1. Chapel Porth, Cornwall
You can reach Chapel Porth’s pretty little beach by road (there is a National Trust car park), but the best way to get there is by walking a couple of miles along the coastal path from St Agnes to the north, or from the micro-hub of Porthtowan just to the south. Your reward? A hidden, sandy bay flanked by cliffs and guarded during summer by the red and yellow flags of the RNLI. Your family can build sandcastles, or cavort in the shallows, but the real lure is the Porth Chapel café, with its hedgehog ice cream (vanilla base plus clotted cream, dipped in honey-roast hazelnuts).
Eat at The surfy Blue Bar in nearby Porthtowan offers big plates of nachos with guacamole, sour cream and salsa for £9.50 (01209 890329; blue-bar.co.uk).
Stay at Rosehill Lodges in Porthtowan has a selection of two- and three-bed self-catering luxury cabins, all with hot tubs (01209 891 920; rosehilllodges.com).
2. The Strangles, Cornwall
A 15-minute walk south of Crackington Haven (a village that has been listed among Britain’s silliest place names), this is the ultimate dramatic wild beach, the scene of countless shipwrecks and set under some of the highest cliffs in the South West. Follow the zigzag path down through dwarf oaks and heather hummocks to arrive at a huge stretch of low-tide sand. It’s a great place to make a driftwood fire (below the high tide line) and watch the sun set over the sea. Explore at low tide only.
Eat at Trevigue Farm restaurant serves home-reared meat and garden produce in season. Open Friday and Saturday evenings. (01840 230 492; trevigue.com).
Stay at Pencuke Farm, St Gennys, self-catering farm cottages and upmarket yurts with a lovely farm shop selling local breads, home-baked treats and meats from the farm (01840 230360; pencukefarm.co.uk).
3. Broadsands, near Combe Martin, North Devon
You’ll need a head for heights and strong legs to get to this deep, double cove, reached via 220 uneven steps moulded out of a steeply wooded cliff face between Watermouth and Combe Martin on Devon’s wild Exmoor coast. Once there, you can explore the arches, caves, island lookout and tunnels to the west of the bay, and bag one of the large coves for yourself.
Eat and stay at The Sandy Cove Hotel (01271 882243; sandycove-hotel.co.uk), a 10-minute walk from Broadsands, along the coastal path.
4. Moor Sands, East Prawle, South Devon
Turquoise sea, offshore islands and sand of fine pearl quartz beads makes this the best of a trio of sandy coves along this stretch of rugged south Devon headland. The approach through quiet meadows is idyllic, and the rope ladder that helps with the last descent adds an extra thrill.
Eat at The Pig’s Nose in East Prawle, known locally for its live music (01548 511209; pigsnoseinn.co.uk).
Stay at East Prawle has several basic campsites. For something more upmarket, South Sands, in Salcombe (01548 845 900; southsands.com), is a short ferry ride away from East Portlemouth, farther west up the coastal path. Read our full review here.
5. Eype beach, Dorset
Often overshadowed by its neighbours — Lyme Regis to the west, or West Bay (Broadchurch) to the east — Eype beach is where locals go for seaside seclusion. Narrow lanes snake through Eype village on to the shelving shingle, coloured goldenrod, grey and black. It’s an unexpected find on the South West Coast Path; picnics or midsummer barbecues on the large smooth pebbles are a popular activity.
Eat at Downhouse Farm, a 20-minute walk from the beach. Homemade food, much of it from their organic coastal farm (01308 421232; downhousefarm.org).
6. Worbarrow Bay, Dorset
The 20-minute walk to this near-isolated shore on the Isle of Purbeck is worth it: wind-carved stones sweep round in a crescent, beside cliffs of chalky white or sandy brown rocks. Strolling east, you will find Mupe Rocks, large rugged stacks jutting from the shallows. The closest parking is a mile away in the ghost village of Tyneham. The bay lies within the Army’s Lulworth Ranges, so it’s only accessible at weekends and on specified dates.
Eat at The Weld Arms in East Lulworth, an unassuming thatched pub, opposite Lulworth Castle, offering light lunches, fresh seafood, Dorset ales and ciders (01929 4000211; weldarms.co.uk).
Stay at The Pig on the Beach (0845 077 9494; thepighotel.com), 10 miles east, but easily the best spot in Purbeck, overlooking Old Harry Rocks. The vintage-meets-contemporary manor house offers access to Studland Bay. Doubles from £209 a night; read our full review here.
7. Steephill Cove, Isle of Wight
The beach at Steephill Cove, just south of Ventnor, can only be reached by foot (most easily via the coastal path from Ventnor or the Botanic Gardens). This little bay of cheerful beach huts, deck chairs and rock pools is backed by cottage gardens and bathed in Mediterranean-style light. Winter storms have washed away most of the sand, so it’s now shingle, but no less charming.
