When you’re tired of London, and fancy some sea breezes, beach time and quirky coastal charms, with a dash perhaps of hipster-fuelled art, fish and chips, retro entertainment and natural beauty, the following seaside resorts are a simple train ride away. You can either enjoy them on a day trip or stay overnight, thanks to a raft of cool new accommodation options, including boutique guesthouses and hotels.
Brighton And Hove
The most popular draw on England’s south coast has been dubbed London-on-Sea because of its cosmopolitan, LGBTQI-friendly vibe, buzzing nightlife and the fact that so many ex-Londoners and celebrities have moved here. While it’s nice to lounge in a stripy deck chair on the pebbly beach on a sunny day, it’s just as rewarding to potter around the street-art-festooned backstreets, where you’ll find quirky boutiques, cafes and clubs, not to mention the Indian-style Royal Pavilion, an extravagant palace built in the late 18th century for the Prince Regent. If the weather’s fine, take the British Airways i360 (nicknamed the ‘Brighton Eye’). It’s touted as the world’s tallest moving observation tower, and lifts passengers 138m in its UFO-shaped pod, giving bird’s eye views over the English Channel, the city and, inland, the verdant, undulating South Downs.
Synonymous with a certain battle in 1066 – in which the Norman king, William the Conqueror, crossed the Channel to defeat Harold, the Anglo-Saxon monarch – Hastings has always attracted history buffs (though the fighting actually took place about 10km inland from here). But this is also an under-rated destination for leisure and pleasure seekers, who’ll find old-school amusement arcades and a Victorian pier that’s had a makeover after a 2010 fire. Bag a flat white from Billycan Coffee – one of the pier’s new businesses – and enjoy a postcard view of Hastings, with its ruined Norman castle crowning one of the town’s grassy hills. Amble the narrow lanes of the Old Town, which is peppered with characterful pubs and antique shops, and peruse The Jerwood, a trendy art gallery that’s sprouted beside Europe’s largest fleet of beach-launched fishing boats. For clifftop walks, head up into Hastings Country Park on the East Hill funicular railway.
Rambling along lofty clifftops, overlooking the emerald-blue hues of the Channel, is a key lure of Eastbourne, which rivals Hastings for the title of Britain’s sunniest town (the duo regularly get more annual hours of sunlight than anywhere else in the country). Eastbourne is at the western tip of the South Downs Way, a 160km countryside trail to the cathedral city of Winchester. Do-able in an afternoon, the section between Eastbourne and Birling Gap showcases the sheer chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, which Harry Potter fans might recognise as being the site of the Quidditch World Cup in The Goblet of Fire. The ‘Gap’ has a National Trust-run cafe and shop and a bus that takes you back to Eastbourne, where you can stroll on the town’s palm-tree-lined promenade, and admire the seafront’s genteel Victorian and Edwardian architecture.
On the north coast of Kent, east of London, Whitstable has been a fishing harbour since Roman times, and they’re particularly renowned for their oysters here. The town has an oyster festival each July, but most days of the year you’ll see people slurping molluscs (including whelks, squid and scallops) on a pebbly, salty-and-fishy-aired seafront fringed with seafood stalls and restaurants, often with champagne or a local brew – such as Whitstable Bay Pale Ale – for company. Whitstable’s cute high street is also worth a look, lined as it is with quaint delis, galleries and vintage clothes stores.
After decades in the doldrums, this east Kent seaside town is enjoying a cultural renaissance, with a revived Old Town full of cool cafes, bistros and galleries, and the Turner Contemporary, a gleaming arts hub dedicated to JMW Turner, the legendary British painter who was so enamoured by Kent’s land and seascapes. As well as a lovely wide sandy beach, and colourful outlets selling buckets and spades, candy floss and ‘rock’ (a hard-boiled sweet treat found on the English coast), Margate has lots of fun, nostalgia-inducing attractions, including Dreamland, a retro Victorian fairground and festival site that reopened this year after a massive facelift.
Traditionally a favourite escape for working-class east Londoners and Essex folk, this Thames Estuary town is situated where the famous river meets the North Sea. It has some pulse-raising roller-coasters, but it’s most renowned for its pleasure pier, which was originally built in 1830 and is said to be the longest in the world. You can tread the boardwalks, or ride a railway, to the end of this 2158-km long structure, and enjoy stirring vistas over the estuary’s bird-rich mudflats, marshes and water. A major pier revamp has seen the arrival of a brand new pavilion staging theatre and art exhibitions, while a little further along, on Southend’s Western Esplanade, you’ll find Oliver’s on the Beach – a restaurant run by the aunt and uncle of Essex lad-done-good, Jamie Oliver.