Stylist’s travel editor Lizzie Pook likes nothing more than exploring blustery beaches. But her love goes beyond just moody skies and dramatic seas
There’s not much that’s cheery about a beach in winter. No primary coloured buckets clutched in excited children’s hands. No takers for the deck chairs. No Factor 30.
But a winter beach is certainly never lacking in emotion. You’ll find plenty of melancholy here if you want it; a sprinkle of serenity; a dash of hope in the retreating swell.
There’s an art to an empty winter beach that can easily be overlooked – oily pebbles and tiny shells found scattered like slowly-spilt treasure; the way seafoam glitters under the watery winter sun; fat gulls circling above sea cliffs in the manner of patrolling Spitfires. But I’ve often found that a winter beach does so much more than simply look dramatic. For me, they are an emotional crutch, a place to escape to when the walls start to inch in too close.
I’ve often found myself yearning for a winter beach when my brain sends me signs it is starting to struggle. When bad thoughts sit torpid and refuse to be shaken, when my mind orders me to be ashamed, embarrassed of every mistake I ever made. Because a stroll along a winter beach can help to entirely reframe your thinking, whether it’s the wind-whipped quiet or the salty open space that allows you to untie your stubborn thoughts like knots out of rope.
Take a walk on a beach this winter and I think you’ll find it helps your brain. I hope it does. It certainly has for me – when I’ve been navigating hurt or grief or the encroaching murk of self-doubt.
Look to the sand and you’ll see the spiralling cases left behind by writhing lugworms; flick your eyes out to sea and you’ll find waves that roll like breaching humpback whales. There’s something enlivening about the wind that comes rushing in off that water; speckled with sand and cold as a knife – a shot in the arm to winter-wearied souls.
Fortunately, the beaches of the UK are truly something special. From Dorset’s Jurassic Coast – where fossils of ancient beasts hang suspended in the cliffs – to the coastline of Norfolk, crammed full with squawking migratory birds. There’s so much to be explored in the painterly stretches of Cornwall’s bays and coves, and high-adrenaline adventures to be snatched along the higgledy piggledy Pembrokeshire cost, where shards of earth form unbeatably wild beaches, and towering sea stacks are pummelled by the flinty, frothing sea.
I’ve seen some beaches that are simply too good not to share, such as Luskentyre in the Scottish Outer Hebrides, where white-sided dolphins flip their fins in the shallows, or Keem Bay on Ireland’s far-flung Achill Island, where basking sharks roam the waters and there’s nothing but waves between you and the first signs of America.
But the real beauty comes in finding your own little winter beach, tucked away in an unmarked cove, rising like a trophy at the end of a long coastal hike. So do go, if you can, when the world comes out of this stagnating lockdown, before the crowds rush in and the skies get sunnier. I think your brain will thank you.
The best hotels and cabins for a winter beach staycation
When it comes to a winter beach escape, where you stay is almost as important as the stretch of sand in front of you. From glass-fronted cabins with hot tubs, to remote self-catering cottages, these are the best places to hole up in this winter.
The Secret Suite at Gara Rock, Devon
Gara Rock – a brilliantly laid-back hotel on the scraggy south Devon coastline – boasts a little hidden gem. Its Secret Suite is entirely glass-fronted, meaning you can sprawl on your Super-King bed and watch as fish skin-coloured clouds roll in across the English Channel. The just-for-two suite is hewn into the edge of a cliff which overlooks a blustery private beach – perfect for long meditative strolls (although you may be distracted by the portly seals lolling in the surf). The room also comes with an outdoor hot tub – ideal for soaking up incredible sea views, especially in the rain.
From £360 per night, including breakfast; gararock.com
Sandy Toes Beach House, Essex
Not just for summer, beaches have proven a lockdown saviour this year as we crave open space, big gulps of sea air or the adrenaline rush of a dip in the wild waves. So what’s just about perfect right now is an isolated fisherman’s hut, with its own private beach, tucked away on the north Kent coast of the Isle of Sheppey.
