When we picture coastlines protected by the National Trust, we probably imagine justly celebrated beauty spots – Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, the chalk ramparts of the Seven Sisters in East Sussex, or Golden Cap in Dorset. But not every section of the 742 miles of seashore in England, Wales and Northern Ireland guarded by the National Trust (Scotland has its own conservation charity) is busy or stereotypically striking. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel many of those miles while researching a book about our relationship with the coast, and I discovered many less-heralded beaches, cliffs and estuaries. Parts of the coast that I assumed I already knew well also surprised me. These are some of my new favourite places: beautiful, often quiet, occasionally bleak and constantly offering unexpected delights.
Most visitors to Northern Ireland take the road north from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway. Turn south-east, however, and the road leads to Strangford Lough, Britain’s largest sea lake. A shallow silver mirror of water, the lough deepens to the south around an array of tiny round islands, part of a drowned drumlin field created during the ice age. Strangford sees few tourists – by the glittering waters of Kircubbin there’s a wooden shed that would be an upmarket fish shack in Cornwall but here is the Harbour View Car Wash – and so the area is tranquil and lovely. It is also paradise for kayaking and canoeing: there is a canoe trail around the lough and visitors can camp on Salt Island (canoeni.com).
One of the most beautiful beaches in the UK, White Park Bay is now a well-known part of Northern Ireland’s coast, yet it is possible to enjoy it in peace. It is only a short way east of the Giant’s Causeway, but when I visited (in March) it was empty apart from a herd of cattle which had wandered on to its glorious white sand. I also enjoyed time alone with the buzzards soaring above the rocky cliffs at Fair Head and Murlough Bay (not to be confused with Murlough Dunes to the south). The 33-mile Causeway Coast Way reveals the full glories of a coastline which is a match for Cornwall or Pembrokeshire.
Where to stay
The Causeway Hotel (doubles from £99 room-only,), has recently been bought and refurbished by the National Trust, and has excellent modern rooms, views and good food.
More than a third of the Cornish coast is protected by the National Trust and it is easy to find amazing views, obscure coves and fascinating human histories along much of it. There is still plenty of silence, and surprises, on the westerly peninsula of Penwith. But the quietest part of the Cornish coast is its far north, which also boasts the most strenuous section of the South West Coast Path. The parish of Morwenstow is famed as the home of eccentric Victorian vicar and poet Robert Hawker, who made great play of its isolation. (He would receive his copy of the Times newspaper three days after it had been published.) On the cliffs, signposted from the coast path, is a hut he built out of the timbers of wrecked ships, a shrine to the solace he found on this wild, rocky coast.
Where to stay
Robert Hawker’s Old Vicarage in Morwenstow is a beautiful building and a well-regarded B&B with a self-catering cottage as well (B&B £48pp pn, minimum two nights; cottage sleeps 5/6, from £402 a week).
The coast of Durham is probably one of the least-visited in the country. The great coal mines that once defined this region were still dumping mine tailings and waste on the beaches as recently as the 1980s. The last mine closed in 1993, leaving a horribly polluted coast. But nature often repairs our destructiveness more quickly than we might expect and only a fraction of the pollution remains, colouring beach stones an eerie sulphurous yellow. What’s left are grand, deserted beaches and a coast path over magnesium limestone meadows filled with wild flowers in summer, and into secretive denes – steep little valleys. The North Sea can never be turquoise but it can be a surprising cobalt blue. East Durham’s economy is still struggling but locals say fish, shellfish and seaweed are back in abundance on their once coal-wrecked beaches.
Where to stay
Former colliery towns such as Easington and Horden are not (yet) set up for tourism but overlooking the coast just outside the town of Seaham, is a five-star boutique hotel, Seaham Hall (doubles from £175 B&B,), where Lord Byron got married in 1815. There’s also plenty of accommodation in nearby Durham city.
Wales’s largest island (Ynys Môn in Welsh) has an intimate and interesting coastline. “The Menai Strait is one of the most beautiful stretches of water to be found around the coast of Britain,” declared the Welsh painter Kyffin Williams, who admired the shimmering shoals of mackerel when he lived by the channel that turns Anglesey into an island. By the strait is the romantic stately home ofPlas Newydd with a mural by lovelorn artist Rex Whistler. The north coast has tiny coves and wild cliffs, particularly east of Cemlyn Bay, where the nuclear power station isn’t as much of a blot on the landscape as might be assumed.
