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Dig out your bucket and spade and brush up those sandcastle-building skills, because the great British seaside is back.
Over the past 20-30 years, previously popular British seaside towns suffered as cheaper, more accessible air travel meant many people skipping the unpredictable English weather and choosing to jet off to sunny European climes instead.
Now, thanks to some big-name ambassadors and investment in cleaning up our coastal towns, things are looking up for our British beaches. And the south coast is ideal for a road trip around some of the best, easily reached from Gatwick Airport in your hire car.
From pottering around vibrant port town Folkestone to shucking oysters in Whitstable, here’s how to spend a wonderful weekend meandering along the southern coast of England.
Endless rolling green fields top bright-white cliffs, which in turn loom over sandy beaches and shingle coves. Nearby are old-growth woodlands and charming villages such as East Dean, the final home of Sherlock Holmes in the novels. It feels like someone scooped up the best of the British countryside and laid it down by the sea.
Take a bracing walk on Beachy Head, or view the cliffs with a boat trip around the harbour. It’s perfectly lovely to just sit in one of the bars perched atop the bluffs, gazing out at the views with a glass of wine. But this is also a great spot for active types, with everything from paddle-boarding to kite-flying on offer.
Holywell Beach has a series of rock pools revealed at low tide, perfect for pottering around and peering in to see starfish and burrowing molluscs. It’s ideal for kids, or just feeling like a kid—which, if you ask us, is what the seaside is all about.
Make a stop at Hastings to explore its 11th-century castle, cluster of vintage shops, and recently renovated pier.
How to get there: Eastbourne is about an hour and 20 minutes’ drive from Gatwick, following the A23 and A27 through the gorgeous Sussex countryside. You’ll pass through pretty towns and villages on the way, and the historic town of Lewes is also worth a short diversion.
Like much of this coastal stretch, Folkestone has seen a fair amount of regeneration recently, becoming something of an arts hub. The Creative Quarter has more than 100 studios and galleries dotted along cobbled lanes, creating a harmonious blend of old and new.
The Harbour Arm is another example of sensitive repurposing, bringing street food, champagne stalls and live music to a former railway station and ferry terminal, which was an embarkation point for soldiers during WW1.
Stroll on mile-long, cliff-top promenade The Leas, stopping to give France a little wave—you can see its coastline on clear days. Lower Leas Coastal Park has picnic and BBQ areas right by the beach.
How to get there: Folkestone lies at the southern edge of the North Downs,72 miles from Gatwick. The fastest route is via the M23 and M25 motorways.
Blame the art, if you like. From Banksy’s street art to Tracey Emin’s studio and exhibitions at the Turner Contemporary, some of the UK’s biggest creative names have been involved in Margate’s transformation.
For years, the once-thriving seaside town was quietly crumbling, with the only signs of life coming from half-empty cafes and an old arcade’s beeping, flashing machines. Now, it’s one of the coolest places in the country, thanks to a handful of tastemakers.
Designer Wayne Hemingway was hired to revamp Dreamland, turning it from a sorry-looking theme park to a retro dream of candy-coloured art installations, cool rides and live music, while the Old Town’s trendy boutiques and vintage shops now compete for custom.
If you’re visiting Margate from Folkestone, stop off in Ramsgate and Broadstairs on the way. With its grand Royal Harbour, bustling marina, art galleries and restaurants—including Royal Harbour Brasserie, which dishes up fresh seafood right by the water—Ramsgate is a worthy place to break the journey.
A short 10-minute drive will then take you to Broadstairs, with its sandy coves, ice-cream parlours, galleries and fishermen’s huts. Bleak House, where Charles Dickens holidayed and wrote David Copperfield, perches above the chalk cliffs.
How to get there: It will take about an hour and a half via the M25 and the M2. Once you leave the motorway, you’ll be in Kent, known as “the Garden of England” with its gentle rolling hills, fertile fruit-filled orchards and iconic Oast houses.
This pretty seaside town is famous for its oysters, and even holds a festival dedicated to the shellfish each summer. But even seafood haters will find joy pottering around the bohemian shops and galleries, supping craft beer in genuinely tiny ‘micro-pub’ The Black Dog, and padding along the shingle beaches, lined with rainbow-hued huts once used by cockle farmers as storage.
Most life is centred around Whitstable Harbour, where fishermen and women still work and you can hop aboard a sailing barge built in 1893. Nearby restaurants, including Crab and Winkle and The Lobster Shack, cook and serve their catch.
Historic Canterbury and its ornate, 11th-century cathedral is just a 20-minute drive away, or you can leave your car parked at either end and cycle the seven-mile Crab and Winkle Way.
From here, it’s an easy drive back to Gatwick Airport to return your hire car—or, you could set off on your next Great British adventure.
How to get there: Take the M25 and the M2, and you’ll arrive in Whitstable in around 1 hour and 20 minutes. The historic market town of Faversham is a great place for a pit stop on the way. Look out for the traditional street market, held on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, or the antique and vintage market held on the first Sunday of the month.