibition in the grounds of Garrison House. One hut has working models of the West Highland Line and the Glasgow network; the other shows Millport itself, the cathedral and the Ritz and the rest recreated in cardboard with loving charm.
The town’s icon is Crocodile Rock. This is the title given to a jutting slab of foreshore stone, about six metres long, with hungry eyes and jagged teeth painted white, black and red. It is a custom among visitors to climb the beast’s back. It does not look much like a crocodile, but Conger Eel Rock or Goblin Shark Rock would not sound quite so welcoming. This tradition has been going on since at least 1913, and is symbolic of the way in which Millport, a place of gentle pleasures, never seems to change.
Peter Ross, author of A Tomb with a View
Lyme Regis, Dorset
‘A woman picked up a large rock from the beach. It was the vertebra of a dinosaur’
I have a love-hate relationship with seafront arcades. I love the thrill of the win but find the light and music from the games machines headache-inducing. That, and the memory that as a child the experience often ended in tears – usually mine – as I set my heart on a massive stuffed toy that was never meant to be won. Once the cup of two-pence pieces had been fed to the coin pusher and one-armed bandit, once parents had been petitioned a final time and everyone was fully overstimulated, the excitement of the promised win gave way to tantrums and disappointment.
I can enjoy them again now, with my own children, in front of whom I have to behave more like an adult, and my choice of a seaside town with the kids might be Blackpool, with all its glitz and show. However, when alone, I would happily swap Blackpool’s Golden Mile for Lyme Regis’s ammonite pavement and a town that has comparatively little in the way of amusement arcades.
The attraction here is a different sort of potluck. The cliffs around the small Dorset town are where the palaeontologist Mary Anning discovered the fossils of a Jurassic shark, a pterodactyl and, most famously, the complete skeleton of a plesiosaurus. Though she was overlooked in her lifetime, a lifesize bronze statue of Anning was unveiled at Long Entry earlier this month.
Just a fossil’s throw away from the town is Charmouth beach, where I have spent hours searching and sifting for ammonites and belemnites on the sand beneath the cliffs. The last time I visited, I saw a woman in her 60s stoop and pick up a large, clay-encrusted rock. She lifted it with some difficulty, turned it over and shouted so loudly that several walkers stopped. It was the vertebra of a large dinosaur, possibly a plesiosaurus, which had fallen from the cliffside after recent storms. Having visited Lyme for years with no finds to speak of she could not believe her luck. Her reaction reminded me of winning the jackpot at the arcade, though without the tantrum and headache that followed.
The ever-friendly Lyme Regis museum offers guided fossil walks at both East Beach and Black Ven, and Kiosk on Marine Parade, overlooking the beach, offers excellent breakfast bagels, crab sandwiches and salads to fuel you while you chance your arm.
Wyl Menmuir, author of The Draw of the Sea
‘Only the pier’s foundations poke from the waves, like the legs of a dead spider’
Brighton has always held a certain magnetism: it draws me back, time and again. I grew up a few miles along the coast, in a town that prided itself on being the antithesis of its grander neighbour – a sort of puritanical marine roundhead to Brighton’s roistering cavalier. Accordingly Brighton, with its two piers and palm readers and a reputation for loucheness inherited from the Prince Regent’s time, remains the place I head to whenever, to paraphrase Melville, I feel the need to see a watery part of the world. Although now I take the train from London.
Exiting Brighton station, smelling the faint tang of salt in the air, I find it hard not to be swept straight down to its pebbly beach. Queen’s Road can feel almost tidal with shoals of new arrivals. But my opening port of call is normally The Record Album shop, a wunderkammer of vinyl just uphill from the station. It was established in 1948, and for over 40 years its proprietor was the ever-tie-wearing George Ginn, who recently retired aged 88. Keith Blackmore and David Chappell have taken up the reins but the stock (show tunes and soundtrack albums a speciality) seems more an extension of George’s personality than a mercantile enterprise.
Pilgrimage over, I pivot down Trafalgar Street, pausing to refuel at Coffee At 33, before making for North Laine. Coasts are all about flotsam and jetsam, and I am always keen to see what treasures have washed up in the stalls of Snooper’s Paradise, the vintage market in Kensington Gardens. Recent finds include a stack of postcards of Shoreham’s old power station and a paisley Tootal scarf that Jimmy from Quadrophenia might have coveted.
Hunger and the lure of the shore beckon me to the front, where after an obligatory turn on the Palace Pier I walk along the prom towards Hove and the West Pier. Memorably described by MP John Locke as “a butterfly on the ocean”, the pier was a masterpiece of Victorian engineering by Eugenius Birch, who also designed Brighton’s aquarium. After an arson attack in 2003, only its foundations now poke out of the waves like the legs of a dead spider. I will contemplate its fate over fish and chips at the Regency Restaurant, a seafront seafood eatery in business since Graham Greene’s day.
After post-lunch peregrinations along the beach to skim stones and paddle in the shallows, I eventually aim for the Colonnade Bar. A stone’s throw from a statue of Max Miller and adjacent to the Theatre Royal, it’s the epitome of the lounge bar as thespy salon. Rail-car shaped and curtained with red velvet, its walls are festooned with framed actor mugshots. Glancing up from the bar, a craft gin in hand, you can look sitcom regulars of yore (Penelope Keith, George Cole) in the eye. Its slightly faded glamour, which rather mirrors the rackety charms of old Brighton itself, make it the perfect spot to conclude an excursion.