To call it a shack would be to do it a disservice. A painstakingly renovated family beach house, inside you’ll find mid-century vintage furniture on whitewashed floorboards and a well-stocked, shaker-style kitchen (pick up your food shop en route and you’re good to settle in). It’s off grid but with central heating, a shower and a wood burner beside a big, squashy sofa for when the hatches need battening. A tip: get up before sunrise and sit on the driftwood deck under a blanket to watch the world come to life, as the light hits the surface of the water in dramatic style.
By day, grab the fishing nets and buckets and go crabbing or beach combing. The Swale National Nature Reserve, where Shellbeach is located, is a magnet for Marsh Harriers, owls, waterfowl and butterflies. A short walk along the hamlet takes you to an old gunnery point with views of the estuary along the bottom of the island. We could tell you about nearby Elmley Nature reserve, a rambling 3,300 mile country estate worth pulling on your walking boots for, or the hearty roast dinners at 16th century pub The Ferry House, but that would be missing the point. Because the lure of the coast is so strong you’ll want to stay holed up in the cabin, ignoring your phone and watching nature do her thing in dramatic style. Come dusk, light the fire pit on the beach for extra magic. Solitude never felt so good.
Review by Tracy Ramsden - executive print editor
Cabin for 5 from £285 per night www.canopyandstars.co.uk/sandytoesbeachhouse
The Gallivant, Rye
Down by the tumbling dunes of Camber Sands on England’s south coast, you’ll find The Gallivant – a motel turned charming seaside stay, with more than a dash Hamptons chic about it. All Garden Rooms here have direct access to the coastal garden (filled with winter grasses and wildflowers) and the hotel – which also boasts a cosy little massage hut and an award-winning restaurant – puts you within reach of some truly exceptional dining spots and exquisite soft sand beaches.
From £295 per night; thegallivant.co.uk
The Sheep Station, Scottish Hebrides
If you make the trek (or rather, the sail) to Scotland’s wind-beaten and beautiful Outer Hebrides, the finest place to stay is undoubtedly The Sheep Station, a luxuriously cosy pair of self-catering rental houses overlooking the unspoiled and oft-deserted Scarista beach on the west coast. ‘House One’ is the perfect place to step back from the high-octane pace of life for a bit, with a super-king bed, chic marble bathroom and chef’s kitchen fitted out with Smeg appliances. A wood-burning stove in the lounge makes things warm and toasty when the cold evenings roll in, while huge windows offer views of the pounding Atlantic Ocean or, every once in a while, the shimmering northern lights as they stretch across the winter skies. Heaven.
From £900 for three nights; thesheepstation.co.uk
The Scarlet, Cornwall
Perched on a clifftop overlooking the toasted sands of Mawgwan Porth, the adults-only Scarlet is a must-visit for winter wellness-seekers looking for somewhere to escape from the pressures of lockdown. Built into the rock and with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, the property is so ‘outside-in’ that you can soak up invigorating coastal views from wherever you are in the hotel. The key draw here is the soothing, womb-like spa – with lantern-lit tented treatment rooms, a eucalyptus steam room, cedar-barrel sauna, an indoor pool and meditation room. When you’re not focusing on your personal Ayurvedic ‘journey’, you’ll find stunning cliff paths right on your doorstep, the Bedruthen Steps a 30-minute stroll away and Newquay and Padstow both reachable by car.
From £245 per night; scarlethotel.co.uk
The Swan, Southwold
Southwold is best known for its pricey pastel beach huts, and its pier with its eccentric homemade slot machines. The Swan is a beautiful spot from which to explore this best-of-British beachiness. The Georgian building has been part of the town for hundreds of years, surviving fire and financial disasters to emerge as a chic, antique-filled spot hosting city types on their coastal staycations. It’s closely linked with the Adnams brewery and distillery, meaning gin-making sessions, brewery tours and cocktails are a must, but you can leave the rest to your butler, who can arrange everything from restaurant bookings to winter picnics on the beach.
From £180 per night; theswansouthwold.co.uk