10 lesser-known English beaches for a family day out

Escaping the crowds is all the more important this summer. From Northumberland to Devon, we pick some of our favourite bustle-free beaches for a day on the coast with the kids.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020,
By Mark Rowe
Chapman’s Pool on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset is ideal for fossil hunting.

Chapman’s Pool on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset is ideal for fossil hunting.

Photograph by Getty Images

In a summer like no other in living memory, getting away from it all takes on a very different meaning. More than ever before, the wish for those Robinson Crusoe moments, of your footprints being the only ones on the sand, will be felt acutely. The English coast isn’t short of hotspots that draw the crowds, even in these times, but there is good news: families can still find plenty of quieter, less-visited beaches to escape to. Sometimes, they’re simply overlooked in favour of their more popular neighbours, or they can be harder to reach and so receive fewer visitors.

Timing your visit is also key: avoid the hours of high tide, when visitors will be more squeezed together at the top of a beach. And while you may not always have these 10 lesser-known shores to yourself, these beaches are, at least, a safer bet when it comes to social distancing by the sea.

Best for sunsets and letting off steam: Earnse Bay, Cumbria

Few people come to Cumbria for its beaches, but west-facing, empty Earnse Bay on Walney Island (you’ll reach it across a bridge from Barrow-in-Furness) is perfect for a picnic or a dip with a backdrop of the setting sun. Views of the largest wind farm in Europe, the mountains of the Isle of Man and, on a clear day, Snowdonia, can be spectacular. Keep your eyes peeled for the inhabitants of one of England’s largest grey seal colonies.

Best for watching the waves: Gunwalloe Church Cove Beach, Cornwall

Even in the height of summer, few people make it to Cove Beach, located near Gunwalloe on the Lizard Peninsula. Small but perfectly formed, it sits behind a headland, topped with the ancient Church of St Winwaloe. The beach isn’t safe for swimming but the steep seabed drop-off can make for spectacular waves, even on a day of light winds. There’s a bridge on which to play Poohsticks and the wide stream is wonderful for kids (and adults) to paddle in.

The beach at Gunwalloe Cove isn’t safe for swimming but the steep seabed drop-off can make for spectacular waves, even on a day of light winds.

Photograph by Alamy

Best for solitude and sandstone: Blackgang Beach, Isle of Wight

Blackgang Beach is surely one of the least visited of all the island’s beaches and it’s fair to say getting there is as much fun as being there: you have to slither down a steep, sometimes slippery (but generally safe) path from Niton. The payoff is a glorious beach of fine-grained, ochre pebbles, which your feet sink into ever so slightly as you walk across them. Sit back and enjoy the peace, overlooked by a magnificent sandstone escarpment that looks like a vast slab of honeycomb.

Best for natural drama: Botany Bay, Kent

This spectacular beach is the preserve of those in the know, and it’s hard to believe it lies within striking distance of the grand facades of Broadstairs and seaside cheer of Margate. The huge lumps of chalk that pockmark the beaches are proof that nature can create sculptures as impressive as anything on display in the nearby Turner Contemporary. The soaring sea stacks here, shaped like giant oil drums, reach up to 130ft in height, and there are also large stretches of pristine white sand — ideal for long lazy walks or a spot of sunbathing.

Best for fossil-hunting: Chapman’s Pool, Dorset

Tucked away on Dorset’s Isle of Purbeck, near the village of Worth Matravers, Chapman’s Pool is far quieter than its better-known neighbour, Lulworth Cove. Fetchingly horseshoe-shaped, the cove is secluded and its beauty is more than worth the modest effort needed to navigate the footpath to the sand and shingle. This is part of the Jurassic Coast, so the kids will have every chance of coming across ammonites, shell fossils and even small chunks of Paleolithic reptiles.

Best for sunbathing and splashing: Gaddings Dam, West Yorkshire

At 2,625ft above sea level and 60 miles from the coast, this spot might not be the obvious choice for a day at beach. The earth embankment here forms the lip of a disused reservoir on the moorland plateau of Langfield Common in the Yorkshire Moors, between Todmorden and Walsden. The sand comes from weathered gritstone, while a groyne keeps it from blowing off into the moors. Reached only by foot, it’s great for paddling but be mindful of diving as the ‘seabed’ can be rocky. The approach up the hill is steep and can be tricky for very young children and is unsuitable for prams.

Best for birdwatching and kite flying: Embleton Bay, Northumberland

Vast, crescent-shaped Embleton Bay hides in plain sight behind the commanding Dunstanburgh Castle. Even on the sunniest day you can wander, fly a kite or sit and stare at the puffins and terns with few concerns about social distancing. The castle will also stir the kids’ imagination: it looks like the kind of castle a six-year-old might draw, perched on a cliff, with crumbling ramparts and a huge forbidding portcullis and drawbridge.

Sunny Cove in Devon is the perfect spot for getting away from it all: take the track off the coast path below Rickham Common and you’ll eventually discover this gorgeous inlet with a sizeable stretch of golden sand.

Photograph by Alamy

Best for hiding away from the world: Sunny Cove, Devon

Sunny Cove gets it well-deserved moniker on account of facing south in the one of the most consistently sunny parts of England, tucked away on the quietest side of the East Portlemouth headland, on the east side of the Salcombe Estuary. This is the perfect spot for getting away from it all: take the track off the coast path below Rickham Common and you’ll eventually discover this gorgeous inlet with a sizeable stretch of golden sand.

Best for remote beauty: Covehithe, Suffolk

Some beaches are picture-postcard pretty – but not Covehithe. Reached from a lane that ends abruptly at a crumbling cliff edge with a backdrop of a roofless church, Covehithe, south of Lowestoft, has an edgy, dramatic beauty that will capture any kid’s imagination. Explore the water-smoothed trunks of trees taken to the shoreline by the collapsed cliff, before taking a break on the soft, golden sand.

Best for rockpools: Lee Bay, Devon

An isolated beach in North Devon is hard to find even at the quietest time of year, but pint-sized Lee Bay near Ilfracombe is one such place. Follow the same road to popular Woolacombe, but turn off for the village of Lee through a deep, wooded valley instead. Here you’ll find a small, sandy beach and rockpools that are the perfect place to explore, paddle and sunbathe away from the crowds — and perhaps even fish or launch a kayak from the rocks.

Published in the July/August 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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