Eat at Wheelers Crab Shed café for fresh crab sandwiches or lobster and salad; or the Boathouse restaurant (01983 852747; www.steephill-cove.co.uk/restaurant) – both overlooking the beach.
8. Rottingdean, East Sussex
While Brighton is lovely much of the time, no one wants to play sardines on a hot weekend. The beach at Rottingdean, just beyond Brighton Marina, offers respite from the maelstrom and provides plenty of distractions for kids. Go armed with reef shoes and buckets – at low tide its rock pools teem with crabs. Stroll the Undercliff walk from Black Rock to Saltdean, or take the Coaster 12 bus.
Eat at The little café on the beach, serving tea, good cakes and bacon sandwiches.
Stay at Drakes Hotel, Brighton, a boutique seafront hotel conveniently located for Rottingdean, and close to a bus stop (01273 696 934; drakesofbrighton.com) – doubles from £120; read our full review here.
9. Covehithe, Suffolk
Covehithe beach sits at the end of the world, down a dead-end lane that literally falls off the edge of a cliff and beneath the dramatic remains of St Andrews Church. The coast has been eroding fast around here, and now there is just the ruin, a farm and the quiet beach, reached across fields and backed by the tranquil waters of Covehithe Broad. Take the footpath 100m before the church and follow the field edge to the beach.
Eat at the Harbour Inn in Southwold (01502 722381, harbourinnsouthwold.co.uk), a harbourside pub with plenty of outdoor space overlooking the river Blyth.
Stay at Church Farmhouse b&b, a Grade II-listed farmhouse in three acres of orchard and garden at Uggeshall (01502 578532, churchfarmhousesuffolk.co.uk), doubles from £95 a night.
10. Waxham, Norfolk
Soft, yellow sand, backed by grassy dunes, on Norfolk’s less-visited north-east coast. Waxham merges with the neighbouring beach of Sea Palling to the north, making this stretch a good choice for long seaside walks. Expect peace and space, plus the chance to see grey seals lolling lazily at the water’s edge. Behind the beach is a small village with a restored, 16th-century barn housing a café that serves teas and light lunches (see norfolkhistoricbuildingstrust.org.uk). Parking is on the roadside.
Eat at the Gunton Arms, in Thorpe Market, near Cromer (01263 832010; theguntonarms.co.uk). The 20-mile drive is worth it for the steaks, chops and ribs cooked on the open “Elk room” fire.
11. Scolt Head, Norfolk
This beautiful wildlife reserve contains one of the wildest and least accessible stretches of sand on the entire North Norfolk coast. Get there by ferry from Burnham Overy Staithe, which operates a couple of hours either side of high tide. Alternatively, keep to the east of the creek and walk a mile or so along the raised sea-wall from the quayside to reach high dunes, marram grass and surfing waves.
Eat at the water’s edge. There are no cafés here, so buy picnic supplies from the delis and fishmongers of Burnham Market nearby.
Stay at The White Horse, Brancaster, with spectacular views over the coastal saltmarshes; doubles from £100.
12. Cattersty Sands, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire
This spectacular beach and little-known bay is sheltered behind high crags and a grassy meadow. There is clear water and beautiful sand. A strange ruined pier still stands here, built by the Skinningrove Iron Company in 1886 for loading ore on to steamers bound for Middlesbrough. Adventurous local swimmers practise swallow dives from its heights and snorkel its depths.
Eat at the Ship, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, a popular pub, right down among the boats, with beams, good beer and fish and chips (01287 622361).
Stay at the Captain Cook Inn, well priced with wonderful views over the quaint fishing village of Staithes. Doubles from £80, including breakfast. (01947 840200, captaincookinn.co.uk).
13. North Sands, Hartlepool, Co Durham
Time your visit with the low tide and enjoy one of the best beach walks in the North East – and one of the first stretches of our shoreline officially designated part of the England Coast Path. From The Headland, site of a statue of cartoon legend Andy Capp, you descend to the wide expanse of golden sand. Dilapidated Steetley Pier is all that remains of the old magnesite works, but the cliffs still glow yellow with magnesian limestone. At high tide, the coastal path runs along the top of the cliffs. See durhamheritagecoast.org
Eat at Mary Rowntrees – occupying the former St Andrew’s church – which serves posh fish and chips. (01429 868313, facebook.com/maryrowntrees).
Stay at Ship Inn, High Hesleden. A mile inland from the beach, this popular family-run pub has a comfortable motel-style extension at the back. The food is excellent, too (01429 836453, theshipinn.net).
14. Sugar Sands, Northumberland
It is only a short walk to these sweetly named sands between the market town of Alnwick and the eerie remains of Dunstanburgh Castle. A pretty little stream runs down through woodland and there are plenty of trees from which to string your hammock. A little farther on, at Rumbling Kern, are fabulous rock pools that are large enough to swim in, and extraordinary rock formations, with ledges for jumping.
