We haven’t got Italy’s spaghetti alle vongole or France’s bouillabaisse, but that doesn’t mean British beaches won’t show you a good time, or, at the least, feed you a few molluscs.
Our beaches are terminally blustery places that have worked out how to be hospitable in spite of things. British beachgoers make their fun by digging sludgy holes in the sand, watching all their pennies disappear into the razzle-dazzle of arcade slot machines, and eating absolutely loads of big fat chips.
The beaches are beautiful, though—they are. Some of them have lovely old piers and cute, old-timey sweet shops. And when the sun does come out, they explode with bright, scrappy beach towels and euphoric flesh. The seagulls get loud—there are so many more chips to fight over.
The seaside, as we like to call it, is more about being a bit silly—letting your hair down—than it is about luxurious coastal vacationing. Which is why it makes such a good foil for city life. Spend a bit of time in London, then make a break for it—breathe in the salty air, splash about in the chilly sea, eat some seafood out of newspapers. Here are two seaside towns east of the Smoke that you can do in one daft and delicious day.
Essex’s Leigh-on-Sea was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a fishing hamlet, so as English fishing villages go, it’s as real as it gets. It isn’t where most beachgoers head—its neighbor Southend has the aquarium, the arcades, and the crazy golf—but it’s where you go if you only really care about lunch. From where the train pulls up, right on the beach, you can see a row of bottle green corrugated iron sheds. This is Cockle Shed Row, the heart of things. Most of the little lock-ups are owned by families that have been cockling these seas for generations.
Cockles are tiny, silvery-orange saltwater clams that appear in sandy, sheltered beaches like the ones in the Thames estuary (where the Thames meets the North Sea). Spain can’t get enough of them—they take a lot of British ones (and smother them in butter and garlic). In the UK, you’re more likely to receive them unadorned in a polystyrene tray with a wooden fork.
Up on the high street, next to the Crooked Billet pub, there’s a solitary shed owned by one of the most important cockling families, the Osbornes, that’s a kind-of-cafe. Through the hatch, you can order cockles, crayfish tails and shrimp by the scoop, smoked sprats, whelks, pints of jellied eels (if you dare), and buttered bread rolls; you’ll struggle to spend more than £12. The picnic tables are shared with the pub, thank God, because how could you even contemplate this salty spread without a tepid ale in your hand? Fix up. Do as those around you: douse your cockles with vinegar and dash them with white pepper. It’s the Leigh way.
The “high street” is really just a tiny cobbled stretch that you can cover in six minutes; there are random bits of netting and wayward old boats along the way. Post-cockle, head further up the cobbles (away from the station) toward the white picket fence of Sara’s Tea Garden. If it’s sunny, you can sit among pot plants and terra cotta birds with a toasted teacake or a scone with jam and clotted cream (cream tea, £5.45). Or, just pop into Strand Tea Rooms (the one dripping in red, white and blue bunting) for a more functional cuppa—as English an endeavor as the other (65 High St.).
Trains leave London’s Fenchurch Street station every 10-15 minutes and the journey takes about an hour. Anytime day return tickets cost £16.90.
Londoners love Whitstable for all the stuff they get in the city, but proper, and a bit dressed down—rock oysters, whole lobsters, cracked cock crabs with mayo. It’s where you go if you’re an elegant person of taste who can also appreciate a cute harbor.
It’s a 10-minute walk from the station to the High Street, which is so enchanting it looks as though it’s purpose built for visitors. But it’s real! Check out the Peter Cushing, a pub with a glitzy art deco look, and the genteel, grand old Duke of Cumberland pub, resplendent with stained glass. Stop to admire cheese shops and book shops with colorful old facades. And you can’t miss Wheeler’s Oyster Bar, whose delicious pink front will set your Instagram on fire. You can sit in, or call ahead to order a pick ’n’ mix selection of oysters, crab claws, brown shrimp, herring and more to eat on the beach. Yotam Ottolenghi is a fan.
And unless you have a reservation at The Sportsman, one of the best (and most booked-up joints in the country), keep on snacking. At the Whitstable Oyster Company, go for half a dozen of the fat rock oysters this town does best (£16) and a pint of Whitstable Brewery’s rich, dark, cold, creamy oyster stout.
You could stop there, or you could carry on up the coast to rustic, beachy Jojo’s, a 30-minute seaside stroll or a 5-minute taxi from the town hub (small plates from £6.50). Order champagne to your big wooden table as you behold a beautiful European, mezze-style feast of haddock goujons, bavette steak, deep-fried pigs ears, puy lentil salad, patatas bravas and Gorgonzola. And toast to the magnificence of being in the EU.
Trains leave London Victoria once an hour and the journey takes about 1.5 hours. Anytime day return tickets cost £30.60.
To read more of our guide to London, head here.