Travis Elborough, author of Wish You Were Here: England on Sea
‘We have sand between our paws and toes in this lazy, safe perfection’
West Wales holidays as a child were filled with the myths of good weather – a search for an elusive patch of blue to pass the travelling time. Today, the sky is behaving.
I’m heading to Saundersfoot from Stepaside: this is a flat walk along the Dramway, shared with a few jolly hikers, the occasional waft of wild garlic and my canine companion, Watson Jones.
At Wiseman’s Bridge – apostrophe negotiable according to signage – I sigh happily at the sweep of Carmarthen Bay. Far from the tiresome cliche of deepest, darkest Wales, this is a shimmering feast for romantic hearts, and I’m lost in it awhile. The waves are ambitious. The cliffs are crowned by bluebell woods.
All is wild and the light magnificent. Rockpool heaven in an unruly landscape. I’ve seen a dinosaur footprint here. Or I think I have. The tide is high, so we stride on through a Grade II-listed railway tunnel, where children howl and adults fake fear, to Saundersfoot village.
The Strand, which once carried coal down to waiting ships, now boasts an eclectic array of shops. We visit Sue’s Pantry (she gives bits of cake to dogs, so Watson Jones insists) and Chobbles traditional sweet shop, to chew on childhood memories. We covet antiques through windowpanes. Blackbird Ceramics creates sea globes inspired by the coast, and Elements of Pembrokeshire displays local artisan work; there’s a lovely feeling of community. My bag is significantly heavier as I reach the harbour.
It’s all proper seaside fare. Salt-scuffed and changing. An abundance of benches from which to take in the view. Cheery boats with cheery names. Seagulls, reportedly ferocious in other places, are content to allow tourists their picnics. A newly built schooner towers over the sluice. I imagine tap dancers on boxes, Edwardian bathing carts, 80s talent shows. Evidently, I am no historian, but I do love a sense of what has come before. There’s also regeneration. Businesses popping up, renovations, a mix of old, new and young. Someone sings to an exuberant pub garden. Dogs nod their heads in time. Though I’m no saint and enjoy a good glass, for now I’m seeking peace.
We wander the sensory garden, then stroll to the cleanly washed beach. Cormorants skim, gannets dive, children collect shells and build castles with sea-glass windows. Someone smugly readies a campfire. For me, the tiniest moments count. We have sand between our paws and toes in this lazy, safe perfection. A blissful afternoon for simple souls at rest.
Evening comes with delicious colours and a cone of vinegary chips. Swimmers brave the chill in bobble hats and bathers. The swell glitters dreamily beneath a bloated moon. Fishing boats head out as we head home among owls.
Eloise Williams, author of The Tide Singer
‘Even tea for one comes in a pot, and waiters dress as though Victoria is still on the throne’
Scarborough, which I have frequented since my boyhood in 1970s Yorkshire, is a sprawling, elemental, place. On the South Bay, Saint Nicholas Cliff and South Cliff are separated by an actual ravine, and the drama of the topography is often matched by that of the sea. I was once blown off my feet on Marine Drive, which skirts Castle Hill and leads to the expansive North Bay. But in my memory, and often (I insist) in actuality, Scarborough is sun-dazed.
I step out of the Italianate railway station to be greeted by high, wheeling seagulls and signs indicating Saint Nicholas Gardens, Valley Gardens, South Cliff Gardens. I head for the third of those, which involves walking through the second. South Cliff Gardens are in turn subdivided into half a dozen others, including Holbeck Gardens which – a noticeboard quaintly boasts – offers “the best views from a putting green anywhere in England”.
The massed gardens create a floral carpet stretching from the luminous white stucco of the Esplanade (Scarborough’s poshest address) to the sea, although the colours are muted this season as the gardens are being refurbished, bringing a modernist twist to northern municipal planting. I’ll then have a cup of tea in the Clock Cafe, which stands amid the gardens, and whose terrace I think of as a kind of giant sundial with the caff’s clocktower as the pointer. Perhaps outdoor music will be floating up from the Sun Court of that venerable seaside palace, the Scarborough Spa.
I head north along the beach for lunch: a crab sandwich on the bustling harbour wall, where there are nearly as many fishers as tourists. Then a bus ride (ideally by open-topped double-decker) to the North Bay, and its dreamlike attractions. Peasholm Park, in its own valley, has oriental stylings, including pagodas and exotic trees in surprising day-glo shades. And twice weekly since 1927, the dragon boat pedalos on the ornamental lake have made way for the Naval Warfare show, where council workers sitting in coffin-like battleships, shoot fireworks at one another.
There is also the North Bay Railway, where trains hauled by engines resembling the Flying Scotsman, only one-third the size and powered not by steam but early diesel engines (making them more historically notable than if they were steam), putter along the clifftops.
I usually double back to the South Bay for a fish-and-chip supper at the Golden Grid on Sandside. The key words at the Golden Grid are “Est. 1883”: it’s genteel, so tea (even for one) comes in a pot, and the waiters dress as though Victoria is still on the throne. Then it’s the last train back to York, on which I always fall asleep.
Andrew Martin, author of Yorkshire: There and Back