From Longhoughton (B1339), turn for Low Stead Farm opposite the church, walk through the farm to the dunes, then head left up the coast for half a mile.
Eat a picnic sourced from Robson’s fish smokery in Craster (01665 576223) or sit down for crab sandwiches at The Jolly Fisherman’s in Craster (01665 576461, thejollyfishermancraster.co.uk).
Stay at the Bathing House, Howick, which can be rented by the week. It’s set on the cliffs, with spectacular sea views (016977 46777, northumbria-byways.com).
15. Bay at the Back of the Ocean, Iona, Hebrides
The Gaelic name of this idyllic bay of white sand and shingle, Camus Cul an Tabh, refers to the fact that the next landfall is Newfoundland. Bounded by carpets of wildflowers in spring, it is a short walk along a farm track from the peaceful island’s famous abbey, but few visitors are aware of it.
Eat at Martyr’s Bay Restaurant is the only pub on Iona, serving hot and cold snacks all day, bar food and evening meals featuring steaks and local seafood. (01681 700382; martyrsbay.co.uk).
Stay at the 19th-century Argyll Hotel by the ferry landing overlooking the Sound of Iona (01681 700334; argyllhoteliona.co.uk).
16. Silver Sands of Morar, Inverness-shire
A series of pure, white sandy beaches between Arisaig and Morar in the West Highlands, with views over the sea to Skye and the isles of Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna. Featured in the film Local Hero, they lie near the end of the “Road to the Isles” from Fort William, one of the most scenic routes in Britain.
Eat at the Old Library Lodge in Arisaig is a waterfront restaurant with rooms, serving imaginative bistro style food with local produce (01687 450651; oldlibrary.co.uk).
Stay at the Arisaig Hotel, an 18th-century coaching inn with sea views. It is dog friendly, and has bicycles and kayaks for hire (01687 450210; arisaighotel.co.uk).
17. Drigg sand dunes, Cumbria
More than a thousand golden acres of pristine dunes sweep their way down to the Cumbrian coast from the high mountains of Scafell Pike behind. This is a great place to escape the crowds of the Lake District – your only company will be the natterjack toads, great crested newts and adders that thrive in this special landscape. The dunes connect to Ravenglass, where you can pick up the steam train that takes you up into the Esk Valley.
Eat at the Ratty Arms, a quirky, family-run pub near the seafront in Ravenglass, with food sourced from local producers (01229 717676).
Stay at Coachmans Quarters b&b in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, near Ravenglass, with views out over the dunes (01229 717614, muncaster.co.uk).
18. White Park Bay, Northern Ireland
Patrick Barkham, walking this glorious three-mile arc of beach between two headlands near the Giant’s Causeway for his book Coastlines, wrote that the sand was “so fine it squeaked”. It’s a great spot for picnics, sandcastle-building and nature trails (otter prints were photographed recently). Ocean currents can be strong, so it’s not ideal for swimming.
Eat at Roark’s Kitchen by nearby Ballintoy harbour – a setting for Game of Thrones (it’s Pyke, capital of the Iron Islands) — for lunchtime soup and sandwich, and the Bushmills Inn (bushmillsinn.com) for dinner.
Stay at Whitepark House, which dates from 1730 and has three double rooms; b&b for two from £120 a night (028 207 31482; whiteparkhouse.com), or at the youth hostel directly above the bay (hini.org.uk), with views to Scotland.
19. Llanddwyn Bay, Anglesey
It’s at the end of the road on an island off Wales, and on a clear summer’s day the peaks of Snowdonia float like a mirage in the blue yonder. During gales it turns it into a Celtic Gobi desert, while in balmy heatwaves it outshines the Med. At one end of the three-mile beach is a little island that can be reached on foot at low tide, with a terrace of pilots’ cottages and a miniature lighthouse. The pillow-shaped rocks nearby are the remains of lava-flows from undersea eruptions.
Eat at the Marram Grass Café, which serves Menai mussels, Welsh lamb and catch of the day (01248 44 00 77; themarramgrass.com).
Stay at the Outbuildings, a stone-walled barn and granary converted into four cosy cottages and a shepherd’s hut; doubles b&b from £75 a night (01248 430132; theoutbuildings.co.uk).
20. Coppet Hall, Pembrokeshire
This small, dune-backed, sheltered area at the eastern end of Saundersfoot’s sandy beach is right on the Pembrokeshire Coast national trail. Gentle tides and shallow, warmish seas make it popular with families and picnic-ers who don’t want the hullabaloo of Tenby.
Eat at Coast, where chef Will Holland focuses on fish and seafood. Especially lovely in the evening (01834 810800; coastsaundersfoot.co.uk).
Stay at the Grove, Narbeth – this grand country hotel has airy, stylish rooms and is ideal for exploring the foodie town; b&b from £180.