7 traditional ‘bucket and spade’ British seaside resorts
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There’s nothing quite like a good old-fashioned trip to the seaside, and here in the U.K., it’s somewhat of an institution. Think fish and chips, sticks of rock, stripey deck chairs, dodgy amusement arcades and getting sand stuck everywhere.
Forget sleek hotels or glamorous nightlife — a typical British seaside holiday with all its retro charm should be embraced. I bet we’ve all got some golden memories of packing up the car with a picnic for the beach, squabbling all the way there before that rush of excitement when you get your first glimpse of the sea.
The panorama of British seaside traditions such as donkey rides, a Punch and Judy show and candy floss — to name but a few — have Victorian roots because trips to the seaside became popular with the working classes with the expansion of the railroads at the turn of the 20th century.
So while long-haul travel to pristine Caribbean beaches or exotic cutting edge hotels is on pause, for now, why not pack up your bucket and spade and visit one of these very British coastal spots for a nostalgic treat.
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Blackpool, in Lancashire in the north of the country, is especially dear to me as I went there a lot as a child and also had my hen party there a few years ago. It is one of the U.K.’s most popular seaside resorts and attracts millions of visitors every year. It is gloriously tacky — but you need to just get involved. Blackpool is a bit of a gay mecca, too (definitely visit the Flying Handbag). Blackpool Tower — where Strictly Come Dancing visits the famous ballroom each year — dominates the skyline at 158 metres high and is home to all sorts of attractions including a circus and dungeon.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach, where you can ride the “The Big One” or race on the Grand National rollercoaster, is another major draw. Every autumn, there is also the Blackpool Illuminations, an annual lights festival that started in 1879 and runs for 66 days. The lights are 10 kilometres long and use over one million bulbs — it’s certainly a sight to behold.
Fun fact about Blackpool
Blackpool International Airport is the oldest passenger airport in the U.K. In 1927, paying customers could fly to the Isle of Man. Also, it takes seven years to paint the Blackpool Tower from top to bottom.
How to get there
Liverpool and Manchester Airports are about a one-hour drive away. Alternatively, you can get the train to Blackpool North station.
Located only 55 miles from the capital, Brighton is a London day tripper’s dream. You can get there in just one hour by train. It has a thriving arts scene, fabulous food, a huge LGBTQ community (one of the largest in the U.K.), tons of quirky shops and, of course, a beach — so there’s something for everyone.
But harking back to seaside trips of old, Brighton Palace Pier is one of its stalwart attractions. Despite the town being hip and quite edgy, the pier has kept its traditional “bucket and spade” allure. There’s an amusement park at the end with some hair-raising rides including the Mouse Trap and Helter Skelter, an arcade, loads of places to eat and the obligatory “face-in-hole” photo stands. There’s also the Royal Pavilion for a spot of history and the famous Lanes for shopping. Don’t forget though that Brighton’s beach is pebbled — so pack your jelly shoes! Read my in-depth guide to Brighton here.
Fun fact about Brighton
The Brighton Sealife Centre is the world’s oldest aquarium — it opened in 1872 and is home to more than 3,500 water creatures.
How to get there
Brighton’s nearest airport is Gatwick, then a 40-minute train ride. Parking is not ideal in Brighton, so we highly recommend taking the train there.
Scarborough, in North Yorkshire, is considered by many to be the “original British seaside resort”. It’s also been called, maybe slightly dubiously, “the St Tropez of the North”. We’ll let you decide. There are the obligatory beach huts, ice cream parlours and shellfish stalls selling cockles and winkles on the seafront, and Scarborough is also well-known for its funicular railways.
Nearby is Scarborough Castle, a former medieval fortress situated on the rocky promontory overlooking the North Sea. Other attractions include the Scarborough Fair Collection, a working steam museum with truly vintage rides where you can have a go on a real “Mary Poppins”-style merry-go-round.
Fun fact about Scarborough
Anne Bronte — the youngest of the literary clan — is buried there. She is buried at St Mary’s Church in the old town. The Bronte sisters were from the nearby town of Haworth.
How to get there
The nearest airports are Teesside, Leeds or Manchester. Or, get the train to Scarborough station.
Llandudno is the oldest resort in Wales and has been dubbed the “Queen of the Welsh Watering Places” since as far back as 1861. The Parade houses most of the town’s hotels and is the most stunning example of a genteel Victorian promenade. What sets Llandudno apart from other British seaside resorts is that it has its own mini-mountain range, the Great Orme and the Little Orme, in which the town nestles in between.
