There’s no doubt that the UK seaside break season has extended over the past couple of years, with hordes heading off hopeful for a couple of days of fair weather as late as the end of October. But winter, by and large, is still seen as irredeemably bleak and ultimately undesirable for a relaxing trip to the coast.
However, I would argue that if you wrap up warm and embrace the cold weather, lashing waves and windswept walks, there is no better time of year to experience the UK’s top beach resorts. Out of season you can catch a glimpse of the soul of a seaside town, not just the show it puts on for summer. Locals emerge, cosy pubs invite you in, and walking trails offer occasionally bleak, frequently beautiful new perspectives of the countryside. The lingering worry about the weather turning is also removed – you’ve certainly not come expecting sunshine.
My most fondly remembered UK beach holiday was to Cornwall’s prized resort of St Ives at the end of November. I’ve since visited in peak summer when it’s frankly a toy town experience, with jam-packed streets and no chance of dinner at a decent restaurant unless you’ve booked around two months in advance. No surprise that the romantic memories of my wintry trip have crystallised in my mind.
It was pitch black when we arrived at our tiny fisherman’s cottage, which had stairs you had to clamber up due to low ceilings and velvet blankets to keep warm. Days were spent meandering between galleries (the Tate is open all year), burning our tongues on hot pasties, playing air hockey in the neon-lit arcades and going for blustery walks. We tackled a section of the South West Coast Path, which eventually wound its way to Gurnard's Head – a mustard yellow beacon of a pub, where we tucked into a crab orzo gratin in front of a crackling fire.
The key to a successful beach holiday in the colder months is picking locations that don’t become total ghost towns in winter. As you’re not going to be setting up camp on the beach all day, a range of decent walks is required as are year-round cafés and perhaps a museum or castle to visit. Accommodation should be compact and cosy – think low-beamed cottages rather than whitewashed beach houses that yearn for summer. Here are five other coastal spots that work particularly well for a winter break.
Timeless Broadstairs is a great choice all year round thanks to its seven beaches to wander along, and its burgeoning foodie scene. Among the top spots to book is the recently relaunched Wyatt and Jones, whose hits include coal-roasted rock oysters and smoked eel croquettes. One newcomer, The Table, has also earned rave reviews for its menu of inventive small plates like soft shell crab tacos with pickles and miso.
For a windswept seaside walk, fuel up on pastries or porchetta sandwiches at Staple Stores bakery before strolling past the chalky white cliffs of Botany Bay and on to trendy Margate. Back in Broadstairs, swing by legendary gelato parlour Morelli’s – they also serve whipped-cream topped hot chocolate if it's a teeth-chatteringly cold day.
For an indoor activity, the town was a favourite holiday spot of Charles Dickens, and the author is celebrated at the Dickens House Museum, which is set in the cottage that was the inspiration for the home of Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield.
Where to stay: Airbnb has plenty of Broadstairs cottages to rent, including a detached option with a huge inglenook fireplace. Further afield in Margate, The Reading Rooms is a chic three-bedroom b&b set in a restored Georgian townhouse.
Read more: A complete guide to the best hotels on the Kent Coast
Sandsend, North Yorkshire
Set against a backdrop of grassy cliffs, where the wide sweep of beach from Whitby ends, the pretty seaside village of Sandsend is still somewhat of a secret outside of Yorkshire, with nearby Robin Hood’s Bay more widely visited. That said, once discovered it inspires devotion.
Walking along the beach to Whitby is a must (use the imposing Abbey as a guide), to try what are arguably the best fish and chips in the country at the Magpie Café. Visiting in winter should mean the standard snaking queues have evaporated – unless you’ve accidentally timed your visit with a steampunk festival weekend.