Where to stay
There are plenty of old-school camping options at discoveranglesey.com/sleep, or try a glamping lodge at Wonderfully Wild near Beaumaris (sleeps 6, from £460 for a weekend or £660 a week).
The long, low coast of Essex is more overlooked than most shores, despite a wealth of islands. Northey, a triangular-shaped 300 hectares in the Blackwater estuary, is the oldest official battle site in Britain (a Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth, lost his head to 3,000 Vikings here) and also the site of Britain’s first “managed retreat”: in 1991 its sea-banks were breached to allow the sea on to former farmland as part of a policy of living with rather than fighting coastal change. Today it’s a place of geese, wide skies and salt marsh. You can walk to Northey at low tide from the town of Maldon, but check tides and call the National Trust office (01621 853142) for permission first. Further north, Ray Island is another nature reserve with literary links.
Where to stay
It is possible to rent a privately owned holiday home here and (almost) have the island to yourself (sleeps 10, from £208 a night).
This great sweep of sand and dunes north of the sprawling, sinister ruin ofDunstanburgh castle may be one of the Northumberland’s better-known beaches but the county’s magnificent coast is still relatively unvisited compared with, say, Cornwall. In May and October, there’s hardly been anyone about, although summer holidays are slightly busier. Apart from the castle, rocks and sand, this beach also has pools for wading birds, the picturesque model fishing village of Low Newton-by-the-Sea and a fine pub, the Ship Inn.
Where to stay
There are hotels and B&Bs in nearby Beadnell but for location, it is hard to beat the self-catering Lookout Cottage, run by the National Trust, overlooking Embleton Bay (from £270 for three nights or £385 a week)
For most of the last century, access to the shingle spit of Orford Ness was prohibited under the Official Secrets Act. This inaccessible “almost island” as Robert Macfarlane calls it, was an experimental military site, testing everything from the production of artificial clouds to triggers on atomic weapons. Today these concrete cold war laboratories lie ruined on the shoreline, a malevolent symbol of the destructiveness of the 20th century. Orford Ness also happens to be the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe and its dry shingle is home to rare plants and seabirds. While most National Trust coastline is open to the public, the public can visit the spit only on Saturdays from April to June, and Tuesday to Saturday from July to September – because of ground-nesting birds, as well as hazardous waste and unexploded bombs. Visitors must book a boat crossing from Orford quay and stick to the footpaths.
Where to stay
National Trust volunteers engaged in conservation work are occasionally allowed to stay on the island. The attractive town of Orford has good accommodation, including the Wash House Studio B&B (doubles £95 B&B)and the Crown and the Castle (doubles from £135 B&B, £205 half-board (compulsory at weekends)) whose bistro serves locally sourced food.
The White Cliffs seem so culturally familiar – Vera Lynn, cross-channel ferries and all – that I wasn’t terribly excited about visiting them. But that was before I discovered their secrets. Stroll east from the Langdon Cliffs visitor centre, and you’ll find a tiny hole in the ground, hidden in shrubbery. This summer, Fan Bay Deep Shelter is being opened to the public for the first time: it is a maze of subterranean tunnels where up to 180 soldiers sheltered during the second world war, and experimental sound mirrors were placed on the cliffs.It is a damp, atmospheric place, a portal into our recent history.
Where to stay
East Cottage is a former lighthouse keeper’s house at South Foreland, recently refurbished by the National Trust (sleeps four, from £533 for three days or £820 a week
To all but lovers of bracing solitude, an uninhabited tidal island of tawny sand dunes and a maze of salt marsh doesn’t sound terribly thrilling. Yet Scolt is a magical place: deeply tranquil and one of the wildest spots in southern Britain. The western end of the island is one of Norfolk’s best tern colonies, and these chalk-winged birds fish by diving into the clean waters off the island. It is a difficult place to visit: there are some guided tours and it is possible to walk to the island from Burnham Deepdale at low tide. But you need a tide table and must check with locals about tide sizes – there is no surefire rule about a safe time to cross, no toilets and no refreshments. Try to avoid the nesting season (May-July) because the deserted beach is one of the best sites for the timid, ground-nesting ringed plover.
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