The Great Orme, at 207 metres high, boasts views on a clear day as far as the Isle of Man and the Lake District. Every May bank holiday Llandudno hosts the Victorian Extravaganza, a funfair where you can wear fancy dress and pretend you are a Victorian lady or gent “taking the briny air” of Llandudno bay.
Fun fact about Llandudno
It’s home to one of the country’s oldest Punch and Judy shows. Codman Punch and Judy on the pier is said to have started 150 years ago. Punch and Judy is a puppet show starring Mr Punch and his wife Judy. It’s like a slapstick soap opera and where the phrase “pleased as punch” comes from — a reference to how self-satisfied Mr Punch is.
How to get there
The nearest airport to Llandudno is Liverpool — or again, hop on a train from various U.K. mainline stations.
This quintessentially British seaside town in Thanet, Kent, is only an hour-and-a-half on the train from London — so a quieter, more peaceful alternative to Brighton, but heading east. Continuing with the theme of rather self-important monikers, Broadstairs is “the jewel in Thanet’s crown”. Viking Bay is full of beach huts and children’s rides while Joss Bay is more suited for wave riders — it’s got its own surf school.
Broadstairs was a favourite holiday spot of Charles Dickens, so make sure you walk the clifftop to Victoria Gardens and end up at Bleak House — the spot where Dickens wrote “David Copperfield”. Also, clustered around Viking Bay are some great art galleries — and before you go home, pop to Morelli’s for ice cream.
Fun fact about Broadstairs
Literary greats loved it here. Visitors included Wilkie Collins, John Keats, Oscar Wilde and D.H. Lawrence. Van Gogh even taught here for a spell in 1876.
How to get there
All London airports are fairly close, but the nearest is Gatwick. Trains also go directly from London to Broadstairs.
6. St Ives
Located near Penzance in Cornwall, St Ives has been regularly voted one of the best seaside towns in the U.K. It’s built on a narrow peninsula fringed with sandy beaches and is a splendid maze of cute fisherman’s cottages and cobbled streets. There are four main beaches — Porthmeor, perhaps the best known, Porthminster, Harbour beach and the littlest, Porthgwidden, which is tucked away around the corner from all the hustle and bustle.
St Ives is also very popular with surfers, and five kilometres to the west is Seal Island. You guessed it — home to a colony of grey seals. The fishing town is also renowned for being an artists’ retreat and there is even a Tate St Ives here.
Fun fact about St Ives
St Ives has a “friendship agreement” with Laguna Beach, California — the towns, both with big art scenes and by the sea, exchange gifts as “Sister Cities”.
How to get there
Newquay Cornwall Airport is about a one hour drive away. The train is the other option or a fairly long six-hour but scenic drive through the West Country from London.
This small seaside town of Oban (meaning Little Bay in Scottish Gaelic) in Argyll and Bute in Scotland is simply stunning. It is considered to be the gateway to the Outer Hebrides and you can combine Victorian seaside pursuits with seriously dramatic scenery and exploring local castles. Oban is a great base for discovering the nearby islands of Mull and Kerrera, too.
You may not associate Scotland with chocolate making but the Oban Chocolate Company’s truffles are highly delicious. You do associate Scotland with whisky though so make sure you pop into the Oban Distillery for a beginner’s guide to single malt to warm the cockles. After that, amble along the seafront to the ruins of Dunollie Castle — the sunsets are said to be phenomenal.
Fun fact about Oban
Former F1 racing driver Susie Wolff is from Oban. In 2014, she was the first woman to take part in a Formula 1 race weekend in 22 years.
How to get there
We recommend taking the overnight train, the Caledonian Sleeper, from London to Edinburgh. From Edinburgh, Oban is a three-hour scenic drive. Alternatively, the nearest airport is Glasgow, which has good train links to Oban.
All of these resorts are easily accessible and would be perfect for a nostalgia-filled, wholesome weekend away. Another bonus is that typically British seaside resorts are easy on the wallet — in fact, getting there will probably be the biggest expense. Cheap and cheerful food, penny arcades and, of course, free access to the beach — all this adds up to a great post-lockdown, affordable getaway.
Featured photo by Westend61/Getty Images
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