There’s also plenty to see in the pretty village itself, not least the area known to locals as ‘the Valley’, where higgledy piggledy stone cottages and a little church overlook a trickling stream. For keen walkers, Sandsend is also a stop on the Cleveland Way, the 109-mile trail which starts in the market town of Helmsley and weaves around high heather moors and wooded dales that fringe the North York Moors National Park, before reaching the coast. The whole route takes nine days, but in the depths of winter tackling sections of it might be preferable.
Where to Stay: Securing a holiday cottage in ‘the Valley’ will be easier in winter – some of its prime properties are booked two or three years in advance for the summer. Otherwise try Raithwaite Sandsend, on the outskirts of the village, a modern hotel with indoor swimming pool and spa.
Read more: A complete guide to the best hotels in North Yorkshire
Even without its sweet shingle beach, the town of Aldeburgh is well worth a winter visit. From the pastel-painted cottages that line its high street to its independent cinema and the town museum, which is housed in an well-preserved timber-framed Tudor building, there’s an old-fashioned charm all year round. It also has a clutch of excellent restaurants, such as L'escargot Sur Mer, which as the name suggests serves garlic butter-soaked snails among other delights.
Back on the beach, among the treats that can be spotted along the shore are a Martello tower, converted windmill and a scallop monument to Benjamin Britten, who lived nearby. Walk along the coast to quirky Thorpeness, which was designed as a whimsical paradise for children at the turn of the 20th century. Its storybook feel remains intact today, particularly its ‘House in the Clouds’ – a cottage atop a water tower (open throughout winter)
Where to stay: Wake up to the sound of lapping waves at the Brudenell Hotel, which has a prime location right on the beach. Alternatively, book a room at Five Acre Barn, on the edge of town. This stylish b&b, set up by a pair of London expats, is set in a jagged roof modern extension that has been shortlisted for multiple architectural prizes. Rooms feature Ercol chairs and polished concrete floors.
Read more: A complete guide to the best hotels in Suffolk
Bamburgh’s beauty takes on an almost otherworldly quality in winter, with its expansive dune-fringed beach, which stretches three miles to Seahouses, appearing even more wild. Its eponymous castle presides over it all and this year Father Christmas will be in residence (from November 20 until Christmas Eve), handing out presents from a festive grotto.
In the village, there are plenty of traditional tea rooms to take a break in and a museum dedicated to Grace Darling (famed for participating in the rescue of survivors from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in 1838).
On a clear day you can see out to Lindisfarne, which is great fun to visit, being a tidal island that is cut off from the mainland at certain times of the day. Other decent day trips include Alnwick Castle, one of the locations for the Harry Potter films, and the pretty fishing village of Craster, known for its seafood.
Where to stay: In Bamburgh itself expect cosy b&bs and pubs rather than plush hotels. Among the top options are The Lord Crewe Hotel and The Bamburgh Castle Inn, which has a prime harbourside position and offers guests a discount to the castle.
Read more: A complete guide to the best hotels on the Northumberland coast
Tresco, Isles of Scilly
Admittedly, a winter trip to the Isles of Scilly looks a little different to those squint-and-it-could-be-the-Caribbean summer days. There’s also the slight complication that the ferry from Penzance doesn’t run between November and March and many hotels close. Still, 20-minute flights from Land’s End operate year-round, and winter doesn’t hit the archipelago quite like the UK mainland.
On the quaint car-free island of Tresco, temperatures don’t tend to drop below 10 degrees Celsius and those beaches remain dazzlingly white. In fact, on your winter walks around the island, you’ll likely spot varieties of dainty scented narcissi, which are able to thrive throughout the coldest months. Green-fingered visitors should also stop by the Tresco Abbey Gardens, where even in December, there are usually more than 300 species of plants in flower.
The island’s only pub, the New Inn, is the place for hearty meals of Cornish ale-battered fish and chips and local crab mac and cheese.
Where to stay: Tresco offers a range of cute holiday cottages that can be astronomically priced at most times of the year. In winter, however, you’ll find more reasonable rates for the Flying Boat Cottages, which are set right on the water’s edge and have New England-style interiors and wood-burning stoves.