Sandwood Bay, Sutherland

Sandwood Bay, Sutherland
Mountainous dunes and actual mountains in the coastal Highlands / Image: Adobe Stock

Set in the farthest reaches of Sutherland, in Scotland’s coastal Highlands, Sandwood is easily the most ‘secret’ beach on this list purely on account of being so remote. From Inverness it’s a 2.5-hour drive, and then another four miles on foot, but the intrepid will be greeted by what VisitScotland deems the most beautiful beach in Britain (though they would say that). Either way, it’s spectacular 1.5 miles of pristine pink sand backed by rolling dunes and the freshwater, trout-filled Sandwood Loch,  with the Torridonian sandstone sea-stack of Am Buachaille looming lofty in the distance.

Fly to Inverness

Shingle Street, Suffolk

Shingle Street, Suffolk
Suffolk's pebbled haven / Image: Adobe Stock

A schlep down to the dreamy shingle expanse of Dungeness is great, but look to Suffolk and you’ll find an equally idiosyncratic alternative in Shingle Street. Located southwest of the town of Woodbridge (90 minutes east of Stansted), the beautifully desolate bay at this coastal hamlet offers languid waters, an abundance of wildlife – tern and seals abound – and a fine piece of land art in the 275m-long line of white shells laid by a local stonecutter across the huge shingle beach in 2005.

Fly to Stansted 

Compton Bay, Isle of Wight

Compton Bay, Isle of Wight
Looking west to Tennyson Down from the cliffs above Compton Bay / Image: Adobe Stock

The Isle of Wight is jammed with wicked beaches, but there are none more resplendent than the wild sands – and surfer’s heaven – of Compton Bay on the southwest coast. You’ve two points of entry: from the busier Hanover Point end, or the more tumbledown Compton Farm car park to the west. From the latter, clamber down a higgledy wooden staircase, past claypit-dotted cliffs strewn with wildflowers and you’ll hit a stretch of dark sand, the far reaches of which are fairly quiet even in high summer. Stay till sunset, when the view of the Tennyson Monument on the huge westward cliffs becomes truly divine.

Fly to Southampton

Poly Joke, Cornwall

Poly Joke, Cornwall
This West Pentire cove is a fine alternative to busy Newquay and Fistral / Image: 123rf

Set back in a deep cove at West Pentire, Poly Joke (or Porth Joke) is a golden, cave-dotted haven just a few miles west from the bustling, party-party surf resort of Newquay. Its serene vibe is helped by the relative lack of access – there’s a National Trust car park 15 minutes' walk away in the village – and facilities; it’s worth noting there’s no lifeguards here. Once you’re done in the waves, clamber up onto the Kelsey headland and eyeball the birdlife and seals around the uninhabited rock of Chick Island, before laying your head at the minimalist Porth Joke Campsite (though it can be hard to get a pitch in high summer). 

Fly to Newquay

Botany Bay, Kent

Botany Bay, Kent
The towering chalk stack at Botany Bay / Image: 123rf

The hulking chalk stacks, abundance of fossils and myriad rock pools to explore are a fine fit for this adventurously named Kentish beach. It’s not unknown – there are lifeguards and a café/kiosk, and it’s been in numerous ads and music videos, for a start – but it certainly is the most striking on this stretch of coastline, between Margate to the north and charming Broadstairs just to the south. Beware: a high tide cuts off either end of the beach, but the seas are generally gentle enough to paddle if you fancy your own private patch of sand.

Fly to Gatwick

Man O'War beach, Dorset

Man O'War beach, Dorset
This angrily named bay is like Lulworth in miniature / Image: 123rf

Dorset’s Lulworth Cove is iconic for a reason (incredible beauty, mad geology and a provision of beachside cream teas will do that) but it’s also absolutely overrun on sunny days. Instead, head to Man O'War beach, a mile to the west, next to the lofty promontory of Durdle Door. It's a sort of miniature Lulworth, with shining waters and shingly sands protected by a horizontal reef, and the hordes are reduced by the precipitous 800m walk down from the nearest car park.

Fly to Bournemouth 

Balmedie, Aberdeenshire

Balmedie, Aberdeenshire
A sea of ochre sand north of Aberdeen / Image: Adobe Stock

Eight miles up the coast from Aberdeen – and set within a marram-grass-covered complex of undulating dunes that stretch a further seven or so miles up to the Ythan Estuary – the picturesque expanse of Balmedie Beach rewards both lengthy ambles across the flat sands and bracing dips among the gentle breakers of the North Sea. As well as a plethora of wildlife – over 220 species of bird call the marram grasses home – the beach also holds historical intrigue in its status as a WWII ‘bomb cemetery’, where leftover ordnance was detonated on the foreshore (and where the fossils of pillboxes and anti-tank blocks remain).

Fly to Aberdeen

Hilbre Island, Wirral

Hilbre Island, Wirral
Trek across the Dee Estuary to reach this magical rock / Image: Adobe Stock

Merseyside’s windswept Wirral Peninsula is blessed with myriad beaches, though few come as thrilling as that stretching out across the Dee Estuary from West Kirby. At low tide, you can walk two miles out onto the sands, to the uninhabited Hilbre Islands – a beguiling place to picnic among the skerries’ lushly abundant flora and fauna. It’s essential to follow the specific route laid out on the Dee Lane Slipway, tracking round to Little Eye – past colonies of basking seals – and up via Middle Eye to the sunny coves, rockpools and old telegraph and lifeboat stations of Hilbre proper, with spectacular views of both the Lake District and north Welsh mountains. Leave three hours before high water to get back. 

Fly to Liverpool

Aberlady Bay, East Lothian

Aberlady Bay, East Lothian
A skeletal boat in the retreating Forth waters / Image: Alamy

You’ll want to check the tides before visiting this pretty beach – which became the country’s first designated Local Nature Reserve in 1952 – as two-thirds of the area’s sands, mudflats and marsh fall below the water line when it rises. Still, the land above it is a delight, with boardwalks and narrow sandy paths navigating the reserve, leading visitors past fowl-filled wetlands (some 30,000 pink-footed geese stop off here on their autumnal flights from Iceland) and the Gullane golf courses to the sealine. Time it right and you’ll find the melancholy shells of two wartime midget submarines buried in the sands. Just don’t get cut off by the returning surf.

Fly to Edinburgh