These beaches have lifeguards unless stated otherwise. Parking generally costs between £3-£7.
1 Woolacombe, Devon
Ignore the crowds flocking to the glorious three miles of sand that form Woolacombe’s Middle Beach and follow the Esplanade north to two more exclusive sandy spots: Barricane and Combesgate.
2 Harlyn, Cornwall
It’s worth enduring the narrow lanes and caravans to find this one. When you arrive, you’ll find the stuff of childhood memories: perfect paddling, acres of proper sandcastle-building sand, rockpooling at the eastern end, and a surf school.
3 Treyarnon, Cornwall
South of busy Constantine Bay, you’ll find Treyarnon, a narrow, dog-friendly inlet sheltered on three sides and perfect for older kids honing their body-boarding skills. Cave-riddled rocks and snorkelling in the safe yet thrilling 30ft tidal pool.
4 Praa Sands, Cornwall
Praa Sands is popular with locals and tourists so get there early and stake your claim among the rocks at the western end.
5 Blackpool Sands, Devon
Despite the name, this beach, a four-mile drive southwest of Dartmouth, is composed of fine shingle. It is privately owned and perfectly manicured, with a bathing raft, wood-framed sandpits for castle-building, posh showers and an organic cafe.
6 Weymouth, Dorset
This town beach celebrates tradional British beach holidays: donkey rides, boat trips, Punch and Judy, sand in your sandwiches and a stripy deckchair on which to turn lobster red.
7 Sandown, Isle of Wight
Pick the section to the south of the pier, where there’s parking on the Western Esplanade, just above the soft, clean sands and clean, shallow, water.
8 Broadstairs, Kent
This traditional seaside town seems sunnier than other resorts. Choose between the busy curve of Viking Bay, with donkeys, trampolines and Mr Punch, and the quieter, more spacious sands of Louisa Bay, to the south.
9 Southwold, Suffolk
The soft, sandy beach welcomes rich and poor alike, and the quieter end, with the easiest parking, is north of the pier.
10 Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk
The sea can be hard to find here – it’s somewhere across the vast expanse of sand – so the crowds cluster close to the car park, cafe and toilets. You, however, should trek west past the pretty beach huts towards Holkham, or north to the island of dunes.
11 Brancaster, Norfolk
You want wild, unadorned beauty, but your kids require ice cream, paddling, a short walk to the beach and toilets. Welcome to Brancaster beach – two miles of sand offering huge skies, vast open spaces, superb beachcombing and even a shipwreck. Facilities are minimal: the beach has a kiosk and loos, but no lifeguards.
12 Skegness, Lincolnshire
After decades spent gaining a reputation as the fags, chips, drizzle and booze capital of the east coast, Skeggy is becoming trendy again. The Blue Flag beach is magnificent and the neon-lit hinterland is switching from low-cost kitsch to high art.
13 Filey, North Yorkshire
The timeless Edwardian resort of Filey has buckets of charm and all the essentials: spotless sands, donkeys, a tiny harbour and no neon. You can stay close to town with toddlers, but older kids will love the walk out to Filey Brigg, a cave-finding, rockpooling adventure to the spit of rock that juts out like a natural pier at the north end of the beach.
14 Balnakeil, Highlands
Few exotic locations come close to the wild beauty of the northern Scottish beaches, but you’ll find scant facilities on these deserted shores. At Balnakeil, where the burn crosses dazzling white sands to the shallow turquoise waters of Balnakeil Bay, the chances are you’ll have the entire beach to yourselves, except for the herd of seaweed-munching cattle that drops by. With no loos or lifeguards, this is one for the more adventurous family. Your best bet is to rent a cottage and stay put – try the community website durness. org.
15 Mellon Udrigle, Ross-shire
Mellon Udrigle is a thumbnail of golden sand, 44 miles by road from Ullapool. Mobbed by mountains and surrounded by peat bogs, the tiny bay is where you take the kids for rockpooling, swimming, messing about in boats and barbecuing on the beach. There are no lifeguards here.
16 Porth Lago, Gwynedd
At the end of the Lleyn peninsula, Porth Iago takes some finding – once you’ve located Ty Hen farm, you’re almost there. If you persist, you’ll find a fabulous little cove. There are no facilities here, which is distressing for those with toddlers, but it’s the stuff of dreams for older kids. Families with younger children should try the beach next door – Porth Oer, aka Whistling Sands, so called for its squeakiness. There are no lifeguards.
17 Barmouth, Gwynedd
Barmouth looks like a model-maker’s fantasy, with rugged mountains, a busy harbour, a serpentine estuary, and forested hills. The beach isn’t bad, either: a vast tract of shimmering ash-blonde sand. The southern end is best for family fun – ice-cream outlets, trampolines, deckchairs – but don’t forget to take the narrow-gauge train to Fairbourne. No lifeguards.
18 Tenby, Pembrokeshire
Tenby has four beaches, all of them crackers. South Beach is the quietest; Harbour Beach is best for toddlers; Castle Beach, opposite St Catherine’s Island, is great for adventurous types; and North Beach is where you go to run wild. Three have Blue Flags and all have clean, well-maintained facilities. Parking close to the beach after 11am is impossible, so use the North Beach park and ride.
19 Inchydoney, Co Cork
Often called Ireland’s most beautiful beach, Inchydoney is a hammerhead of silver sand on an island in Clonakilty Bay. Gently shelving, with shallow water, the beach is popular in summer, so get there early if you want to stake a claim. The eastern end is the quieter.
20 Silver Strand, Co Wicklow
Not a beach for buggies, Silver Strand is nevertheless well worth the effort for families with older children. Reached via a steep descent down hundreds of well-worn stone steps, the beach is a horseshoe of sparkling sand set against a sea more Mediterranean than Irish. If the effort seems too great, or you want facilities, try the almost-as-pretty Brittas Bay, a five-mile drive to the south.